Aimé Césaire (26 June 1913 – 17 April 2008) stands out as one of Martinique’s most honored and influential intellectuals. His voice echoed from the podium and the paper.
Césaire was born in 1913, in the small Martinique town of Basse-Pointe. He ventured to Paris in his early 20s, to attend the Lycée Louis-le-Grand public secondary school on a scholarship. In 1935, at the age of 22, he passed the entrance exam for the École normale supérieure (a publicly funded French higher education institution). Shortly after, he began working on the literary review L'Étudiant Noir (The Black Student), along with fellow writers Léopold Sédar Senghor and Léon Damas.
In 1936, Césaire began his best known work, the book-length poem “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal” (Notebook of a return to the native land). The poem is a powerful masterpiece that describes the ambiguities of Caribbean culture in the New World.
The following year, Césaire married Suzanne Roussi, a fellow Martinican student. In 1939, they relocated back to the Caribbean island with their young son. Césaire landed a teaching job at the Lycée Schoelcher in Fort-de-France (the capital of Martinique), where he taught. His reputation inspired the famous psychiatrist and writer, Frantz Fannon.
Césaire and his wife founded the literary review “Tropiques” in 1941, with the help of René Ménil and other Martinican writers. He became a close friend of the French surrealist poet André Breton, who visited Martinique during World War II.
It was not until 1947 that Césaire was able to publish “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal”. The long poem presents his ideas regarding the cultural identity of black people in the New World. Breton included an introduction praising the poem as, “nothing less than the greatest lyrical monument of our times”.
In 1945, with the help of the French Communist Party (PCF), Césaire began serving as mayor of Fort-de-France and deputy to the French National Assembly for Martinique. As a left-wing intellectual, he saw the Soviet Union as a source of human rights and virtue during the 1930s and 1940s. Later, however, he became less fond of communism, and resigned from the PCF in 1956. He founded the Martinican Progressive Party in 1958, and served as President of the Regional Council of Martinique from 1983 to 1988.
Césaire suffered serious heart problems in April of 2008, and was admitted to Pierre Zobda Quitman hospital in Fort-de-France. He died on April 17, 2008, and was honored with a state funeral that took place at Stade de Dillon in Fort-de-France. The funeral was attended by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
It is no surprise that Martinique’s only airport – the Martinique Aimé Césaire International Airport – was named in honor of this legendary poet, author and politician.