Centennial of Aimé Césaire’s Birth – Cahier d’un retour au pays ancestral

March 20 has been declared jour de la Francophonie, a day where various Francophone cultures are celebrated throughout the world.  2013 marks what would have been Aimé Césaire’s 100th birthday, and the Francophone Ministry (based out of Paris) decided to throw a huge celebration/colloquium to honor his contributions to French and Francophone literatures – particularly Francophone African and Caribbean literatures.  In fact their work precipitated the advent of African literature.

Who is Aimé Césaire, you ask?  Well to put it very simply, he’s one of the three fathers of the Negritude movement which he and Léopold Sédar Senghor (who would later become the first president of Senegal) and Léon Damas started in Paris in the 1930s.  It’s a movement that highlighted black cultural identity of many of the then-colonized peoples, and fought against French political and ideological domination.  They forged their own literary style and theories, emphasized black African/African Diaspora culture by trumpeting traditional African values and rejected the longstanding relegation and dehumanization of the black race.  Here are a couple of links out of thousands that explain more about the importance of the movement and Césaire:

Negritude Movement – Encyclopedia Britannica

Aimé Césaire – Encyclopedia Britannica

His most famous work is a surrealist poem entitled Cahier d’un retour au pays natal – most often translated as Notebook of a Return to the Native Land.  Sometimes it’s a hard read, but it is beautiful.  The poem traces one man’s transformational journey from hating his race and its history to accepting it and seeking to be the voice of the voiceless.  The poem and the Negritude Movement encourage the abused and humiliated black man to embrace his difficult past and to proudly forge ahead into the future.  In this sense, the Negritude Movement has been associated with all battles against oppression – regardless of race, culture, or heritage – and the championing of universal humanity.  In the closing pages of the poem, Césaire wrote:

And the nigger scum is on its feet

the seated nigger scum

unexpectedly standing

standing in the hold

standing in the cabins

standing on deck

standing in the wind

standing under the sun

standing in the blood

standing

and

free

standing and no longer a poor madwoman in its maritime

freedom and destitution gyrating in perfect drift

and there it is:

most unexpectedly standing

standing in the rigging

standing at the tiller

standing at the compass

standing at the map

standing under the stars

standing

and

free

*I apologize to the literary people out there whose eyes are screaming from pain -Wordpress formatting didn’t allow me to follow the format/alignment of the stanzas*

Here’s a link to a pdf of the entire English translation of the poem – it’s not light reading and it’s not for the faint of heart.  Remember that this is surrealist writing with complicated, and at times graphic, metaphors.  And it can be hard to grasp what Césaire is trying to say, so it requires several re-readings.  But if you want to tackle it, here it is:

Cahier d’un retour au pays natal – English translation

All of this to say that Césaire’s contribution to literature and politics (he was mayor of Fort-de-France, Martinique for 56 years) is enormous and cannot be overstated.  He’s huge.  And so are Senghor and Damas.  Giants among giants.  I’m not exaggerating.

At any rate, the 3-day-Ministry-organized-and-funded colloquium was held in Dakar last week.  International dignitaries, famous African authors, and well-respected professors throughout Africa, Europe and the Americas all gave presentations.  It was phenomenal.  I almost didn’t attend due to the fact that I didn’t know it was even planned.  Fortunately the weekend before the conference I walked the dog that I’m babysitting for the next few weeks around the Point of Les Almadies, and I saw signs advertising just outside the 5-star hotel where it was going to be held.  That Monday I asked to get a few days off of work so I could attend – fortunately there’s not much going on at the office, so it wasn’t a big issue.  And even if it had been, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, the president of our NGO and one of Senegal’s most famous writers was presenting… and that meant that what he says goes, and since he’s one of the people who got me over here (and I’m a literary PhD candidate), there’s no way that he would have wanted me to miss it.

