Return to my Native Land
Cahier D'un Retour Au Pays Natal By Aime Cesaire
The underlying theme of the poem is the concept of negritude or black consciousness - historical, revolutionary, humanitarian and ecological - the black experience as expressed in the spirit of Frantz Fanon and Aime Cesaire. Nevertheless, the Cahier is no political tract, but a poem of remarkable lyricism and probably the most sustained to have been inspired by the French surrealist movement. The concept of 'negritude' was conceived in Paris in the 1930's by the black French intellectuals, Aime Cesaire from Martinique, Leopold Senghor from Senegal, and Leon Damas from French Guiana.
An unforgettable work of imagination, realism and surrealism, the Cahier is one of the most powerful, inspiring and beautiful poems ever written. Andre Breton, a leading French surrealist poet, described it as "nothing less than the greatest lyrical monument of this time". The text is an edited version of the translation by John Berger and Anna Bostock for the Penguin Poets series in 1969, and made in rehearsal by John Russell Brown and Cy Grant for the actor's stage performance at the Lyttleton Theatre in 1978 and at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs the same year and on tour for two years; with permission by Presence Africaine, Paris.
Negritude was a revolt against colonial values - glorifying the African past and praising the traditional communal values of harmony based on intuition, caring and emotion - the 'dark senses' in other words, that seem more real than Western values based purely on reason and logic. It was a ‘state of total belonging’, beyond division and separation from Mother Earth.
I want to rediscover the secret of great speech and of great burning
I want to say storm
I want to say river
I want to say tornado
I want to leaf
I want to say tree
I want to be soaked by every rainfall, moistened by every dew………
The poem is a plea for wholeness, a recognition of that blackness which transcends race. It was not as limited in its meaning as the term negritude has come to mean. Cesaire identified with that state of total belonging that can only be found with an integration of mind and spirit, man and nature, ancient African animism and spirituality.
my negritude is not a stone
nor deafness flung out against the clamour of the day
my negritude is not a white speck of dead water
on the dead eye of the earth
It is not only a powerful deconstruction of colonialism but an impassioned plea by the poet for an imagined return to the Africa of his forefathers. It was a desperate longing to reconnect with the 'invulnerable sap', that state of total belonging with the Cosmos. But its importance has been generally misunderstood- even by black intellectuals- as only extolling blackness or negritude. Yet Wole Soyinka, famously observed that ‘a tiger does not extol its tigritude.’ Of course, a tiger does not have to proclaim its intrinsic nature. A tiger epitomises awareness of environment; it is relaxed, cautious but confident, exuding grace and power in its every movement. [You don’t mess with a tiger.] The black man has been so dehumanised and traumatised by white domination that it becomes a necessary first step for him to redefine himself, to rediscover his humanity, his roots in Africa where the genetic journey of the whole human race began. Asserting his blackness is not only to challenge his perceived place in the over- all scheme of things but to rediscover his own history – the greatness of ancient African civilizations like Nubia, and Ethiopia, Benin and Egypt, that existed whilst Europe still slumbered in the dark ages. Egypt was where Pythagoras, the father of Western civilisation had studied for 21 years; and where he coined the word ‘philosophy’, the search for truth.
The poem highlights the psychological damage caused to black people by white people over the centuries.. It is a poem of great anger, matching my own at the time.
For centuries this country had proclaimed that we are brute beasts
The Cahier remains an impassioned plea for the emergence of a new man with new values other than the purely materialistic rationale of the West. It is also a call for a return to Nature. On the face of it, it may appear to be just an oppositional stance to white power, but at its deeper and more significant level, it articulates a fundamental sacred connection to a force vital, a panpsychism or animism that informs him, that pleads for a return to his native land, to the natural state of things, and the sacredness of existence.
The black man having reclaimed his authentic history and recovered his lost soul, must not fall into the trap of aspiring to assimilate into the so-called civilized values of his oppressors. On the contrary, he must revert to his traditional values of community and caring; celebrating the intrinsic goodness of African life and rites of passage; the ‘being’ mode as opposed to the ‘having’ of Western culture, encapsulated in the concept of Modimo, where all life is sacred. And in so doing he must not advocate hatred of other races.
And here at the end of the small hours Is my virile prayer
That I may hear neither laughter nor crying
My eyes upon this city which I prophesy as beautiful.
Give me the sorcerer’s savage faith
Give my hands the power to mould
give my soul the temper of the sword
I will stand firm. Make of my head a prow
and of myself make neither a father
nor a brother nor a son
but the father, the brother, the son
do not make me a husband,
but the lover of this unique people.
Make me rebellious against all vanity
but docile to its genius……………..
the time has come to gird my loins like a man of courage.
But at the execution, let my heart perverse from all hate
Do not make of me that man of hate for whom I have only hate
I was born of this unique race
But knowing my tyrannical; love
you know It is not by hatred of other races that I prosecute for mine
all that I would wish
is to answer the universal hunger
the universal thirst
to prescribe this unique race free
to produce from its tight intimacies
the succulence of fruit.
Look. The tree of our hands is for all.
Like the Tao, negritude cannot be defined. It can only be hinted at: as that deep African Nilotic concept of total belonging; an animism or panpsychism of an interior awareness, of an infinite root that sees that there is a force vitale that links all of creation, thus capable of giving meaning to existence.
Because this force is positive, it is called 'vital'. The human being is always interlocked with others and with nature in total participation. Animals as well as plants have 'seriti'. This belief was implicit in all the pre-Christian African legends. Modimo, the life force, is the source of all life and of all things. It is in every thing and every where, giving meaning to life.
According to Christian de Quincey all things have a mind or consciousness “The entire world of nature tingles with consciousness. Nature literally has a mind of its own. Nature feels and responds to our presence… all bodies, from atoms to humans, tingle with the spark of the spirit” This panpsychism holds that all objects, including those we normally classify as inanimate possess an interior, subjective reality – that mind cannot emerge from something that is mindless, a view that our present day science does not acknowledge.
“Aime Cesaire…categorises all the stages of black liberation with satire and feeling, and Cy Grant lifts it into a strangely moving experience. It is a difficult exercise, coping with torrents of words needing careful phrasing to carry the audience along. Grant handles all this and also gives the piece the passion and integrity it deserves”.The Guardian 1979
"Cy Grant's superb reading of Aime Cesaire's masterpiece, Return to My Native Land, has been acclaimed by a number of perceptive reviewers in Britain. I was impressed by the way Cy Grant approached the poem. The transition from mood to mood was achieved with subtlety and eloquence and seemed to me faithful to the imagistic weight of Cesaire's negritude".Wilson Harris
“Cy Grant’s rendition is a virtuoso performance”Time Out 1977
“Aime Cesaire’s long poem is evocative and thoughtful, touching on human aspiration far beyond the scale of its specific concerns with Cesaire’s native land – Martinique. Cy Grant, an imposing black actor, is given the task of speaking Cesaire’s words, some descriptive, some intensely personal. He is then ironical, moving and intelligent in his reading”.The Times 1977
“Cy Grant delivers the work splendidly achieving the Wordsworthian poetic idea of a man speaking to men”.The Guardian,1977
“Cy Grant, one of the best black actors currently with us, speaks it with devotion to its endorsement of negritude”Financial Times 1977