Suzanne Césaire: The Unknown Mother of Antillanité

Scholar Mamadou Badiane reevaluates Suzanne Césaire’s figure as a fundamental axis for the study on Antillean cultural identity. Rendered invisible by history, her radical ideas regarding racialization as an expanding process were eclipsed by a sociopolitical context that in her place accepted other voices.

Suzanne Césaire: The Unknown Mother of Antillanité

When the first issue of the magazine Tropiques was published in Martinique in 1941, France was already under German occupation. Aimé Césaire (1913–2008) and Suzanne Césaire (1915-1966) were charged with editing the magazine, which sought to address both economic and political problems. The island of Martinique, an overseas department of France, was almost entirely cut off from Paris and representatives of the Vichy regime [1] pressured editorial houses on the island not to publish the magazine due to its anticolonial ideas, which I will describe below. In 1941, according to Lilyan Kesteloot:
When [Aimé] Césaire decided to start a literary magazine, the difficulties were excessive. Martinique, far from any contact with Europe, was surviving on its own resources. Lacking access to French books, magazines, and newspapers, intellectual life weakened noticeably in a country that normally reflected the ideas of the Metropolis. To keep a magazine going, it was necessary to have local talent. For this reason, Aimé Césaire and his wife [Suzanne] were responsible not only for writing a great number of articles, but also for hiring employees, editing essays, negotiating with editorial houses, and dealing with other financial problems related to paper, which was rare and expensive at the time. [2]
It was an extremely important moment that set off a period of introspection, led by voices from the island of Martinique and not by foreigners. For Suzanne Césaire, Martinican thought had to be developed from within, as she argues in her article “Malaise d’une civilization” [The Malaise of a Civilization]: “This land, ours, can only be what we want it to be.” [3]
On this point, Frances J. Santiago Torres observes in his article “Suzanne Césaire: un legado intellectual de vanguardia” [Suzanne Césaire: An Avant-Garde Intellectual Legacy] that:
In turn, the appropriation and transcription of the unofficial history of the colonized begins; it is the history written by the colonized themselves. In the Caribbean context, this period marked the beginning of a new, properly Martinican literature. A change in the cultural perspective occurred on the island of Martinique, directed in part by the intellectuals and writers Aimé Césaire, Suzanne Césaire, and René Ménil. This same group of young intellectuals created and developed this new perspective during their university years in Paris in the late 1920s and 1930s. [4]
Suzanne Césaire published seven articles in Tropiques, often evoking an identity-based perspective that would be taken up in the future by famous critics concerned with Caribbean cultural identity, such as Edouard Glissant, Nancy Morejón, and the authors affiliated with Martinican Créolité, a literary movement that began in the 1980s. These authors drew on the identity-based geography that Suzanne Césaire explored extensively in her article “Le grand camouflage” [The Great Camouflage], the last essay she published in Tropiques:
Here’s a West Indian, the great-grandson of a colonist and a black slave woman. Here he is in his island, ensuring its “smooth running” by his deployment of all the energies once needed by avaricious colonists for whom the blood of others was the natural price of gold and all that courage needed by African warriors in their perpetual struggle to wrest life from death.[⁵]
In other words, the Antillean is not the product of one race or culture, rather she has various biological and cultural ties to continental relations, as Kara Rabbitt has noted:
Collective identity in “Le grand camouflage” thus initially derives from a shared awe or fear in the collective experience of meteorological instability; it flows among the islands in the sea that leads from one to another; it gathers force from the ocean that links them to Europe, to America, and ultimately to Africa. [6]

Massol Maïmé, Iwani, 2013. Collage; concepto, marco en cobre y latón, película fotográfica y cortes de revistas en monotipo