Well it turns out that Macky Sall, President of Senegal, was presiding over the opening ceremonies.  And that means that they weren’t open to the general public and attendance was by invitation only.  And attendees had to present said invitation at the door…

Confession: I didn’t have an invitation…

Never fear – I get past Secret Service barricades all the time back home.  It’s a piece of cake.  NOT!  But I wasn’t going to miss any of the conference.  So I walked past the Presidential Guard who were decked out in their blood red uniforms and long swords, past the armed military escorts of the diplomatic corps, past the international press corps, and flashed my smile at the police and military guards that were blocking the entrance to the hall.  After looking them directly in the eye, flashing my smile again, exchanging a few pleasantries and answering probing questions about who I am, what I – as an American – am doing in Senegal and where I work, they lowered their guns and let me in.

Being an Crest Kid really pays off… 🙂

Yeah, talk about being in the presence of a pantheon of literary, political, and academic greats.  I knew that there’d be some pretty high profile guests in attendance, but I was pretty floored to see some of the faces that I did.  And it was then that it hit me just how amazing it is to be studying contemporary literature.

Do you know why?  BECAUSE THE GRAND MAJORITY OF THE AUTHORS I STUDY AREN’T DEAD!!!  Do you know what it’s like to have your nose buried in a bunch of dusty books written hundreds of years ago?  And then go to reading works written by people who are still breathing?  I mean don’t get me wrong, Molière, Racine, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire are pretty great (most of the time), but I’d be a little disturbed if I saw one of their skeletons walk into an auditorium.  Ummmm… that would not be cool.  Not in the slightest.  But do you know how big of a deal it is to see some of the greatest minds of your field?

Yeah.  I knew you’d understand.

But this post is long enough and it’s late.  So I’ll wrap it up with a list of presenters/significant attendees, some pictures, and my recordings of the conference proceedings.  The recordings are entirely in French, so sorry non-French-speaking friends, they won’t be of much use to you.  To my Francophone lit friends: you’re welcome.

  1. Macky Sall – President of Senegal
  2. Abdoul Mbaye – Prime Minister of Senegal
  3. Claude Bartolone – President of the French National Assembly
  4. Christiane Taubira – French Minister of Justice, Keeper of the Seals
  5. Moustapha Niasse – President of the Senegalese National Assembly
  6. Serge Letchimy – Deputy President of the Regional Counsel of Martinique
  7. Muriel Berset Kohen – Swiss Ambassador to Senegal
  8. Fabienne Mathurin Brouard – Vice President of the Regional Counsel of French Guiana
  9. Clément Duhaime – Administrator of the International Organization of the Francophonie
  10. Khalifa Sall – Mayor of Dakar
  11. Raymond Saint-Louis-Augustin – Mayor of Fort-de-France, Martinique
  12. Jacques Bangou – Mayor of Point-de-Pitre, Guadeloupe
  13. Marcel Bibas – Spokesman for the Césaire and Senghor families
  14. Amadou Mahtar Mbow – Former Director of UNESCO
  15. Alioune Tine – President of the Senegalese Committee of Human Rights
  16. Chiekh Hamidou Kane – One of Senegal’s most respected authors and former government Minister
  17. Aminata Sow Fall – One of Senegal’s most respected authors and the first black African woman publish a book and the first black African woman to win a prestigious international writing award
  18. Racine Senghor – Professor of Letters and former Counselor of the Minister of Tourism
  19. Abdoulaye Elimane Kane – philosopher and former Minister
  20. Daniel Maximin – Guadeloupean author and Professor of Letters
  21. Amadou Lamine Sall – Poet, President of the African House of International Poetry
  22. Ousmane Diakhaté – Professor of Letters and Director General of Senegal’s National Theatre Daniel Sorano
  23. Lise Gauvin – Quebecois author and Professor of Letters
  24. Michel Bouchaud – Headmaster of Lycée Louis-le-Grand (a prestigious high school in Paris)
  25. Souleymane Bachir Diagne – One of Senegal’s most respected philosophers and Professor of Philosophy, Islam and Francophone Literature at Columbia University
  26. Alain Houlou – Poet and Professor of Classics at l’Ecole National Supérieure-Ulm
  27. Moncef Follain – Chief of the Service of Cooperation and Cultural Action at the French Embassy in Dakar
  28. Hamidou Dia – Author and Special Counselor to the President of Senegal
  29. Monique Blérald – Professor of Letters at the University of the Antilles and French Guiana
  30. Eugénie Rézaire – President of the Friends of Léon Damas Association
  31. Lilyan Kesteloot – One of the world’s preeminent scholars of Francophone African Literaures, Professor of Letters at Université Cheikh Anta Diop
  32. Amadou Ly – One of Senegal’s leading scholars of Francophone African poetry and Professor of Letters at Université Cheikh Anta Diop
  33. Mamadou Bâ – One of Senegal’s leading scholars on the poetry of Aimé Césaire
Macky Sall - President of Senegal

