“I See Terribly I See”: Césaire’s (Dis)abled and the Optics of an Anticolonial Universalism

Rejoinder by Millery Polyné

[Prompt: Césaire and the revolutionary Afro-Americas]

Innocent who goes there
forget to remember
that the baobab is our tree
that it barely waves arms so dwarfed
that you would take it for an imbecilic giant
and you
inhabited by my insolence my tombs my twisters
mane bundle of lianas violent hope of the shipwrecked
sleep softly by the meticulous trunk of my embrace my
my citadel

–Aimé Césaire, “Your Hair” Soleil Cou Coupé (1948).

Innocent qui vas là
oublie de te rappeler
que le baobab est notre arbre
qu’il mal agite des bras si nains
qu’on le dirait un géant imbécile
et toi
séjour de mon insolence de mes tombes de mes trombes
crinière paquet de lianes espoir fort des naufragés
dors doucement au tronc méticuleux de mon étreinte ma
ma citadelle

they have put mud over my eyes
and see I see terribly I see
of all the mountains of all the islands
nothing left save the few rotted teeth
of the impenitent saliva of the sea

–Aimé Césaire, “Among Other Massacres” Soleil Cou Coupé (1948).

ils ont mis de la boue sur mes yeux
et vois je vois terriblement je vois
de toutes les montagnes de toutes les îles
il ne reste plus rien que les quelques mauvais chicots
de l’impénitente salive de la mer

In 1802, after the French military forces of General Jean-Baptiste Brunet subdued Toussaint Louverture, Louverture was transported to France where he believed he would face a state or military court of justice. He did not. The former Governor-for-Life of Saint Domingue spent the rest of his days confined to his cell. While in Fort de Joux prison, Louverture penned letters to French authorities and then soon his memoir, hoping arguments, his questions – his pleas, if you will – would be heard. Both Toussaint and pro-slavery French colonial powers were impaired during these critical moments of a protracted colonial war. Yet, only Toussaint, writing within the normalizing power of whiteness, questioned and reflected upon his putative disability – that of race and color. “No doubt I owe this treatment to my color,” Louverture wrote in his memoir, according to biographer Madison Smartt Bell. “Has my color ever hindered me from serving my country with fidelity and zeal? Does the color of my body tarnish my honor and my courage?” Moreover, at other key moments in his personal narrative the former Governor invokes the image of incapacity and affliction.

They have sent me to France naked as a worm; they have seized my property and my papers; they have spread the most atrocious calumnies on my account. Is this not to cut off someone’s legs and order him to walk? Is it not to cut out his tongue? And tell him to talk? Is it not to bury a man alive?…I have spilled my blood for my country; I took a bullet in the right hip, which I have still in my body, I had a violent contusion to the head…it rattled my jaw so severely that the greater part of my teeth fell out…Finally, I have received on different occasions seventeen wounds whose honorable scars remain to me.
— in Madison Smartt Bell, Toussaint Louverture

The documentation of Louverture’s pain and wounds are performing different types of work. It highlights the tremendous physical toil on his body and its defilement for the advancement of radical abolitionism, in addition to his episodic support to what Césaire deemed a “deciviliz[ed]” France. Louverture’s pain – his physical and psychological ailments that transformatively altered his movement and possibly his sense of utility and importance, demonstrated its collective properties, challenging discourses of pain as what theorist dubs “subjective and as a site of individuality.” Given Louverture’s status as a powerful and complex military and political leader, the image of his wounded hip as he possibly limps around his dungeon cell, his body cloaked with “honorable scars” proves emblematic of the battle scarred rebel soldiers, African and Creole men and women, who fought valiantly for him and for a reality free from bondage. Conjointly, even though Louverture’s description conjures a painful deterioration of an abled body – the condition and feeling of “contusions,” of “rattled” bones, and of severed calcareous tissue are illustrative of a body still connected to a political community that must be reckoned with. Despite the French having “cut down the trunk of the tree of Black Liberty,” as boldly declared by a captured Louverture as the ship, L’Héros, cast anchor from Le Cap, the assault on “Black Liberty” does not, in this particular revolutionary case, undermine the goals and abilities of African-descended peoples to thwart slavery and, in many respects, colonialism. As Eller quotes Louverture, the tree will “spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.” In fact, as Bell documents, French military generals like General Leclerc remarked: “It is not everything to have removed Toussaint, there are two thousand other chiefs here to have taken away.”

The language and symbolism of injury and impairment proves significant to Césaire’s revolutionary aesthetic. Césaire’s engagement with (dis)ability and pain through the assistive technology of surrealism and nature disrupts and remaps notions of progress and normality so as to create “new possibilities…[that do not] stratify, distort or delimit,” as Eller contends, “but rather recalls, names, and celebrates.” Within and beyond his powerful book of poetry Soleil Cou Coupé (Solar Throat Slashed), elements of nature are blinded, deafened, dwarfed, and in some cases bodily organs and limbs rearranged and exchanged. Césaire both honors and warns us in “Your Hair” of the centrality of cultural memory and the deficiencies of prejudice, encoded in what philosopher Charles Mills coined as the racial contract. Césaire cautions us not to:

forget to remember
that the baobab is our tree
that it barely waves arms so dwarfed
that you would take it for an imbecilic giant

