Understanding "Notebook of a Return to the Native Land" by Aime Cesaire

Updated on July 8, 2016
In addition to starting the negritude movement, Cesaire was also involved with surrealism.
In addition to starting the negritude movement, Cesaire was also involved with surrealism. | Source

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.

Central Metaphor

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

unexpectedly standing

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.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • profile image

      Emma Souders 

      21 months ago

      it was actually first published in 1939

    • profile image

      Scholastika Paul 

      4 years ago

      Thanks am looking forward for more

    • Anaya M. Baker profile imageAUTHOR

      Anaya M. Baker 

      8 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks Ron! I was thinking about it the other day, and the whole consciousness redefinition issue really applies to so many groups. Maybe not so much any more in the African-American community in the US, I think its been pretty sucessful, but plenty of immigrant groups, and more recently LGBT groups are going through some similar issues....

    • profile image

      Ron Eldridge 

      8 years ago

      This is really a great hub thanks for sharing. The redefinition of Black consciousness is compelling and vital to understanding and growing self-awareness. Great read.

    • Anaya M. Baker profile imageAUTHOR

      Anaya M. Baker 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks:) I just read Christophe, good read! Unfortunately I took Spanish instead of French in school, so I'm limited to the English-only versions. From what I hear, Cesaire's writing loses a lot in translation...but even the translated versions I pick up are pretty powerful!

    • France Travel Inf profile image

      France Travel Inf 

      9 years ago

      Great -- great hub! We have been reading Cesair (La tragedie de Roi Christophe) thus this was a very interesting followup, I look forward to more.



    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)