These concerns can be observed in Nicolás Guillén’s poem “Balada de los dos abuelos” [Ballad of My Two Grandfathers], in which the author expresses his anxieties concerning intense cultural and biological mestizaje. The Cuban musician Arsenio Rodríguez lets us hear these anxieties through a melodic metonym when he sings: I was born in Africa. Suzanne Césaire expresses these anxieties marvelously well in “Le grand camouflage” through the image of the white man in the mirror, who is afraid to see himself reflected in this new green-eyed, dark-skinned being, portrayed by Ana Lydia Vega in her book Falsas crónicas del sur [False Chronicles of the South].
Decades after her death, these same anxieties concerning identity continued to be evoked in the writings of Edouard Glissant, in his “Discours Antillais” [Caribbean Discourse]; in Nancy Morejón’s “Nación y mestizaje en la poesía de Nicolás Guillén” [Nation and Mestizaje in the Poetry of Nicolás Guillén]; and even in “L’Eloge de la créolité” [In Praise of Creoleness], written by the authors Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant. Likewise, after studying Guillén’s poems “El abuelo” [The Grandfather] and “Son número 6,” Miguel Arnedo-Gómez exposed the high level of anxiety that burdened the psyche of Cuba’s national poet, something that Arnedo defines as “…his anguished confrontation of the conflict between the two cornerstones of his fragmented identity.” [7]This multidimensional perspective on Afro-Caribbean cultural identity was, without a doubt, developed early on by Suzanne Césaire, who, to refer again to her article “Malaise d’une civilization,” writes: “It is not a question of a return to the past, of resurrecting an African past that we have learned to appreciate and respect. On the contrary, it is a question of mobilizing every living force mingled together on this land where race is the result of the most continuous brazing.” [8]
If we pay attention to the ideas highlighted by Suzanne Césaire, we quickly come to see that they are the same ideas that Glissant set out in developing the notion of the relation. Here, Suzanne Césaire emphasizes that it is not about a return to Africa, but rather an identification with the Antilles, where “a child is born” [9] and where one hears the stories from popular Martinican folklore. In this way, she invites her compatriots to work together in the Caribbean. In her article “Suzanne Césaire et Tropiques: de la poésie cannibale à une poétique créole” [Suzanne Césaire and Tropiques: From Cannibal Poetry to Creole Poetics], Marie-Agnès Sourieau brilliantly captures Suzanne Césaire’s position when she writes: “In the seven articles she published in Tropiques between 1941 and 1945, Suzanne Césaire’s project was to refuse to echo the culture in France, while affirming the reality and originality of Martinican culture.” [10] Based on this, I think Suzanne Césaire’s thinking was foundational to Edouard Glissant’s philosophy. In another article, “In Search of the Missing Mother: Suzanne Césaire, Martiniquaise,” Kara Rabbitt states that:
Suzanne Césaire, a firm believer in the fertility and vitality of the Caribbean, provides a different point of origin for theoretical trends—from antillanité to créolité—that address the cross-pollination of cultures and voices she celebrated in her essays. Fifty years after her early death, she is re-emerging as a metaphoric maternal force for a family tree that branches from the trunk proffered by the writers of Tropiques to the diverse cultural explorations—in French and Creole— of today’s Martinique. [11]
It is important to emphasize here that far before the authors of the Creolité and Antillanité movements, Suzanne Césaire had already put the debate in motion regarding Caribbean cultural identities. While it is true that Glissant, Morejón, and the authors associated with Créolité expanded the debate, it is important to recognize that Suzanne Césaire served as an antecedent for a future debate concerning Afro-Caribbean identity. It is worth mentioning, however, that her position was essentially oppositional to Aimé Césaire’s, who responded to other cultural and political anxieties. For example, in a 2007 interview with Aimé Césaire, he told me that he was “Martinican, French, but fundamentally Black with strong African roots.” [12]

With the publication “Le discours antillais” [Caribbean Discourse] in 1981 [13], Glissant also demonstrated his firm belief that the return to African origins was no longer a possibility for those who had been forcibly displaced by slavery:
There is a difference between the transplanting (by exile or dispersion) of a people who continue to survive elsewhere and the transfer (by the slave trade) of a population to another place where they change into something different, into a new set of possibilities. It is in this metamorphosis that we must try to detect one of the best kept secrets of creolization. Through it we can see that the mingling of experiences is at work, there for us to know and producing the process of being. We abandon the idea of fixed being. One of the most terrible implications of the ethnographic approach is the insistence on fixing the object of scrutiny in static time, thereby removing the tangled nature of lived experience and promoting the idea of uncontaminated survival. This is how those generalized projections of a series of events that obscure the network of real links become established. The history of a transplanted population, but one which elsewhere becomes another people, allows us to resist generalization and the limitations it imposes. [14]
Here, Glissant’s notion of the relation, based on the ideas of Suzanne Césaire, is probably in disagreement with the Black African essence defended by Aimé Césaire, who wrote: “I am Black, I will be Black.” For Glissant, the forced migration of black people to the Americas certainly had turned them into different beings in a new space. Without a doubt, this explains why Glissant provides us with a detailed description of the Caribbean landscape in his literary works.
This same identity/geography-based perspective is developed later on by the Negrismo movement, led by such authors as Luis Palés Matos and Nicolás Guillén. The ideological kinship of Afro-Caribbean Negrismo and the ideas of Suzanne Césaire requires further study that has yet to be done. While it is true that several of Suzanne Césaire’s reflections were based on her comments regarding surrealism, this does not mean she should be seen exclusively as a specialist of the surrealist movement.

In addition to surrealism, her work touches on various aspects of the invisible wounds that impact the minds of Afro-Caribbean people, themes that reappear in the work of Frantz Fanon.

