Sunday, July 26, 2009

Notebook of a Return to the Native Land

Postcolonial theory spans generations, nations, and classes, but is guided by a few central principals. Like feminist theory, postcolonial theory is concerned with trying to find a new identity (or in some cases to re-establish one prior to colonization) and a new language that has not been laced with Western thinking and ideologies. In his long poem titled “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land,” Aime Cesaire simultaneously tries not only to destroy the remnants of colonization that distorted his native land but tries to find a new identity that is not like any before it. 

Cesaire writes that in whiteness, there was nothing that truly was his nor that he could take from the experience.  To leave whiteness behind is a quest itself, one he feels alone in: “what is mine / a lone man imprisoned in whiteness / a lone man defying the white screams of white death / a man who mesmerizes the white sparrow hawk of white death” (Cesaire 16). However Cesaire does not greave for the loss of a white identity, but it rather emboldens him in his new identity. Cesaire is also thinking of his brethren, who are still imprisoned in whiteness whether it be figuratively or literally, but until they realize they have nothing from that world, they will remain imprisoned. Writer bell hooks supports the idea of a new identity, removed from the white world although admits that it is difficult: “Given a pervasive politic of white supremacy which seeks to prevent the formation of radical black subjectivity, we cannot cavalierly dismiss a concern with identity politics” (hooks 364). Again like feminism, black literature has struggled to find its place as it has either been seen as oppositional, or not worthy of recognition according to white institutions. Few have given it the chance to discover what is a new and unique identity within it. 

Cesaire also makes it clear that he is not attempting to further generalizations about his people and is aware of the implications that this creates: “Or else quite simply as they like to think of us! / Cheerfully obscene, completely nuts about jazz to cover their extreme boredom” (Cesaire 25). While Cesaire doesn't necessarily find fault with liking jazz, his idea of a new identity is completely radical and unfounded in tropes of what constitute the values of a society. He must step outside of everything to see what has been wrought on the people of his land. 

He wishes to be a guide in rediscovering a new black identity, which had been oppressed and removed for countless years and now must find its way: “Make me resist any vanity, but espouse its genius as the fist the extended arm! / Make me a steward of its blood / make me a trustee of its resentment / make me into a man for the ending / make me into a man for the beginning” (Cesaire 37). He had earlier remarked that black societies had never been known for exploration, nor their inventions, nor their discoveries. Yet that does not make them a culture of no inherent value, rather Cesaire believes it is the fact that black societies have loved the earth and sky for what it was that makes them unique. While black culture was rooted in strength and purity, white culture has been guided only by the ideas of control and domination. In her essay, bell hooks suggests that both in critique and in society, the scope of black culture has been consistently limited: “We have too long imposed upon us from both the outside and the inside a narrow, constricting notion of blackness” (hooks 366). She would agree with Cesaire that there is an untapped and rich history in black culture, but it is necessary to look at it from a different frame of mind rather than what white institutions would value. One does not determine the other. 

Both Cesaire and hooks agree that black culture must determine itself, it can never be rooted in the values of white men. Cesaire is in love with his identity and is hoping others will embrace this same way of thinking, as though it is important to see the consequences of colonization, it is also important to notice that it only worked as a limiting factor and never worked to empower the spirit.


  1. Nice analysis. Like that you worry at some of the more difficult questions in the critical work we read last week--how does one critique the dominant power's affects without simply setting one's self up as a foil of that power, without an identity of one's own? And conversely, how do we discuss what is good about the subjugated group without 1) romanticizing it or 2) essentializing them in exactly the ways most of our authors this term have critiqued?