In the summer of 1935, the 22 year old Aimé Césaire published a short essay called “Conscience raciale et révolution sociale” in what was only the second and would be the last issue of L’Etudiant noir. By chance, I recently came across this essay—republished in 2013 by Les temps modernes—looking for a short piece of prose from Césaire suitable for anglophone undergraduates. “Conscience raciale” is probably not that piece, although it is very interesting. So interesting that I made a rough-and-ready translation of it and gave it to the students anyway, without great effect. Only later did I see that no less a scholar than Christopher Miller wrote about the essay in the PMLA a few years ago. The hook for Miller’s essay is that, thanks to the new availability of this short essay, we now know that Césaire used the word “négritude” for the first time not in the Cahiers in 1939, but in 1935, in quite a different context.
I don’t have very much to say about this here, but wanted to register a certain shock. The central point of Miller’s piece is that in “Conscience raciale,” Césaire is already engaged with a Marxist way of approaching the world, that his thought is already marxisante. Miller has other worthwhile observations, particularly linking this early text forward to the Cahiers and the Lettre à Maurice Thorez. And of course Miller is writing to tell people about this new Césaire text (and, as he does so, provide generous, translated, quotes). It seems that the relevant issue of the journal had been practically lost, and was brought to light only recently, reproduced in part in a 2008 book by Christian Filostrat. Hence the shock. Césaire is not a minor figure. How can this sort of material be, until recently, lost? How can there be the debate that, at least according to Miller, exists over Césaire’s relative awareness of Marxism in the 1930s?