Understanding "Notebook of a Return to the Native Land" by Aime Cesaire
Aime Cesaire's epic poem "Notebook of a Return to the Native Land" can be difficult to decipher due to Cesaire's unusual usage of metaphor, language, and poetic rhythm. Published in 1947, "Notebook" could be considered a blend between Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," and W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk.
"Notebook," which explores themes of self and cultural identity, is the first expression of the concept of negritude. Negritude came to become a central tenet of the civil rights movement in the United States, as well as the "Black is Beautiful" cultural movement in both North and South America. Cesaire was not only the creator of the negritude movement, but a prominent politician and public figure, a member of the surrealist movement, and one of the most revered French-Caribbean writers of all time.
Aime Cesaire grew up in Martinique, one of the French Caribbean islands, before leaving for Paris to continue his studies. During the time that Cesaire grew up in the islands, African identity was something largely absent from both literature and everyday lexicon. While many of the residents of the Caribbean had dark skin and were the descendants of slaves, this heritage was generally regarded as a mark of shame. The dominant trend in society during was a distancing of oneself and family as much as possible from African origins. This meant speaking the language of the colonizing country, France, and as in Cesaire's case, reading European literature and attending schools strictly run in the fashion of the colonial country.
During his studies at the Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris, Cesaire began to study African history and culture, eventually founding a magazine called "The Black Student" with Sengalese scholar Leopold Sedar Senghor. It was during this formative period that Cesaire began to realize the need for a redefinition of black consciousness, one which would include the reclamation of history and a strengthened sense of identity independent of colonial powers.
It was after Cesaire's graduation from the Lycee, on a holiday to Yugoslavia, that he first began writing "Notebook." The poem tells the story of one young and idealistic man's return to his home in Martinique, after being away in Europe, and addresses all of the ideas that had been germinating during the stay in Paris. The speaker of the poem is on a journey to confront history, the negative and the positive, and to find a way to understand the identity both of himself and his people in light of that history.
The central metaphor of "Notebook" is that of trying on masks. As the poem's narrator returns to his native town, he is struck by the perceived inertia of the residents. The have become complacent, to poverty, to colonialism, to self-loathing. The speaker of the poem wants to do something that will affect change in the black people of his town. He wants to be the voice that heralds a metamorphosis of belief and identity, but he is not sure how to begin.
The rest of the poem is goes through a series of metaphors pertaining to masks of identities. The speaker tries on first one mask of identity, then another, in hopes of finding a means with which to motivate his people and force the reevaluation so desperately needed. From the grandiose role of liberator, of speaker for all the oppressed of the world, to speaker for only the black people of the Caribbean, to descendant of a glorious African heritage, all of the masks are inadequate for the task at hand. The poem alternates been ecstatically hopeful and deep despair as the speaker is enamored, then disillusioned with his various masks.
The epiphany or turn in the poem starts to come with the introduction of the concept of negritude. While Cesaire explicitly spells out all of the things that negritude are not, he never provides an exact definition for what negritude is, exactly. Upon closer analysis, it appears that negritude is more than a simple state, concept, or theory, but an action pertaining to intense self-analysis and redefinition.
The narrator of the poem is unable to create an idea of a people based solely on African heritage and tradition, for as he states:
"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...I may as well confess that we were at all times pretty mediocre dishwashers, shoeblacks without amition, at best conscientious sorcerers and the only unquestionable record that we broke was that of endurance under the chicote [whip]..."
In order to create a new identity that is more than just fantasy or wishful thinking, the narrator must accept both his African heritage as well as the legacy of slavery, poverty, and colonialism. He will never be able to be a voice for his people or represent an idea of an integrated, whole person if he does not face his very real history. And negritude, more than just a feeling of pride in the color of one's skin, or in one's origins, is to be found within this process of self-and cultural discovery.
At the conclusion of "Notebook," the narrator is humbled and has begun to understand the process of his own negritude. Only then is he finally able to speak for (and to) the inhabitants of his "native land." These people, who he at first found "inert,' "sprawled-flat," a "throng which does not know how to throng," can now metaphorically rise upwards. It is this confrontation with his own origins, his own insecurities, his own self-hatred and conflicted past that allows the speaker to be a voice to inspire others to transcend their passive and horizontal identities. Writes Cesaire in the final pages of the poem:
"Reeking of fried onions the nigger scum rediscovers the bitter taste of freedom in its spilled blood
And the nigger scum is on its feet
the seated nigger scum
standing in the hold
standing in the cabins
standing on deck
standing in the wind
standing under the sun
standing in the blood
and the lustral* ship fealessly advances on the crumbling water.
*lustral: Pertaining to a ritual of purification in ancient Roman society.