“Towards the end of his life, Aimé Césaire has declared that the question he and his friend Léopold Sédar Senghor came to raise after they first met was: ‘Who am I? Who are we? What are we in this white world?’ And he commented: ‘That’s quite a problem” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
Shifting from Breton’s question, “Who am I?” to the collective “Who are we?” helps me to consider the roles that both the individual and the collective play in social movements. In his poem, “Emmett Till,” Césaire flips the equation of a racist, rural South by positioning a young black man as an individual person and his white murderers and the society that enabled their violence as a faceless group. They are an assimilation of “five centuries of torturers,” “five centuries of cheap gin of big cigars/ of fat bellies filled with slices of rancid bibles.”
“From 1941 onwards, he, along with his wife Suzanne and the philosopher Rene Menil, published a journal titled Tropiques which combined opposition to the Vichy government in Paris and admiration of the libertarian principles of Surrealism with the beginnings of an ideology of ‘negritude’: an assertion of black identity in the face of the ‘assimilationist’ ideology underpinning French policy towards its colonies” (Hopkins 135).
In Chicago, Till knew a kind of equality still foreign to his Mississippi relatives. He showed a photograph of an integrated classroom, told his cousins in the South that the white children in the photograph were his friends, and they didn’t believe him, dared him to speak to the white woman behind the counter in the store. Throughout the kidnapping and the torture that followed, Till asserted his personhood and his equality. Césaire evokes Till’s name throughout the poem in all capital letters – “EMMETT TILL I say,” echoing current chants at Black Lives Matter gatherings: “Emmett Till/ Say his name.” Assimilation into a long history of violence is blocked through art.
“It is worth underlining the extent to which, far from Paris, Surrealist techniques of incongruous juxtaposition were harnessed to convey a people’s resentment at their past suppression and yearning for a new language” (Hopkins 135).
Till’s murderers attempted to take his individuality away from him by mutilating his body. They thought the Tallahatchie River would sweep both his physical being and his story away into a forgotten memory. But his mother insisted on an open casket, public service. And in his poem, Césaire considers the body through a series of what Hopkins terms “incongruous juxtapositions.” The different parts of Till’s body are compared to bodies of water and items associated with them: “your eyes were a sea conch,” “the portholes of eyes.”
“What are we in this white world?”
Césaire positions Till in a state of transition, of hopeful reaching: “Spring, he believed in you./ Even at the edge of night.” And in the lines of the poem the body merges with the earth, then re-emerges, changed: “He listens in the blue bush of veins/ to the steady singing of the blood bird…a vehement fish, in the astonishing blue field.” Flocks of birds, schools of fish, but in this moment just the one, set apart in an infinite moment of time.