Césaire and the difficulty of Blackness

Aimé Césaire may have championed black pride, as so many obituaries claim, but he also made that pride difficult. As we reflect on his legacy, we would do well to attend to the complexity of his thinking on blackness, one that might surprise us. The phrase black pride has a distinct U.S. history, one whose complications are often lost. We assume it means a constant affirmation of blackness, a need to reclaim and assert black dignity and accomplishments. While all these might be true within U.S. histories, we cannot transpose this understanding onto Césaire, not if we aim to maintain any form of loyalty to his thought.

While a full-scale examination of this complexity is beyond the scope of this medium—I would recommend Nick Nesbitt’s fine study—it might be worth remarking on how Césaire makes black pride difficult. Unlike his compatriot, Léopold Senghor, Césaire rejects a mythico-romantic view of black history. He writes in Notebook of a Return to the Native Land,

No, we’ve never been Amazons of the king of Dahomey, nor princes of Ghana with eight hundred camels, nor wise men in Timbuktu under Askia the Great, nor the architects of Djenné, nor Madhis, nor warriors. We don’t feel under our armpit the itch of those who in the old days carried a lance. . . . I may as well confess that we were at all times pretty mediocre dishwashers, shoeblacks without ambition, at best conscientious sorcerers. (27-28 )

As elsewhere, Césaire writes in a double voice. On the one hand, he indicts slavery and colonialism for placing blacks into subservient positions. This is easy enough to understand. On the other hand, he refuses to value blacks based on histories of what they might have been or would have been if slavery had not happened. He refuses to value blacks based on their imagined genealogies of greatness and accomplishment. The value of black lives and bodies is not coded in gold-tipped genes. This is a democratizing gesture, insofar as it values all blacks, even and especially those Césaire describes as “the vomit of slave ships” (28).

But it is also a difficult position to take. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century histories of blacks often began by listing eminent men and women, accomplished people who had proved that blacks were not inferior. This tradition has continued in black diasporic culture. After all, it’s easy to be proud of our artists, our musicians, our writers, our Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners, our athletes. It is, arguably, less easy to take pride in “mediocre dishwashers” and “shoeblacks without ambition,” unless, of course, they are receiving Academy Award prizes for portraying such roles.

Can you imagine a BET award for mediocre dishwasher?

Césaire, in the tradition of Langston Hughes, challenges us to accept the ugly and the diseased:

I accept . . . I accept . . . totally without reservation . . .
my race that no ablution of hyssop mixed with lilies could purify
my race pitted with blemishes
my race ripe grapes for drunken feet
my queen of spittle and leprosy
my queen of whips and scrofula
my queen of squamae and chloasma (39-40)

What might it mean to accept rather than to challenge? To refuse to participate in the discourse/counter-discourse game that rarely unsettles the foundational terms? Simple inversion, after all, accepts the rules of the game. You call me ugly, I respond that I am beautiful, but we are still playing the beautiful-ugly game.

To return, finally, to a Kenyan shorthand, what would it mean if, following Césaire we looked at Wanjiku, really looked at her, and saw, in her poverty and struggles, in her subaltern silence, the possibility and realization of the histories we claim to inhabit? What might a black pride that emanates from the position of negativity be? (Stephen Partington will have a partial answer in the Nation at some point this week.)

For me, thinking along with Césaire has been incredibly generative for considering the ongoing politics of respectability in black U.S. culture and politics. But that is another discussion for another time. For now, we might continue to muse on the difficulty of Césaire’s challenge: to imagine black pride from the position of the mediocre dishwasher, to take this position as our starting point.

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