When Aimé Césaire died in Fort-de-France, Martinique on April 17, 2008, Ségolène Royal and others called for him to be buried in the Panthéon in Paris, alongside Rousseau, Hugo, and Zola. Away from the land of his ancestors, the acclaimed poet and long-time mayor of Martinique’s capital Fort-de-France could be claimed for France. But the obituaries make clear that Césaire’s legacy is both powerful and troubling.

The writer who once celebrated Haiti as the country where “black men stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, their determination to create a new world, a free world,” stood by, a powerless politician, as his own country turned into an acquiescent neo-colony. He had hoped to make the former colony a full partner in the economic and social benefits of the post-war metropole. It did not work. Harsh economic inequalities, reflected in de facto segregation by color and status no less effective for lack of legal sanction, remained. As late as 1973, Edouard Glissant noted that in Fort-de-France a cinema boasted “la salle de l’élite.” Even now Fort-de-France stagnates in its ongoing role as accommodating child of Mother France, while passive consumerism and cultural dependency stifle local initiative.

I first met Césaire in the mayor’s office of the old Hôtel de Ville in Fort-de-France in 1980. Ten years before, I had discovered Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land) (1939), his best-known work, when I began translating the Haitian poet René Depestre’s Un arc-en-ciel pour l’occident chrétien (A Rainbow for the Christian West), the “vodou mystery poem” about the gods’ descent into the violent “Dixie-pit” of a judge’s parlor in Alabama. I became obsessed by Césaire’s language; the peculiar reality of his Martinican landscapes, lethargic, flat, and festering, yet always ready to awaken into beauty. I translated his collection Les armes miraculeuses (The Miraculous Weapons) (1946) and found in his “Les Pur-Sang” a sensuous terrain that recalled Mallarmé’s sterile winters, wounds bleeding like open pomegranates, and lace disintegrating in the light.

Césaire always surprised me. He seemed so calm. No bitterness, no anger. I had just seen the cruise ships in the blue harbor. I saw the high prices in the supermarkets, French yogurt that cost more than in Paris. The rot and neglect of shanties in the shade of luxury hotels. The packaging of the “local” as folklore. I had read his definition of negritude in an interview in the ’60s as a “resistance to the politics of assimilation,” a confrontation with the “ideal” imitation—“a French person with black skin.”

In his journey through language, Césaire had to pick through a pile of names—for blacks, for slavery, for gods, for trees—surviving in his island like unwanted things, the waste of empire.

Césaire once quipped that anyone confused by his politics should seek it in his poetry. He seemed, at times, an advocate of poésie pure, a follower of Mallarmé’s craft of absence and elimination, especially in Les armes miraculeuses. But his poems also bear witness to the harsh realities of life in a colonial outpost under Vichy rule. He meant the “miraculous weapons” to be arms for the struggle against colonialism, as well as, in and of themselves, poetic annunciation. Behind the flames, grasses, guava, and hibiscus of his impossible landscapes, one catches sight of the lashing of bodies and rotting flesh, the stench of slave ships, the postures of sanctimonious politicians.

Born in 1913 at Basse-Pointe in the north of Martinique, Césaire lived in the shadow of Mt. Pelée, a volcano that had erupted eleven years earlier, annihilating the capital St. Pierre. He moved to the new capital Fort-de-France for schooling at the Lycée Schoelcher, named after the abolitionist Victor Schoelcher. There he met the assimilated middle classes. He always felt that he brought something else to the classroom, a past he once told me was like “some other kind of blood” that had nothing to do with the classical French literature he studied.

Césaire spent most of the 1930s in Paris, as a scholarship student first at Lycée Louis-le-Grand, then at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. While in Europe he began the Cahier, which André Breton would later call “the greatest lyrical monument of our times.” Césaire wrote:

So much blood in my memory! In my memory are lagoons. They are covered with death’s-heads.

They are not covered with water lilies.

In my memory are lagoons. On their shores no women’s loincloths spread out.

My memory is encircled with blood. My memory has its belt of corpses!

