The Historical Construction of Colonialism and Race in Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (Excerpts)
This paper was originally written for my First-Year Writing Seminar: Writings of Exile. It discusses Césaire’s writing on colonial violence and the internalization of exile, rather than it being simply a phenomenon of physical displacement.
What is colonialism? On the surface level, it seems to be an enigmatic, inevitable force that desolates communities in distant lands that many people can’t even pronounce. In Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, Aimé Césaire rejects the long-held view of colonialism as a consequence of natural hierarchies or civilizing destinies: “I look around and wherever there are colonizers and colonized face to face, I see force, brutality, cruelty, sadism, conflict…” (Aimé Césaire, “Discourse on Colonialism,” 42) In Notebook, he dissects the social and political construction of race and colonialism, systems which were fundamentally created through violence, and maintained by a hidden but deeply entrenched system of violence. Meanwhile, Césaire defines decolonization as a defiance of the absolutism of colonial ideology in all its components, and the construction of new identities and perspectives based on self-determination. In this landmark work of decolonization and negritude literature, Césaire takes us on a journey of immense transformation towards freedom, and provides a long-lasting guide to address the hidden systems of violence that shape our reality.
Recognizing the violence at the heart of colonialism reanimates the colonized as an active character in the fight for their own survival, rather than a passive victim. First, Césaire identifies the true enemy: “What is mine/ a lone man imprisoned in whiteness/ a lone man defying the white screams of white death.” (21) Whiteness not only refers to the physical colonizers, but also their values and ideologies, which will be explained later in detail. Putting a name to the enemy gives power to the colonized native by stripping the white man of his mystery and grandeur. Colonialism is no longer the invisible hand of nature, but a physical prison and a monster that can be defied. In the transformative moment of the poem, the narrator cries emphatically, “My memory is encircled with blood. My memory has a belt of corpses!/ and machine gun fire of rum barrels brilliantly sprinkling our ignominious revolts, amorous glances swooning from having swigged too much ferocious freedom.” (23) By claiming the massacres and wars of the distant past as his own memory, the narrator exposes the violence at the heart of his personal situation. Second, by reclaiming a history of suffering, Césaire’s narrator also reclaims a legacy of resistance. Césaire doesn’t depict colonialism as a one-sided affair, but rather as a battle. There are no “natural” distinctions between the opponents. Colonialism exists because of military conquest, something which was entirely man-made and can therefore be deconstructed.
Finally, Césaire envisions a new worldview based on national self-determination. Following the prayer, he says: “And we are standing now, my country and I, hair in the wind, my hand puny in its enormous fist and the strength is not in us, but above us.” (47) Power doesn’t come from the individual, “my hand,” but from the collective, “its enormous fist.” The nation Césaire reimagines transcends individual identities. While colonialism seeks to divide and conquer, anticolonialism seeks to unite and defend. The political boundaries set by Western colonizers can be deconstructed: “the world map made for my own use, not tinted with the arbitrary colors of my scholars, but with the geometry of my spilled blood.” (45) Whereas European “modernity” champions individualism and objectivity, Césaire argues for collectivism and subjectivity. The “arbitrary” boundaries were drawn in the absence of all morality and social identity, for the main purposes of accessing natural resources, exploiting labor, and monopolizing territory before imperial rivals could. For Césaire, the entire history of his people was shaped by colonial violence, and must now be rewritten based on shared experiences of suffering and resistance. Even the territorial nation-state imposed by the West can be rewritten, as Césaire’s narrator identifies with Black resistance around the world, from slave revolts in the US (21) to the Haitian Revolution (19). “My country” refers not only to the Caribbean island in which the poem is set, but the entire Black diaspora. National liberation is more than just overthrowing the colonizer and the domination of Western civilization; it is also the creation of new political communities.
To Césaire, Negritude meant overcoming the shame and self-loathing that the alleged superiority of Western culture has imposed upon Blackness. It’s a form of revolution that originates from within the individual; a reclamation of power and identity that doesn’t necessarily involve violence, which was after all the weapon of the colonizer. Notebook of a Return to the Native Land also compels the reader to question the hidden ideologies that shape her entire perspective of the world. In our postmodern society, race has become more invisible and more sinister than ever. In the US, it’s been almost completely removed from the legal framework which might’ve been capable of dismantling it.The violence shaping our social hierarchies is masked by the colorblindness of political rhetoric, capitalism, and a culture of cosmopolitanism. Césaire’s work reminds us that in times of individual powerlessness, when the enemy is hiding in plain sight, there is always power to be found in collective resistance.
Césaire, Aimé. Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Translated by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman, Wesleyan University Press, 1939.
Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. Translated by Joan Pinkham, Monthly Review Press, 1950.
I was inspired to write this essay by my personal experience and research with looking at Asian American identity and racialization within a colonial context.
Lulu Sha uses sci-fi and fantasy to explore modern issues, in particular colonialism, socialism and national liberation movements. She believes in having strong leadership for Asian American youth and incorporating Asian American history into high school curriculums. In her free time she loves to sing rock covers and figure skate.