Suzanne Césaire (1915- 1966) was a theorist affiliated with the négritude movement and with surrealism. She was one of the first theorists to emphasise the potential of the multi-ethnic and multi-natural composition of the Caribbean and called for an experimental cultural appropriation rather than a return to essences or assimilation.
Most of Césaire’s work was published in the Martinican cultural journal Tropiques, which she co-founded along with her husband Aimé and fellow lycée teachers. Published during the fascist Vichy government, the journal established a dialogue with surrealism both as a means of cultural liberation and as a means to obscure political messages for the censors. In her contributions, Suzanne Césaire heavily reappropriated colonial stereotypes such as the ‘cannibal’ and the ‘lazy negro’ as provocations for both coloniser and colonised to re-examine deeply internalised (self)perceptions. This strategy of inversion was even used in a letter of protest against the impending censorship of the journal.
Overall, the négritude writers’ embracing of a black identity was regarded as scandalous at the time, even by fellow black intellectuals including Frantz Fanon. The search for empowerment in an alignment with the bodily – along with the natural and the cosmic – was dismissed as escapist, narcissist or even fascist. This danger was recognised by Suzanne Césaire and reflected in her wariness of essentialisms. For instance, while embracing blackness as a unifying force against oppression, she proposed that ‘it is not a question of a return to the past, of resurrecting an African past that we have learned to appreciate and respect. On the contrary, it is a question of mobilizing every living force mingled together on this land where race is the result of the most continuous brazing’ (2002: 134).
Césaire was further extremely attentive to the destructive constructions and relationships between colonial nature and society. These are especially outlined in her essay ‘The Great Camouflage’, in which she observes that the spectacular Martinican nature also functions as part of a ‘camouflage’ for an exploitative reality that, if not utilised differently, will endure beyond colonialism. Here, Céssaire argues for a disturbance of this reality in order to foster more productive and critical relations to the land and to one’s situatedness in socio-political relations. As she writes: ‘The most troubling reality is our own. We shall act. This land, our land, can only be what we want it to be’ (2012).
Césaire S (2012) The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941-45). D. Maximin (ed). Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.
Césaire, A. Ménil, R. (1978) Tropiques 1941-1945, Collection Complète. Paris: Jean-Michel Place.
Condé M (1998) ‘Suzanne Césaire and the Construct of a Caribbean Identity’ in A. S. Newson, L. Strong-Leek (eds) Winds of change: the transforming voices of Caribbean women writers and scholars. New York: P. Lang.
Kelley, R. D. G. (1999) A Poetics of Anti-Colonialism. Monthly Review 51(6)
How does Suzanne Césaire’s work reflect contemporary debates around nature and culture, in former colonial spaces and beyond?
Robin D.G. Kelley (1999) has described Suzanne Césaire as one of the most innovative theorists of surrealism – how would you describe her special contribution?
Discuss the relations between anti-colonial struggles and surrealism.
How does Suzanne Césaire’s work sit within the wider négritude movement?
Submitted by Angela Last