Counter-response by Anne Eller
[Prompt: Césaire and the revolutionary Afro-Americas]
Upon his arrest, Governor-for-Life Toussaint Louverture reportedly proclaimed, “[i]n overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of Black liberty.” The tree would “spring back up from the roots,” he promised, “for they are numerous and deep.” In recalling the moment of his arrest in 1802, Césaire’s Louverture in Cahier is, accordingly, only for the briefest moment of defeat “a lone man imprisoned in whiteness.” He is connected to the throng, the “anguished Antilles,” a [meta]body’s viscera, new geographies, new biologies (of suffering), a disalienated natural universe, negritude, the narrator himself. As Polyné underscores in his analysis of “Poetry and Knowledge,” Césaire repeatedly makes these connections of self and other, Ego and the World, humanity and the natural universe explicit, enshrining them in his ars poetica. Long histories of revolt in the Americas and, centrally, the Haitian Revolution, exemplify this interplay of particular and universal claims. It is an old, daring balance of radical demands, in philosophy and practice. Césaire’s natural metaphors and allegories draw explicitly on this history, refashioning a universalism of the future.
Pseudoscience, pseudohumanism, and “thingification” of the natural and human world are at the center of the colonial project; new epistemologies are imperative. Césaire’s anticolonial propositions, Polyné observes, are “not necessarily contrary to scientific knowledge but firmly in conversation with the natural sciences.” Césaire may evince a nostalgia about old orderings, but return is impossible. Accordingly, the conversation is ambivalent. Of new, non-essentialized human and natural landscapes, measured “with the geometry of my spilled blood…by the compass of suffering,” he writes in the Cahier: “I accept, I accept it all.” Trees are favored tropes. They embody multivalent incarnations, depicting – at different times, or sometimes concurrently – both the possibilities of fraternity and interconnection and of uprootedness, forced exile, and suffering. In the “Gift of Tree Saps,” this duality is laid bare:
athletic ceiba mysteriously balancing the knotted struggle between man and disaster
learned boles of pride from a stratum of shipwrecks…
The representational potential of trees is both particular and universal. In the Cahier, Césaire exhorts:
And be the tree of our hands!
it turns, for all, the wounds cut
in its trunk
the soil works for all
and toward the branches a headiness of fragrant precipitation!
And yet he immediately cautions that colorless fraternalism is the province of some future harvest,
But before reaching the shores of future orchards
grant that I deserve those on their belt of sea
grant me my heart while awaiting the earth
In order to “rais[e] to the level of the universal, the particular situation of our people,” Césaire’s proposition is twofold: “linking them to history…[and] placing them on a trajectory that is precisely one of becoming.” Disalienation from – and representation through – the fecund and restorative potential of nature approaches the “satisfying knowledge” (Césaire, “Poetry and Knowledge”) he seeks. New possibilities are born of this ordering, a taxonomy that does not stratify, distort or delimit but rather recalls, names, and celebrates. “[A]nd as my eyes sweep my kilometers of paternal earth I number its sores almost joyfully and I pile on top of another like rare species, and my total is ever lengthened,” he exults.
As Polyné writes, discussion of nature also permits Césaire “to mine the forces that bind black peoples’ connection to place.” Numerous silences mark the historical record of the Caribbean, silences born of colonizers’ epistemological failings, profound limitations of written archives, willful omission, and incredible violence. And yet, as Ada Ferrer has written, “fragmentary and inscrutable,” evidence emerges. Landscapes, particularly, manifest the evidence of generations of freedom seeking, as Césaire was well aware. Contests over land were at the center of emancipation struggles, and they were at the center of ongoing resistance to cash crop production in the post-abolition era. They represent, in short, nothing less than a fundamental reckoning with the colonial order itself, as it organized itself under slavery and scrambled to refashion oppression subsequently. Land tenure, furthermore, invoked far more than questions over the mode of production or voting status. Bundled up in subsistence land regimes like the lakou or the terrenos comuneros of independent Hispaniola, for example, were whole means of living, practices of family and inheritance, communal organization of land use, the exertion of distance from a formal state, and alternative political forms.
What of the tree of liberty? Planted in island soil by French commissioners, it first marked a commemoration of the Bastille in an agitated and contested landscape. After emancipation and Louverture’s tenure in earnest, its republican roots had broadened and grown deeper. As he prophesied, the roots regenerated after his capture. Dessalines, then, set about to fell the French tree of slavery and prejudice, scattering the flowers of blood of which Césaire writes. In years of pitched struggle, as Deborah Jenson’s work reveals, the metaphor may have subsided for a time. “Every man carries liberty in his heart,” Dessalines declared, “and…he holds the key to it in his hands.” Early Haitian foreign policy, meanwhile, walked a precarious line between self-preservation and ambitious revolutionary possibility. David Nicholls documents Dessalines’ conflicted regional conscience as recorded by Ardouin: “[u]nfortunate Martiniquans, I am not able to fly to your assistance and break your chains,” Dessalines wrote to enslaved men and women in Martinique. “But perhaps a spark from the fire which we have kindled will spring forth in your soul,” he urged.
The tree re-grew after 1804, or rather a Haitian tree did. The project was at once universal, nationalist, and particular, a discourse and praxis Doris Garraway characterizes as “anticolonial universalism.” Ada Ferrer asserts that security restraints curtailed the range of action the young state(s) took, even as heterodox and ambitious legal conceptions of free soil were enshrined at the core of Haitian citizenship itself. Unification of the island brought these principles – and trees of liberty – eastward to Santo Domingo. Ceremonially planted in the spring of 1822, they continued to grow, long after the unified government toppled. The trees bore living memories otherwise erased in elite accounts of the east. They were not the only preserve of freedom there, however. Outside of their symbolic value, wooded spaces and rural communities provided concrete refuge. These landscapes, too, remain at the margins of the archive.
yesterday uprooted […]
on earth it is replanted […]
beautiful voluminous tree
day alights on it
a startled bird
–Césaire, “Poetry and Knowledge”
In affirming a connection to the universal, in “saying ‘yes’ like a tree,” some scholars characterize the embrace as a passive one, in contradistinction to aggressive Western practices. There is little passive in Césaire’s “stability…surrender…[and] vital movement,” however. Any such simple binary underestimates both the strength and dynamic potential of his natural and human worlds. It seems more likely, instead, that Césaire is enjoining principles of balance, maintenance, and community, the fundament of cosmologies that still flourished, dynamically, even after being uprooted and transformed across the Atlantic. Beyond these imperatives, he is establishing new rootedness, new generations, and new territoriality. “Someone who marries human florescence to universal florescence: this man is a poet,” he urges in the Cahier. New projects of anticolonial universalism await.