If in Paris Césaire found writing and Africa (he confessed that until he left Martinique in 1931 he did not know what it meant to be black), in Haiti he found something quite different. Césaire arrived in Haiti in 1944 a poet and returned home later that year a politician. At the time Haiti was still the only independent black republic in the Americas. The people of Jamaica, Barbados, and the West Indies still served the King, learned English history, celebrated the Empire, and knew the beauty of daffodils not breadfruit. Martinique itself had supported the colonial regime and Vichy after France’s collapse in World War II until a U.S. naval blockade in 1943 forced the island to transfer its allegiance to the Free French.

Called “Black France” by one nineteenth-century observer (Jules Michelet), “France with frizzy hair” by another (Maxime Raybaud), and a “tropical dog-kennel” by Thomas Carlyle, Haiti had always goaded imagination high and low, between the extremes of idealization and debasement. Eight hundred miles from Martinique, Haiti’s peasantry still lived off the land in the 1940s, a heady time of Marxist student revolts, a return to vodou, and, for young writers there, surrealism. For Césaire Haiti meant revolution, a heroic history for the Caribbean.

Césaire returned to Martinique at the end of 1944, and after giving lectures on Haiti was asked to run on the French Communist ticket for mayor of Fort-de-France and for the new French National Assembly. Not yet thirty-two years old, he won by a landslide in the May 27, 1945 election. Césaire would remain mayor of Fort-de-France for nearly fifty-six years, until 2001, and serve as a deputy in France’s National Assembly until 1956 and again from 1958 until 1993. He would also in these years continue to write poems, plays, and his 1950 anti-colonial manifesto, Discours sur le colonialisme (Discourse on Colonialism).

In this world where the French language meant domination, to gain a voice—to be a writer—was no easy matter. In his journey through language, Césaire had to pick through a pile of names—for blacks, for slavery, for gods, for trees—surviving in his island like unwanted things, the waste of empire, the refuse of colonization, remnants of a history gone wrong. Discours sur le colonialisme helped me to know politics, to understand the impurity of places that constructed themselves by projecting dirt onto others. It was Césaire’s vision of the bourgeoisie as “a receptacle into which there flow all the dirty waters of history” that stayed with me.

Yet the troubling contradictions between his writing and his political life remain. In any attempt to understand Césaire, and to know why Césaire matters—or should matter—so much to us now, we must ask one question: how did the call to “decolonize our minds” square not only with his political life, but also with his use of French and not Creole, the language of the “mother country” and not that of the black majority in Martinique?

He described negritude as ‘a concrete awareness’ of what it meant to live in ‘the atmosphere of rejection . . . conditioned to feelings of inferiority.’

Frantz Fanon began Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks) (1952) with Caliban’s curse (“the red plague rid you / For learning me your language”), and an aside: “We are trying to understand why the Antilles Negro is so fond of speaking French.” To acquire a civilizing language means to lose your identity, or at least to enter into a devil’s wager. To speak is to exist absolutely for the other, “to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.” The more one mastered the French language, the whiter one became, closer, in Fanon’s words, “to being a real human being.” Years before in 1931, the Haitian poet Léon Laleau lamented “this anguish like none other / To tame with words from France / This heart received from Senegal.”

Whether from the English or the French Caribbean, writers educated into literature faced “a divided self” or became “the mulatto of style,” as Derek Walcott wrote. Yet the cure of culture was nowhere more effective than in the French colonies. Cultivation and eloquence were the keys to assimilation. In Paris Césaire met Léopold Senghor and Léon Damas, and the three founded the journal L’étudiant noir (The Black Student) in 1935. Césaire coined the word “negritude,” transforming the word “nègre,” a term of abuse, into the rallying cry of a movement. He proclaimed his blackness. He became a poet.

Unlike Senghor, Césaire never used negritude to mystify or mythologize. The return to Africa, the invocation of “primeval unity” or “the truth of essentials,” an authentic or innate blackness, was not enough. Instead he described negritude as “a concrete awareness” of what it meant to live in “the atmosphere of rejection . . . conditioned to feelings of inferiority.” Rather than counter racism with visions of past glory, he returned to the history of prejudice and the suffering it had wrought. “No, we’ve never been Amazons of the King of Dahomey, nor princes of Ghana with eight hundred camels,” he wrote in the Cahier. “I may as well confess that we were at all times pretty mediocre dishwashers, shoeblacks without ambition.” Many writers would later condemn negritude for its essentialism; Wole Soyinka quipped that the tiger doesn’t have to proclaim its tigritude. But Césaire never wholly abandoned the charge to reclaim a real history that had been disfigured or obliterated. And for him the French language was essential to this project.