Macky Sall – President of Senegal

Macky Sall

Macky Sall

Macky Sall

Macky Sall

Abdoul Mbaye - Prime Minister of Senegal

Abdoul Mbaye – Prime Minister of Senegal

Claude Bartolone – President of the French National Assembly

Christine Taubira - French Minister of Justice, Keeper of the Seals

Christine Taubira – French Minister of Justice, Keeper of the Seals

Jacques Bangou and Amadou Mahtar Mbow - Mayor of Point-de-Pitre and former Director General of UNESCO

Jacques Bangou and Amadou Mahtar Mbow – Mayor of Point-de-Pitre and former Director General of UNESCO respectively

Cheikh Hamidou Kane - One of Senegal's most respected authors

Cheikh Hamidou Kane – One of Senegal’s most respected authors

Cheikh Hamidou Kane

Cheikh Hamidou Kane

Aminata Sow Fall (R) and Monique Blérald - One of Senegal's most respected author and first black African woman to both publish a novel and win an international writing award

Aminata Sow Fall (R) and Monique Blérald – One of Senegal’s most respected author and first black African woman to both publish a novel and win an international writing award

Souleymane Bachir Diagne and me - One of Senegal's most respected philosophers, professor at Columbia

Souleymane Bachir Diagne and me – One of Senegal’s most respected philosophers, professor at Columbia

Amadou Ly (L), Mamadou Ba (R) and me - Two of Senegal's literary experts and professors at UCAD

Amadou Ly (L), Mamadou Ba (R) and me – Two of Senegal’s literary experts and professors at UCAD. Mamadou is my main contact at UCAD

Mamadou Ba, Lilyan Kesteloot, Mamoussé Diagne and Amadou Ly - Professors of Letters at UCAD.  Lilyan Kesteloot is one of the world's preeminent Francophone lit scholars.  She is also working with me on my doctoral research.

Mamadou Ba, Lilyan Kesteloot, Mamoussé Diagne and Amadou Ly – Professors of Letters at UCAD. Lilyan Kesteloot is one of the world’s preeminent Francophone lit scholars. She is also working with me on my doctoral research.

Patrick Chamoiseau and me - a very influential and popular Caribbean author

Patrick Chamoiseau and me – a very influential and popular Caribbean author

One of Aimé Césaire's sons (L), Patrick Chamoiseau and Serge Letchimy (R)

One of Aimé Césaire’s sons (L), Patrick Chamoiseau and Serge Letchimy (R)

Macky Sall, President of Senegal – 14:39

Abdoul Mbaye, Prime Minister 10:11

Muriel Berstet Kohen, Swiss Ambassador to Senegal -open discussion on human rights, 1:15:12

Bâ, Kesteloot, Ly – Aimé Césaire, la parole poétique d’un homme d’action 1:49:31

Lise Gauvin – Aimé Césaire et les Amériques 1:18:07

Alain Houlou, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Moncef Follain – Aimé Césaire ou l’humanisme incarné dans la Cité; 3 normaliens parlent d’un normalien 1:27:43

Monique Blérald and Eugénie Rézaire – Léon-Gontran Damas ou la voix guyanaise de la Négritude 1:17:05

Amadou Mahtar Mbow – Témoignages sur Aimé Césaire 19:02

Cheikh Hamidou Kane – Témoignages sur Aimé Césaire 17:40

Christiane Taubira, French Minister of Justice 19:22

Claude Bartolone – President of the French National Assembly 12:13

Serge Letchimy, Deputy President of the Regional Counsel of Martinique 37:25

Moustapha Niasse – President of the Senegalese National Assembly, Part 1 12:44

Moustapha Niasse Part 2 8:51

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