Themes developed by Suzanne Césaire also appear in the writing of Nancy Morejón, with her notion of cubanidad, which Morejón uses to define a relationship between blackness, whiteness, and mestizaje. In her view, identifying oneself as African or Spanish is irrelevant; rather, she argues for a shared Cuban identity:
We did not assimilate, or rather, acculturate to Spanish or African culture; with a highly creative spirit, in a constant search for a national identity, we fashioned ourselves as a mestizo people, the heir and sustainer of both components, no longer Spanish or African, but Cuban. [15]

Obviously, this position is not universal, despite the established myth regarding mestizaje in the former Spanish colonies; much has been said regarding the homogenizing character of mestizaje. The Cuban Partido Independiente de Color (PIC) was opposed to this attitude, which led to the eruption of the 1912 uprising. Suzanne Césaire’s position is reminiscent of the new generation of the Créolité movement, which developed in the French Antilles with Bernabé, Confiant, and Chamoiseau, who applied the same idea to West Indian identity. A particularity of identity-based Afro-Caribbean movements in the early to mid-twentieth century is the silencing of racialized women like Suzanne Césaire. Tracy Sharpley-Whiting has highlighted the notable absence of women from the world of criticism:
Perhaps [one of] the most glaring omissions in Negritude’s evolution [has] been…the ceding of Suzanne Césaire to the surrealist camp. [16]
Not only has Suzanne Césaire’s work been silenced for various reasons, its significant influence on the emergence of new Afro-Caribbean literary currents, such as Glissant’s Antillanité and Confiant, Bernabé, and Chamoiseau’s Créolité, is underestimated. Perhaps the main reason for this oversight is that she was “the wife of her husband,” who was a powerful and famous member of the Negritude trio, composed of Aimé Césaire, Léopold S. Senghor, and L.G. Damas, all three of which were also political leaders. Perhaps there are other reasons, such as her ideological differences with her husband, their painful separation, the mere fact that she was a woman in a patriarchal society, or lastly, the sad reality of her early death at the age of 51.
It must be recalled that the Nadal sisters, who completed phenomenal work before the birth of Negritude, were also eclipsed by the trio, which appears to confirm that women writers from the mid-twentieth century could be forgotten simply because they were women. Both Suzanne Césaire and the other women involved in Negritude—who I call “the forgotten”—were engaged in raising questions about the cultural identity of black people that led to a political and cultural development. The historical erasure of these voices needs to be corrected in new criticism. It is essential that we restore to view this feminine writing, which contributed to the birth of Negritude and the formation of new currents of Afro-Caribbean literature.


  1. El régimen de Vichy (ciudad al centro de Francia) fue lo que resultó de la rendición de Francia a la Alemania Nazi en 1940, capítulo conocido como “La colaboración”, en el cual se estipuló que el territorio metropolitano sería dividido en dos partes: una parte ocupada por los alemanes y dirigida por el Mariscal Philippe Pétain, que incluía a París, y una parte “libre” que estaba al sur de la metrópolis. En el territorio ocupado se implementaron políticas anti-semitas, racistas y discriminatorias, que seguían los tres principios fundadores de la “Nación francesa”: trabajo, familia y patria en apoyo al Tercer Reich.

  2. Lilyan Kesteloot, Les écrivains noirs de langue française: naissance d’une littérature, Bruselas: Université Libre de Bruxelles, Institut de Sociologie, 1965.

  3. Suzanne Césaire, “Malaise d’une civilisation” en Tropiques, no. 3, París: Jean-Michel Place, 1978, p. 45.

  4. Frances J. Santiago Torres, “Suzanne Césaire: un legado intelectual de Vanguardia” en Caribbean Studies, Vol. 41, no. 2 (julio – diciembre, 2013), p. 227–243.

  5. Suzanne Césaire, “Le grand camouflage” en Tropiques, no. 13–14 (1945), París: Jean Michel Place, 1978, p. 267–73.

  6. Kara Rabbitt, “The Geography of Identity in Suzanne Césaire’s Le grand camouflage” en Research in African Literatures, Vol. 39, no. 3 (Otoño, 2008), p. 121–131.

  7. Miguel Arnedo-Gómez, Uniting Blacks in a Raceless Nation: Blackness, Afro-Cuban Culture, and Mestizaje in the Prose and Poetry of Nicolás Guillén, Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2016.

  8. Suzanne Césaire, “Malaise d’une civilisation” en Tropiques, no. 5 (1942), París: Jean-Michel Place, 1978, p. 43–49.

  9. Ibid., p. 45.

  10. Marie-Agnès Sourieau, “Suzanne Césaire et Tropiques: «de la poésie cannibale á une poétique créole»” en The French Review, vol. 68, no. 1, 1994, p. 69–78.

  11. Kara Rabbitt, “In Search of the Missing Mother: Suzanne Césaire, Martiniquaise” en Research in African Literatures, vol. 44, no. 1, Primavera 2013, p. 37.

  12. Mamadou Badiane, “Négritude, Antillanite et Créolité ou de l’é clatement de l’identitéfixe” en The French Review, vol. 85, no. 5, 2012, p. 837–847. Se puede ver que esta postura intransigente del padre de la Négritude se opone diametralmente a la de Suzanne Césaire, Edouard Glissant y de lxs miembrxs de la Créolite.

  13. Traducido y publicado al inglés en EE.UU. en 1989.

  14. Édouard Glissant, Le discours antillais, París: Seuil, 1981.

  15. Nancy Morejón, Nación y mestizaje en Nicolás Guillén, La Habana: Ediciones Unión, 1982.

  16. T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Negritude Women, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

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