In the Cahier, history is Césaire’s subject: his personal history, as well as the history of his island. But what happens when the poet who has been told his country has no history sits down to write an epic? Detritus is the source of his vision. The fragments of foreign civilizations, the residue of imposed cultures, the medley of traditions, all contradictory and clashing, inspire the poet. The ritual of recovery depends on a landscape suffused with spirits, trash, and mud. Here is Césaire’s “essential landscape,” splendidly translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith:

And they threw stones at him, bits of scrap iron, broken bottles, but neither these stones, nor this scrap iron, nor these bottles . . . O peaceful years of God on this terraqueous clod!

and the whip argued with the bombilation of the flies over the sugary dew of our sores.

The Cahier marks Césaire’s “descent into a real hell,” the plunge necessary to heal the wound of assimilation, what Fanon called “lactification” or whitening. As Césaire explained in 1967:

It’s true that superficially we are French, we bear the marks of French customs; we have been branded by Cartesian philosophy, by French rhetoric; but if we break with all that, if we plumb the depths, then what we will find is fundamentally black.

Imagine a poem that forces history, psychoanalysis, ethnography, and revolution to coexist. The Cahier stages the uneasy alliances between the monumental projections of empire and its abject underside: populations looted, cultures trampled, slaves reduced by terror and regulated by force. Alternately strident and elegiac, Césaire pits the ongoing myths of inferiority against the lure of “civilizing” language. The relics and scraps of bodies, the slaves who had been called “ebony wood,” “pieces of the Indies,” or “heads of cattle,” return as ancestor spirits, caught in the evil that created them.

What these metamorphoses have in common is a secret pact with the banal. Césaire plied his words as if they were ritual incantation, and he knew that the magic of ritual lay in its ordinariness, its way of reiterating the simplest, least gilded things. The sacred had to be concrete in order to transform, palpable, never abstract. The bond between colonizer and colonized, the mutual adaptability, as Hegel had it, of master and slave, gained substance through these meditations on mimicry, adaptation, and appropriation. Resistance for Césaire is not just political, but psychic. Repression is not only a history of mutilation and torture. It is also the buried and forgotten. The revolution must be “internal,” a complete overhauling of consciousness, what he called “une rencontre bien totale.”

In the effort to understand the relation between Césaire’s art and his life, between tradition and revolution, his plays are also instructive. He turned to drama in much the same way Eliot did, not to replace the poems but to supplement and enlarge upon them. They are not just history plays, but analyses of the colonial problem, the perils of revolution and the difficulties of decolonization. One of his tragedies, among the many that dogged his life, was the recognition of his plays in Senegal but not in Martinique.

In 1963 Césaire published La tragédiedu roi Christophe (The Tragedy of King Christophe); in 1965 Une saison au Congo (A Season in the Congo), about the fall of Patrice Lumumba; and in 1969 Une tempête, what he called his “adaptation” of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I recall asking Césaire why he wrote a play about Christophe and not about the other two revolutionary leaders Toussaint or Dessalines. He liked to linger sometimes in the negative, he said, in what was irretrievable—or did he say unsalvageable? Christophe is a black Prospero who loses his magic as soon as he takes up his crown. Unlike Caliban who cuts through the illusions of Prospero’s speech, Christophe faces a history of loss: “In the past they stole our names / Our pride / Our nobility.” So instead of the stigmatizing “Pierre, Paul, Jacques, Toussaint” he invents a nobility, “his Grace the Duke of Limonade, the Duke of Marmalade.”

The magic of the hybrid—the beauty, the heat, the odors and music, the luxuriance and excess of the tropics—is much more attractive to publishers and critics than the grueling realities of racism and violence.

