Aime Cesaire used extreme periods of history to his advantage. His rewrite of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” was published in 1969, the year following 1968 wherein many events occurred that encouraged attention to be turned towards black people and their culture and identity. However, the culture and identity that black people had in 1969 was not the identity their ancestors had. Their identity was pushed upon them as a result of white people “colonizing” their countries of origin, and therefore had lost a lot of what their ancestors had built and passed down to them through generations.
Cesaire was aware of this and worked to move all people to also become aware of this deculturalization and bring back black identity. He was a founder of the mid-1900’s Negritude movement, during which he published his “Discourse on Colonialism”, and continued to encourage black cultural identity for many years following. Cesaire wanted to restore black cultural identity, hence his founding of the Negritude movement. All the same, not only did he want to restore the identity, he wanted to make white people realize that their “colonization” of other already inhabited countries was wrong. In his eyes, “colonization” was not truly colonizing people, it was stripping away the civilization they already had built, “colonization works to decivilize” (page 35, Discourse on Colonialism). He argued that the colonizers “[hid] the truth from themselves”, and that they practically engaged in Nazism (page 36, Discourse on Colonialism).
The Negritude movement began right in the middle of World War II, meaning Hitler and the Holocaust were fresh on everybody’s minds. Cesaire used this to his advantage. He directly compared colonizers and their actions to Hitler’s ideas and his actions. In Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, he quotes Hitler, ”‘We aspire not to equality but to domination. The country of a foreign race must become once again a country of serfs, of agricultural laborers,’” (page 37, Discourse on Colonialism). He wanted people to see how directly they could compare what colonizers did to black people’s native countries to what Hitler wanted to do to the groups targeted by Nazism. Even today, many people see Hitler as an animal. As someone who abused and forced their way into a culture that was already established and functioning as it needed to be, thinking that they could somehow improve it or the world by wiping it out. That is the point that Cesaire was driving at. His idea that “no one colonizes innocently, that no one colonizes with impunity either,” (page 39, Discourse on Colonialism).
People saw Hilter and were disgusted by his actions, so why shouldn’t they have felt the same way about colonizers and their actions with black civilizations, like with the African Slave Trade or Jim Crow Laws? He published his essay in a time where people could directly relate Hitler’s actions to that of colonizers, purposefully provoking thought and leaving a stronger impact. He made white people question their actions in the history and establishment of their countries, and he made black people question their origins and identity, ultimately leading to even more significant movements in the following years.
Because of Cesaire’s Negritude movement goals, he rewrote “The Tempest” in such a way that the abuse of Caliban and Ariel would be blatantly obvious to anyone who read it, to leave the reader with no question of whether or not Caliban and Ariel were mistreated by the people who had brought him “civilization”. The first thing we hear from Caliban in Cesaire’s rewrite is the Swahili word “Uhuru”, which translates to “freedom”. Freedom is all Caliban hopes to achieve, but Prospero refuses to give it to him, and he does the same to Ariel. Although Ariel also craves his freedom, he continues to follow Prospero’s orders passively whereas Caliban tries to stand up for himself. He is not afraid to call Prospero out on his actions. Prospero calls Caliban “a dumb animal”, saying that he was “a beast [he] educated, trained, dragged up from the bestiality that [clung] to [him],” and Caliban stands up for himself by saying “You didn’t teach me a thing! Except to jabber in your language so that I could understand your orders…all your science books you keep for yourself alone, shut up in those big books.” (page 17, A Tempest).
Caliban and Ariel are representative of all black colonized people but in different ways. Ariel represents black colonized people during the time where they were influenced by the white man, whether in the form of servitude or the form of invasive culturalization. There were those that fought back, but very few were successful. If one looks at slavery in North America during the 19th century, most enslaved people prayed and hoped for freedom and continued to work as their masters ordered them to, knowing that if they did fight back there would be horrific consequences. Caliban represents the thoughts of early colonized black people and even modern black people.
Modern black people are encouraged to realize the impact of colonizers on people like their ancestors through movements like Negritude, and the rewritten play provides not only this to them, but every person with a small-scale, more intimate view of how the colonizers treated the natives. This becomes more effective because instead of reading something broad about colonizer influences on a general group of people, it provides names and voices, which makes it much more personal to a reader. They can hear and visualize specific characters, and thereby feel more involved and impacted not only by, but with them. Not only was Cesaire’s rewrite of “The Tempest” itself influential, but the time it was published also had a large impact on how influential it was.
“A Tempest” was published in 1969, and the year prior comprised some incredibly important events not only for the United States of America’s history but also for black history. On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, was shot and killed. Several days later on April 11th, 1968, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The entire decade contained many monumental movements forward for black people, including a couple other passed laws that gave black Americans more individual rights than they had previously had, as well as many symbolic moments in the Civil Rights Movement, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Similar how to Cesaire published his “Discourse on Colonialism”, he published his rewrite of “The Tempest” at a time when attention was heavily focused on black people in the countries they lived in. People were already looking at black people and seeing the transpiring events around them happening, especially with movements like the Civil Rights Movement.
With their attention already in that direction, Cesaire’s rewrite would not go unnoticed. The rewrite would also not go unnoticed because of Cesaire’s choice to rewrite a Shakespeare piece. “The Tempest” is believed to be the last play written by Shakespeare and is believed to have been written sometime in 1610 to 1611. Because of the popularity of the original piece and its age, people familiar with Shakespeare’s work would be very interested in seeing how this new rewrite was written and what message it attempted to convey. And with the events of the 1960s, those reading “A Tempest” would already have their minds in the right place to realize that Cesaire meant it to be a colonial rewrite and to interpret it appropriately.
Aime Cesaire’s publications were purposeful. He chose to publish his pieces when he did because he knew that that was when they would have the most significant impacts. Little did he know; his pieces would still be influential today. Social movements are continually happening in the world we currently live in, and for those who choose to learn about or any history relating to the movements, they readily have access to the information via the internet. As far as any naïve white person knows, black people know about as much as their history as they do. But that’s not the case.
With movements like the Negritude movement and Civil Rights movements, people began to question their origins and histories and discover and relate back to their roots. As this continues to happen, generations continue to become less and less naïve than their parents before them. For those who decide to educate themselves, they begin to question the world around them. Even in something as simple as a movie based in the Caribbean, someone may now ask when they watch it “Why aren’t there any black people in this movie?”, whereas 50 years ago people may not have even noticed or cared. People like Cesaire continue to fuel movements forward, and continue to inspire people to speak up for what they believe in.
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