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Book – Discourse on Colonialism

Author – Aimé Césaire

Published – 1950


Reviewed by – Mahbuba Sarker Shama

Aimé Césaire (26 June 1913 – 17 April 2008) was a Martinique born writer, poet and politician. As a result of the atrocities of the French rule in Martinique, he detested colonialism. He is known for his strong indictment on colonialism in Discourse on Colonialism (Discourse was originally published in French as Discours sur le colonialismein in 1950).

Firstly, colonialism to Césaire is not evangelization, nor a philanthropic enterprise or a project to glorify God or to extend the rule of Law (32). What is colonialism then? Césaire answers this by showing the different colonial barbaric strategies in his writing. At that time not only the Harlem Renaissance was taking place in the United States of America but also the Surrealist artists were calling for the overthrow of French colonial rule and his birth place Martinique was under the oppressive regime of French sovereignty. As pointed by Césaire:

Between colonizer and colonized there is room only for forced labor, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops, contempt, mistrust, arrogance, self-complacency, swinishness, brainless elites, degraded masses. (42)

To Césaire, colonization is an aggressive process where non-westerners become non-entities and they are treated like animals by brutal colonizers. For Césaire, colonization leads to:

No human contact, but relations of domination and submission which turn the man into a class-room monitor, an army sergeant, a prison guard, a slave driver, and the indigenous man into an instrument of production. (42)

As it is, colonizers being at the centre of power relegate the colonized to the background position of the subaltern. In fact, Césaire provides several credible examples to illustrate the inhuman massacre carried out by the Europeans on the East. Occident force had not only sacrificed thousands of men to the Congo-Ocean (43) but also caused several other damages like ‘‘food crops destroyed, malnutrition permanently introduced, agricultural development oriented solely toward the benefit of the metropolitan countries, about the looting of products, the looting of raw materials’’ (43). Added to these, Europeans killed ninety thousand inhabitants of Madagascar and Indochina. They cry ‘‘kill! kill!’’ and ‘‘Let’s see some blood’’ (49) and so they destroyed the Indian civilization along with the imprisonment in Black Africa and crack down in the West Indies. Through such examples, Césaire highlights the cruelty unleashed during the period of colonialism. He states an equation: ‘‘colonization = thing-ification’’ (42) as Africans and those in the Caribbean become objects at the mercy of the Europeans.

 It is mainly his life in Martinique that made him realize the effects of colonialism on the psyche of the coloured people. He conveys in his interview with René Depestre:

We lived in an atmosphere of rejection, and we developed an inferiority complex. I have always thought that the black man was searching for his identity. And it has seemed to me that if what we want is to establish this identity, then we must have a concrete consciousness of what we are – that is, of the first fact of our lives: that we are black. (91)

            Secondly, Césaire rejects the Eurocentric gaze which associates the term Orientalism with savagery, backwardness, meanness, inferiority and wickedness. The dishonest equation ‘‘Christianity=civilization, paganism=savagery’’ (33) is the creation of abominable racist colonialists whose victims were the Indians, the yellow people, and the Negroes. Césaire looks down upon all the humanitarian approaches of the non-Africans and proclaims that the talk about progress, about achievements, diseases cured, improved standards of living (42) are completely false. ‘‘The idea of the barbaric Negro is a European invention’’ (53) is asserted by this Martinique writer. He refutes the flawed ideas of whites. Césaire refers to misconception which is apparent in Ernest Renan who supported the widening of inequalities between the colonizer and the colonized and making it into a law (qtd. in Discourse 37).

Also, the ideas of Dominique Octave Mannoni, Gobineau and Roger Caillois show the flawed western gaze according to which Negroes are big children. Mannoni provides psychoanalytic interpretation and speaks that the famous brutalities people talk about have been very greatly exaggerated, that it is all neurotic fabrication, that the tortures were imaginary tortures applied by imaginary executioners (qtd. in Discourse 61). Gobineau says ‘‘the only history is white’’ and Caillois observes that compared to the cannibals, the dismemberers, and other lesser breeds, Europe and the West are the incarnation of respect for human dignity (qtd. in Discourse 70). Césaire repudiates such colonial discourse which negates the ethnography of the east. For him, colonizers should respect the culture of the marginalized blacks and if they are in Congo they should respect as well as recognize the full human value of the Bantu philosophy (58).

He talks about how he along with Senegalese Leopold Senghor whom he met in Paris and his childhood friend of Guianan Léon Damas gave birth of the negre, a term of defiance which eventually gave rise to the Négritude movement in the 1930s to dismiss all untrue occidental ideals. Recovering the history of Africa’s accomplishments (Kelley 21) is the objective of Négritude. As reported by Césaire:

Europeans despised everything about Africa, and in France people spoke of a civilized world and a barbarian world. The barbarian world was Africa, and the civilized world was Europe. Therefore the best thing one could do with an African was to assimilate him: the ideal was to turn him into a Frenchman with black skin. (Depestre 88)

Césaire thinks that Negroes were not, as West puts it, born yesterday, because there have been beautiful and important black civilizations (Depestre 92). During Césaire’s time, Europeans wrote history of world civilization without devoting a single chapter to Africa, as if Africa had made no contributions to the world. With the belief that Africa was not some sort of blank page in the history of humanity, Césaire with Senghor and others claimed that Negro heritage was worthy of respect and pride (Depestre 92). He seeks Africans to decolonize their minds from such fallacious thoughts of uncivilized Europeans.