In writing these plays, Césaire made it plain that he was honest enough to declare an end to his dream of decolonization. But he was brave enough to write Toussaint Louverture: La Révolution française et le problème colonial(1961). Haunted by revolution, living in the torpor of Martinique, and perhaps remembering his first visit to Haiti long before, Césaire proposed to answer the question, “why did the whites fail . . . why did the mulattoes fail . . . and why did the most destitute social group, the negroes, the group with the ‘greatest grievance’ succeed?” How paradoxical and vexing proved the language of “inalienable” human rights when used by the free in the name of the bound. It was Toussaint, according to Césaire, who “took the Declaration of the Rights of Man literally,” who gave life to a principle. But the black masses made the revolution. They understood, as Césaire demonstrates, that nothing could be expected from Paris, that formal promises would not be fulfilled, and, most of all, that freedom must be won through conflict.

Eventually, those black-brown masses did win their freedom, and in doing so turned Dessalines, the first leader of independent Haiti, into a god. This link between religious practice and political change, between vodou and resistance, is a consistent theme in Haitian history, but Césaire was never comfortable talking about vodou, or quimbois, its attenuated equivalent in Martinique. Though statistics indicate that 75 percent of Martinicans are Roman Catholic, that does not say very much. In Haiti, where le mélange, or mixture, is a fact of life, vodou practitioners boast in words that are by now proverbial, “I am Catholic, and I serve the gods.”

Even though blood-suckers, revenants, evil spirits in the form of dogs, and loupgawou walk the night, Césaire, like Toussaint, refused to recognize—at least openly—these powers. Yet a glance at the poetry, early and late, at the landscape infused with life, stones made animate, and all kinds of commingling of persons and things, suggests what is so deeply felt that it cannot be said. Césaire’s reticence, which I first took as coldness, I later understood to be respect for the unknowable, a grace that refused to use or tamper with what gave life to the trees, lived in the waters, and, I think now, inspired him. The spirits found voice in his art.

But what kind of voice was possible for the poet born in the Caribbean, educated into French literature, who wanted to break out of the fetters of colonialism? Césaire once said:

I don’t deny French influences within myself. . . . But I want to emphasize very strongly that—while using the elements that French literature gave me as a point of departure—at the same time I have always strived to form a new language. . . . I wanted to create an Antillean French, a black French.

He always refused to be enshrined as one of the splendid results of French colonization. He defied its gifts of eloquence, dislocated French into something new, and expressed what he called “this self, this black, creole, Martinican, West Indian self.” No one wrote French like Césaire. From the Cahier and Les armes miraculeuses to such works as Soleil cou coupé (Beheaded Sun) (1948), Corps perdu (Lost Body) (1950), Ferrements (1960), and Cadastre (1961), he coined neologisms and introduced archaisms and popular and scientific etymologies, while tearing apart syntax and word order. Obsessed by terminology, he exhumed old words, plundering Latin and Greek and remaking the ancient world on the soil of Martinique.

The challenge was to forge a new register of communication out of the données of the colonial “mother tongue.” For some Caribbean writers, however, the attempt was doomed to failure: to be an exile in your own land. In Eloge de la créolité (In Praise of Creoleness) (1989), Raphaël Confiant, Patrick Chamoiseau, and the linguist Jean Bernabé oversimplified the ambiguities of Glissant’s Le Discours antillais (Caribbean Discourse) (1981). They advocated a return to creole, the language of the “djobeurs” and “the vegetable markets of Fort-de-France.” Creolity, along with such terms as “nomadism,” “cross-cultural circulation,” and “mestiza consciousness,” entered the academy, offering a chance for professors fashionably to embrace the “other.” Creolity became exotic, an easy trip to the supermarket of diversity goods where everyone could pick up a bit of local color. It was supremely apolitical. Suddenly, the Caribbean became emblematic of the world we live in, as in James Clifford’s realization that “the whole world is evolving toward a condition of creolization.” But these Caribbean hybridities were achieved at a price.

Césaire never forgot these costs. He never forgot history or politics. Perhaps that is why Confiant and Chamoiseau are so much more popular in Paris today. The magic of the hybrid—the beauty, the heat, the odors and music, the luxuriance and excess of the tropics—is much more attractive to publishers and critics than the grueling realities of racism and violence. Césaire’s French holds on to the parts of the self that most of us would like to conceal. Stark and compelling, it ruptures empty pieties. Take, for example, these lines from “Ibis-Anubis” : “à l’avance j’éructai une vie / j’ai tiré au sort mes ancêtres une terre plénière / mais qui blesse qui motile / tout ce qui abâtardit le fier regard” (in advance I belched a life / I drew lots for my ancestors for a plenary earth / but one that wounds that mutilates / anything that bastardizes a proud gaze). He became a poet by renouncing poetry. It was only in this rejection—achieved through the very materials that confined him—that he made his break with the “langue de culture.”

