Aime Cesaire, the great Martiniquan poet and statesman, said of the French Surrealist Movement after he discontinued his membership with the organization, “I cannot serve a system that cannot and will not serve me.” Inspired by Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and others of the Harlem Influence, he, Cesaire, along with Leopold Senghor of Senegal and another Martiniquan, Leon Gontron Damas, spearheaded the Negritude Movement while they were students in Paris. Patterning their organization after that of the Africans of America, especially those in Harlem, they used their art, especially literature, to voice their displeasure with French colonial rule in Africa and the Caribbean.
Cesaire, though, in his writings seemed to be more concerned about the general state of racial inequities in the world at large. After the horrendous murder in Mississippi of the fifteen-year-old Chicagoan, Emmet Till, in the summer of 1955, he wrote what is considered one of the most eloquent denunciations of racism in America and the world in general – the poem:
On the State of the Union
I imagine this message in Congress on the state of the Union:
left underground only 75 years of iron
50 years of cobalt
but 55 years of sulphur and 20 years of bauxite
in the heart what?
mine without ore,
cavern in which nothing prowls,
of blood not a drop left.
your eyes were a sea conch in which the heady battle
of your fifteen-year-old blood sparkled.
Even young they never had age,
or rather more than all the skyscrapers
five centuries of torturers
of witch burners weighed on them
five centuries of big cigars
of fat bellies filled with rancid bibles
a five century mouth bitter with dowagers sins,
they are five centuries old EMMET TILL,
five centuries is the ageless age of Cain’s stake.
EMMET TILL I say:
in the heart zero,
of blood not a drop,
and as for yours may it hide my Sun, may it mix with my bread:
—– “Hey Chicago Boy
is it still true that you’re worth
as much as a white man?”
Spring he believed in you. Even at the edge of night, at the edge of The MISSISSIPPI
rolling its bars. Its barriers, its tomb-like avalanches between the high banks of
In Spring rushing its murmurs into portholes of eyes.
In Spring hound-calling the bovine panic in the savannas of the blood.
In spring slipping the gloves from its fine hands in bursts of shells and siliquae,
loosener of fear clots, dissolver of clots of hatred swollen with age and in the flow
of blood-streams, carrying the hazardous rubric of stalked beasts.
they were invulnerable, sluggish as they were,
and mounted, massively, on bizarre immemorial billy goats.
—- “CHICAGO BOY”…
all gone with the bleating of the racial wind
He listens in the blue bush of veins
to the steady singing of the blood bird,
he anticipates above the bank of sleep.
Sun, the rise of your furtive step,
a vehement fish, in the astonishing blue field.
Then night remembered its arm
a vampire’s flabby flight suddenly hovering
an BIG MILLAMS’S Colt 45
wrote the verdict and the State of the Union in rust letters
on the living black wall:
20 years of zinc
15 years of copper
15 years of oil
and the 180th year of these states
but in the heart unfeeling clockwork
what, nothing, zero
of blood not a drop
in the white heart’s tough antiseptic meat?
Fifty-seven years later, America has elected a President of African descent who has become the subject of vile public derision by those who think that people like him should still be shining their shoes, or the women of his race should be their maids or whores who fulfill their twisted fantasies on the street corners of the world.
Fifty-seven years between Emmet Till and Vernon Dahmer and Medgar Evers and Dr. King and Amadou Diallo and Rodney King, who lived to tell his story, and Addie Mae Collins and Denise Mc-Nair and Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley and James Chaney and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schewerner and Sean Bell and the countless others unaccounted for and our latest tragedy, Trayvone Martin.
We should speak to our young in quiet tones. Tell them that the music of their existence strengthens us; we who have traversed the mine fields of racism, and in time they will understand that they, too, should recognize and remember that they must educate the generations, who follow, of the sacrifices of those who came before.
This post was submitted by Ken Forde, a guest writer for this blog.
The poem appears in Ferrements in a section of the collected poems of Cesaire. Translated from French by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith and published by the University of California Press, Berkeley.