Thirdly, he focuses on the negative relationship between the colonizer and the colonized which is one of the impacts of colonialism on the Africans. ‘‘No one colonizes innocently and a civilization that justifies colonization is a morally diseased sick civilization’’ (39) says Césaire. He tells that ‘‘between colonization and civilization there is an infinite distance… there could not come a single human value’’ (34). Speaking about millions of men within whose heart fear has been cunningly instilled, who have been taught to have an inferiority complex, to tremble, kneel, despair, and behave like flunkeys (43), Césaire discusses the psychological turmoil within coloured Africans. Millions of men were torn from their gods, their land and their wisdom (43) and the Chinese, Moslems and other races were also massacred. To be specific, he asserts that colonization cannot be justified in any way.

Fourthly, he appreciates the pre-colonial societies in Discourse. Previously he glorified the kind, respectful Africans as people, who could build houses, govern empires and cultivate fields (qtd. in Kelley 7). Here, he holds in high regard the communal, democratic, cooperative, anti-capitalist, ante-capitalist, fraternal (44) and courteous (51) pre-colonial African societies and advises Africans to create a new society with the help of all their brother slaves, a society rich with all the productive power of modern times, warm with all the fraternity of olden days (52). This manifests the dream of Césaire who desires all the Africans of this world to live harmoniously together.

Finally, he uses the example of Hitler, the demon who dwells in the heart of racist pseudo-humanist colonizers. Taking the idea of Hitler from Du Bois’s The World and Africa  that draws a parallel between the cruelty of Hitler and that of Great Britain and France (qtd. in Kelley 20-21), Césaire further responds saying that the West accomplices Nazism and Fascism till it began to inflict on themselves (36). Hitler has killed white man and he has applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then have been only reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India and the niggers of Africa (36). He affirms that the USA is the barbaric force (47). Building solidarity among blacks who were doubly proletarianized and alienated: in the first place as workers, and then also as blacks (Depestre 94) is Césaire’s goal. It is his belief that the proletariats of this world must fight against the bourgeoisie and Joe Stalin’s government will fulfill his dream. However, his dream is unrealistic as it fails to bring democracy later on. Leftist and communist Césaire joined French National Assembly for Martinique. But, in 1956, after the Soviet Union’s suppression of the Hungarian revolution, Césaire resigned from the French Communist Party (FCP) and he himself understood that the Marxist dream of fraternity is a mare’s nest. Notably, the revolt of the proletariat and the notion of not copying the Europeans which Césaire looks into in Discourse are later taken up by his student Frantz Fanon.

 The Négritude movement has been studied by various critics. Some critics have drawn the differences between Senghor and Césaire. McLeod draws similarities between them as both aimed at the dynamic synthesis of all cultures to promote ‘‘universal emancipation’’ (81). Likewise, Reiland Rabaka remarks that similar to Césairean Négritude, Senghorian Négritude advocated a critical return to the pre-colonial African past. Unlike Césaire, Senghor’s work consistently exhibited an intense preoccupation with French philosophy and culture (173). Whereas Césairean Négritude can best be characterized by its emphasis on African history culture; and the struggle of African masses, Senghor’s ideas of Négritude is best captured with the words like assimilation, synthesis, symbiosis, pseudo-African socialism and intellectual elitism (173).

 Other critics have also criticized Négritude.  Stanislas Adotevi calls Négritude an artificial quest for tradition (qtd. in Moore-Gilbert, Stanton, and Maley 10). Fanon questions the way this movement contrasted the African emotionality with European rationality and science (qtd. in Zeilig 1). Coupled with these, Feminists have attacked Négritude as it has a masculine representation of blackness assuming that African women do not need liberation as they are free (qtd. in McLeod 83). On the contrary, the current researcher differs from all such ideas as Négritude was needed in the racist Europe so that the coloured people could be proud of their skin colour. The initiation of this Négritude is itself one of the greatest strengths of Césaire as he questioned the European supremacy in the1950s.

Works Cited

Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism.Trans. Joan Pinkham. India: Aakar Books, 2010. Print.

Depestre, René. ‘‘An Interview with Aimé Césaire.’’ Discourse on Colonialism. Trans. Maro

Riofrancos. India: Aakar Books, 2010. Print.

Kelley, Robin. D. G.  Introduction.  Discourse on Colonialism. By Aimé Césaire. New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1972. Print.

McLeod, John. Beginning Postcolonialism. USA: Manchester University Press, 2007. Print.

Moore-Gilbert, Bart, Gareth Stanton, and Willey Maley, eds. Postcolonial Criticism. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Rabaka, Reiland. Marxist Fanonism. United Kingdom: Lexington Books, 2011. Print.

Zeilig, Leo. ‘‘Champion of The Wretched.’’ Socialist Review Dec. 2011: n. pag. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.