He made his life, just as he made his language and his poetry, out of what others judged defeats.

Césaire recognized that the dream of a return to Africa was as much a symptom of deracination as the myth of assimilation with France. His honesty was brutal. But only with his singular and hard-won French could he keep his voice true, held between the lure of an idealized past and the dangers of a restrictive present, between poetry and politics, lyric and prose, Paris and Africa. He never feared controversy. He was dreadfully consistent. In 2005, when he refused to see future French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had supported the law forcing teachers and texts to teach the positive effects of colonialism, Césaire insisted, “I am anti-colonial. I have never changed. I am inflexible.”

Césaire lived the tragedy of a present that kept repeating the past. He had hoped in the auspicious days after World War II that colonial atrocities would end. It was in this spirit that in the French National Assembly on March 19, 1946, he pushed for Martinique, along with the other “vieilles colonies” —Guadeloupe, French Guiana, and Réunion—to become a department: no longer a colony, but an equal part of France alongside Alpes-Maritimes, Paris, or Dordogne. Yet he found himself humiliated as he watched new forms of oppression—economic exploitation and cultural dependency—take root in a neocolonial Martinique. Laws concerning unemployment benefits, social security, and equal salaries, for example, were passed in Paris but not applied in Martinique. Before the Assembly on December 29, 1947, Césaire condemned “the caricature of assimilation” offered by France, who had reneged on her promise of equality. “We asked you for . . . the rights of man and the citizen,” he said. “What you offer us instead are truncheons and riot squads.” He watched his fellow deputies acquiesce in the massacres of the Malagasy during the nationalist uprising in Madagascar in 1947. Three years later, in Discours sur le colonialisme, he described scenes of “cannibalistic hysteria” in the Assembly, with “cries of ‘Kill! Kill!’ and ‘Let’s see some blood,’ belched forth by trembling old men.” Discours marked his confrontation not only with the barbarism of the “respectable bourgeois,” but with a language that blinds, manipulates, and deadens. He looked to an Africa that finally shook off the colonial yoke only to see independence become nothing more than a cover for new forms of domination. “The flotsam of any Ancien Régime,” he reminded me, “has a strange staying power.”

He made his life, just as he made his language and his poetry, out of what others judged defeats, or as V. S. Naipaul put it, “nullities.” If Naipaul’s recurrent nightmare was to awaken and find himself back in Trinidad, Césaire lived again and again the return to Martinique. Not just in his Cahier, where return is the only ritual that matters, the only way to reclaim the self, but in his double life as mayor in Martinique and deputy in Paris. He never turned his back on what divided him.

I visited Césaire before the publication of moi, laminaire . . . (me, laminaria . . .) (1982), as he approached seventy. The promise of “unheard of whitenings” in Les armes miraculeuses, the pleasure in obscurity had thirty-five years later become muted. More an elegy for what did not happen than a summoning of the possible, these poems are quiet in their strangeness. The prose epigraph concludes: “time also to settle one’s account with a few phantoms and ghosts.” The old influences, Lautréamont, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Claudel, are gone. The laconic voice and cool irony accomplish something more honest and more difficult. Offering no easy compromise or magical fantasy, Césaire presents his island, his vision, and his art as “avatar / of a version of paradise absurdly spoiled / —it is much worse than a hell— /” .

Vulnerable now to disappointments that over such a long time had not been dislodged, he realized that no words of his, no matter how miraculous, could save him. In the image of the laminarian algae clinging to a rock in the Caribbean, Césaire reflects on how “the atmospheric or rather historic pressure / immeasurably increases my afflictions / even if it makes some words of mine luxurious.” Césaire selected these closing lines of “Lagoonal Calendar” to be engraved on his tombstone in the cemetery of La Joyau where he was buried on April 20 after a long journey through the streets of Fort-de-France, lined with tens of thousands, some of whom sang in Creole, “Papa Aimé, mesi” (“Papa Aimé, thank you”), as if he were a god.