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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 14.1 (2003) 53-73

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Fighting “Humanism” on Its Own Terms

Mara De Gennaro

In the extended prose poem that would at once ensure Aimé Césaire’s reputation as a premier avant-garde poet and link him to the knotty term of negritude, there comes a moment when the speaker shifts from autobiographical reminiscence to hypothetical imaginings:
To go away.
As there are hyena-men and panther-men, I would be a jew-man
A Kaffir-man
A Hindu-man-from-Calcutta
A Harlem-man-who-doesn’t-vote

the famine-man, the insult-man, the torture-man you can grab anytime, beat up, kill—no joke, kill—without having to account to anyone, without having to make excuses to anyone
a jew-man
a pogrom-man [End Page 53]
a puppy
a beggar
( Notebook 43) 1
Lists such as this abound in Notebook of a Return to the Native Land and in Césaire’s later poetry as well: images in varying degrees of disparity are joined rhythmically, if not always logically, by the repetition of particular words within the sequence. But this list stands out not just because the logic uniting the terms appears more transparent than it often does in Césaire’s lyric poetry. What seem incongruent are the speaker’s elaboration throughout the Notebook of the idea of negritude (its Martinican particularities and its global reach) and his sense of identification with the disempowered generally, even those whose ancestry and historical experience put them outside negritude’s scope. At the same time, Césaire’s formulations and defenses of negritude tend to contain within them similarly conjoined appeals to black solidarity and human community, as when he writes:
[. . .] entrenched as I am in this unique race
you still know my tyrannical love
you know that it is not from hatred of other races
that I demand a digger for this unique race
that what I want
is for universal hunger
for universal thirst (71)

Throughout his career, Césaire has put in relief the racism inherent in the claims to benevolence and rationality advanced by colonial apologists—“benefactors of mankind,” as he ironically calls them—who use universalizing humanist rhetoric to promote social hierarchies and the violence necessary to maintain them (Notebook 53). Variously defined by its first proponents—Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Léon Damas—and by those who have since rejected it, negritude has most often been interpreted in recent years as a racial essentialism that retains once traditional Western classifications of people based on their imputed “racial” characteristics and merely inverts the positive and negative connotations of those characteristics. If Senghor’s conception of negritude has generated the most criticism on these grounds, Césaire’s has generated the least; Césaire has always been more abstruse, less straightforward in representing black difference than Senghor. Some of his writings, however, such as early essays published in his surrealist journal, Tropiques, [End Page 54] do privilege creativity, emotionality, and an assumed prehistoric fraternity over rationality, science, and utilitarianism in a way reminiscent not only of Romanticism but also of some longstanding racialist stereotypes of European attributes putatively acquired through evolution, in contrast to more “primitive” African ones.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. has objected that “[w]hen we attempt to appropriate, by inversion, ‘race’ as a term for an essence—as did the negritude movement, for example (‘We feel, therefore we are,’ as Léopold Senghor argued of the African)—we yield too much: the basis of a shared humanity” (“Writing” 13). Given his characterization of negritude and his objection to it, we might wish Gates had considered the notion of negritude elaborated by Césaire—a negritude legitimated by universalizing humanist presuppositions not unlike Gates’s own invocation of “the basis of a shared humanity.” For despite all Césaire’s emphasis on Africa—the ancestry of descendents of the diaspora, their lost communal lifestyle, their rich artistic heritage—he appears to foreground blacks’ distinctions in precisely those areas&#8212...


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pp. 53-73
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Archived 2004
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