Césaire’s Return to New Lands

cesaire 1

Upright now, my country and I, hair in the wind, my hand small in its enormous fist and our
strength not inside us but above in a voice that bores through the night and its listeners like the sting of an apocalyptic wasp. And the voice declares that for centuries Europe has stuffed us with lies and crammed us with plague, for it is not true that:
the work of man is finished
we have nothing to do in the world
we are the parasites of the world
our job is to keep in step with the world.
The work of man is only just beginning
-Aimé Césaire, from Return to my Native Land, translated by John Berger and Anna Bostock

“The Work of Man Has Only Just Begun”: The Legacies of Césaire, a December 5-6, 2013 event co-organized by Kaiama L. GloverAlex Gil, Brent Hayes Edwards, and David Scott, aimed to crowd-source a people’s digital/analog history and reflections on the centennial of the late revolutionary surrealist Martinican artist Aimé Césaire. Out of a range of NYC events honoring his legacies (including an interactive reading series and panels at the CUNY Graduate Center), this event most ambitiously leaped into new methods to combine Caribbean studies and Digital Humanities.

The website home page coaxes our involvement with charcoal, purple, and white design hues, and Césaire’s slightly off-center beaming visage greets us with trademark buoyancy (although the visual effects make it appear as if his face is splashed with oil). The accessibly defined two days’ projects – a “researchathon” and a “forum” – invite us to participate before, during, and well after the event. The December 5 “researchathon,” we learn, successfully crowd-sourced an open-access Césaire bibliography of 912 primary sources, and 1243 secondary sources, although it limited welcome to only “students, scholars, librarians, and technologists.” The December 6 “forum” centered around four themes across and beyond Césaire’s work:
“Whither or whether postcolonial sovereignty?”
“The revolutionary Afro-Americas”
“Trans-Atlantic networks and contexts”
“The present-day poetic imagination”
8 scholars – Anne Eller, Millery Polyné, Gary Wilder, Yarimar Bonilla, Carrie Noland, Christopher Winks, Brent Hayes Edwards, and Erica Hunt – blog-posted initial thoughts beforehand, then interacted online with people’s posted responses (who also interacted with other people’s posted responses…), and then wove these dialogues into a live discussion at Columbia’s Maison Francaise (for which no recording is currently available).

Although this project’s expansive potentiality honors that of the artist’s legacies, the website’s credit page ultimately names only 46 contributors to the event (mostly academics), and the online dialogue halts 3 days after the event concludes (perhaps because the comments, although demonstrably erudite, are rather obtuse to the working-class intellectuals at large with whom Césaire would have preferred to break bread). This begs some constructively critical questions about the currently existing traction of digital Caribbean work – how can we facilitate online communities that engage in long-lasting meaningful contact across the diaspora? How can we apply decentralized lessons to our academic and social work? Can this project help us gesture towards openly – unapologetically – crowd-sourcing articles, syllabi, dissertations, books, departments, entire disciplines? In creating knowledge (including, as Césaire reminds us, “Poetic knowledge [that] is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge”), how porous should we make educational walls and national borders, and how should we produce and practice work that exchanges elitist solipsism with social empowerment? Who is and who is not being invited to evaluate Césaire’s legacies?

One co-organizer, Brent Edwards, warns of entombing the artist within gilded accolades, when a “legacy, even the idea of a legacy, can become a trap, a purgatory… a way to ‘deafen oneself with blindness,’ an unguarded door.” This all-too-familiar eulogizing practice can also myopically squint the project’s scope, as evident in the notable absence of the central influence of Suzanne Césaire on her husband’s life and work, and on the marvelous realms of revolutionary Caribbean surrealism more widely. Another co-organizer, Kaiama Glover, even notes in a comment to Edwards’ post, “Here, as everywhere on our site, including in the very title of this forum (that I’ve co-organized!), women are all but absent from our considerations of Césaire’s legacies. Shame on us? Shame on Césaire?” These are all crucial warning lessons for our future digital Caribbean creations. In the end, this event and website project have extended an invitation to do scholarship differently – and much else. Shame on us if we neglect to accept it.


  1. I think if anything this sits can operate as a archive, I really see means by which one can continue a conversation that is not produced by the webmaster. I couldn’t find a blog or comment option. But that being said it still very valuable as a archive, I hope the webmasters continue to cultivate it as a space for scholars, etc.

  2. In reading your summary of the site, its content, and its temporal boundaries (the way that the discussion halts shortly after the event it is advertising occurred), I began wondering how this could be used without changing so much of the original point of the website. I’m not sure if it would be useful or possible for the event to become an annual or some other sort of regular event and, therefore, be able to gain more attention through a permanent online advertisement and grow through the forums and the discussions that would follow. The scholars would be able to pull from ideas that were brought up and the people who are interested would feel engaged in an event rather than it just being something that they attend. The other idea would be to have it as just a standing online legacy to what has taken place, to maybe archive the discussions? I’m not sure, but perhaps it would help.

  3. I agree with Maribi. I would definitely prefer to see this site as an ongoing conversation instead of a site solely dedicated to promote an event. However, the forum does provide a great space for conversations to continue. I must add though, that there are no recent comments this year. This leads me to assume it isn’t an ongoing conversation. However, I do like the layout, its very interactive although not particularly easy to navigate. Every page seems like entirely new so you have to go back to click other links you might’ve been interested in on the front page.

  4. I did not realize that this site was only up in preparation for their event! It seemed as if it meant to be an ongoing conversation dedicated to discussing Cesaire. Caribbean studies would definitely benefit from an internet space dedicated to its legendary cultural figures and contemplating the roles they played for their home countries. Discussion of “legends” does not always have to praise or be without criticism. I enjoyed the way the forum was organized to offer a counter response. It is deliberate in its form and purpose to allow a full discussion

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