This debilitating act of misreading or, to put it bluntly, this “active,” systemic racism (and ableism) that has, according to scholar Michelle Wright, “impaired” humankind, arrests the liberatory potential of poetic knowledge. Césaire implores humanity to engage in a radical exchange, possibly in the absurd, where humor, love and pain no longer mark the body as defective, yet remap “erotic sites” so that one can imagine an anticolonial, antiracist universal. In his poem “Horse,” dedicated to French art collector Pierre Loeb, Césaire asserts:

I give it to you great horse
I give you my ears to be made into nostrils capable of quivering
my hair to be made into a mane as wild as they come
my tongue to be made into mustang hooves
I give them to you
great horse
so that you can approach men of elsewhere and tomorrow at the extreme limits of brotherhood
on your back a child with barely moving lips
who for you
will disarm
the chlorophyllous dough of the vast ravens of the future.

je te le donne grand cheval
je te donne mes oreilles pour en faire des naseaux sachant frémir
mes cheveux pour en faire une crinière des mieux sauvages
ma langue pour en faire des sabots de mustang
je te les donne
grand cheval
pour que tu abordes à l’extrême limite de la fraternité les hommes d’ailleurs et de demain
avec sur le dos un enfant aux lèvres à peine remuées
qui pour toi
la mie chlorophyllienne des vastes corbeaux de l’avenir

This radical and emancipatory exchange seems to have been lost to a bygone era of time and space. The interdependence, interplay and reciprocity of ideas that once occurred on the frontiers of Haitian and Dominican land are no more; Pan-African and Bandung-like conferences, labor and feminist movements prove irrelevant for many. Yet, the need to return to Césaire’s oeuvre through an interdisciplinary lens, particularly my admittedly broad and introductory analytical strokes from disability studies, forces us to continue to think about and to form and strengthen coalitions that establish “new epistemologies” of knowledge. Our efforts to challenge representations of the body, specifically black bodies in an American context that are perceived as damaged, infectious or disposable, prove vital to this work of making the world anew, especially at a time when marginalized peoples can “terribly…see” that natural rights and access to social services and a living wage are disintegrating.

Works Cited


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4 thoughts on ““I See Terribly I See”: Césaire’s (Dis)abled and the Optics of an Anticolonial Universalism

  • I’m thrilled to see the emphasis on bodies and particularly on their abilities that you tease out in Césaire’s work. Representations of the physically disfigured or intellectually diminished body run rampant throughout his literary works alone. Such abnormally-perceived bodies of course emphasize both the ideological and the real impact of colonialism that Césaire regularly decried. And they deserve greater attention within their historically transnational context, particularly for the way in which their abilities came to be defined as abnormal.

    Césaire’s bodies also prompt us to think about what Catherine Kudlick underscores as necessary in discussions of disability: what it means to be human and to be disabled. They demonstrate how humanity and disability are mutually informing for all individuals, the disabled and the non-disabled. In daring readings, they even may become responses to or explanations of an inextricable interrelatedness in human relations – much like those that Prospero desperately reminds Caliban of in his “Toi-Moi! Moi-Toi!” Read in these contexts, Césaire’s bodies also expose how dehumanization takes place through pejorative attributions of disability.

    Clearly Césaire’s bodies never take us away from a transnational, postcolonial context where human subjectivity is always in the mix. In fact they unveil how local and global perceptions of humanity and sovereignty are negotiated in today’s increasingly transnational and “precariously postcolonial” world. The numbed negro of the tramway, the robotically-pedaling hunched mother, and the supernatural, tempestuous characters are no longer to be understood as informed – deformed? – by the colonial narratives that shaped primarily or even solely their “pays natal.” Like human beings, they pass through multiple spheres of transaction and subjugation that Césaire’s “Discourse on Colonialism” targets. And their bodies are archives of such processes.

    So Césaire’s bodies actually point us to existing epistemologies of the body and its abilities that have long since been used to determine who deserves what because of what a body can or cannot do. But they also inspire us to think of new epistemologies as you explain. On the page and the stage, they shed light on the path that moves away from the “vieille négritude” to a fuller understanding of the self in spectrums of bodies, abilities, and thereby of humanity.

    Best wishes to all who attend Friday’s events, I wish that Buffalo were closer!

    • Christian:

      Thanks so much for your analysis and reference to Kudlick’s work. My interest in sport studies led me to disability studies and my eyes were opened to how it is pronounced in Césaire’s oeuvre. As you say (and read Kudlick): “[It] demonstrate[s] how humanity and disability are mutually informing for all individuals, the disabled and the non-disabled.” Best wishes.

  • Great piece, Millery. I would add that the Mémoire could also be figured as damaged body, a sort of metonym for the physical deterioration Tousssaint suffered at the Fort de Joux. Indeed, as is by now well known, a few of his final handwritten texts, including a version of the one you cite from Madison above, were found hidden in his headscarf upon his death. Deborah Jenson writes, in a remarkable turn of phrase, that Toussaint “was determined to remain armed with an inscribed rhetoric of protest even to this death, like a literary second skin (Beyond the Slave Narrative, 13). Holding these texts, barely legible and stained, imagining what he went through in the final days, knowing that Bonaparte never responded, is quite an emotional experience. These documents are so vital, especially since, as Madison writes so movingly in his final chapter, with his bones scattered somewhere near the Fort, Toussaint’s body is lost.

    I’m sorry I can’t make it to the symposium, but will do my best to follow along and post a few more comments.

    • John:

      Thank you so much for your response. You are so right about “Mémoire.” And I am so glad you brought that perspective and also referenced Deborah Jenson’s work. Jenson’s articulation–“a literary second skin–is undeniably fierce. I look forward to reading your book. It looks wonderful. All the best.

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