Aimé Césaire (26 June 1913 – 17 April 2008) was a poet (who wote Mississipi), politician and author from Martinique. Martinique is an island in the Caribbean that is considered an “overseas region” of the country of France. (Like how Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are territories of the United States) He is also known as one of the founders of a movement called Négritude. This movement was started to push off the effects of French colonialism in the Caribbean and West Africa by upholding and celebrating African culture and tradition.
Before we can dig into the symbolism of Mississipi (which you can read here), we must first examine its literal meaning. Some of the words within this poem are quite challenging, so I’ve defined them for you here to allow for better comprehension:
- munificence: the quality of being munificent, or showing unusual generosity
- reticule: a small purse or bag, originally of network but later of silk, rayon, etc.
- flagrant: blazing, burning, or glowing (this word has multiple definitions. The one that applies to this poem is considered archaic, meaning that while this word was used for this purpose in the past, it isn’t used to mean this now)
- ferocity: a ferocious quality or state; savage fierceness
- geranium: This is typically used to describe a type of flower, but in this context it refers to a vivid red color
Now that you know the literal meaning of the poem and some background information on Aimé Césaire and the Négritude movement, it is time to discuss the theme. The theme of this poem is the importance of resilience and strength in the face of oppression. This theme will become more relevant and clear as we break down Mississipi.
It’s often overlooked, but one can draw a lot of information from a poem’s title. This poem has a lot to offer in regards to analysis. You’ve probably noticed that the title isn’t spelled how we in America would usually spell the state “Mississippi”. And this was done on purpose. If you consider the history of the Southern US state, you’ll learn that it was first colonized by the French. The original spelling of “Mississippi” was actually “Mississipi”. The state’s name is derived from the original French spelling “Messipi”, and the French called it this in reference to the American Anishinaabe tribe’s name for the Mississippi River – Misi-ziibi, or “Great River”. Now why is all of this important to the poem? Much of Aimé Césaire’s work was about the oppression that Africans felt under French colonization. And Mississippi has a long history of violence and racism against African Americans. By using the old French spelling of an American state, Césaire is able to connect the experiences of people of African descent living on three different continents. It isn’t an American problem, or an African problem, or a French problem. Oppression and racism effect everyone everywhere, and the title makes this point.
The opening line of every stanza, “Too bad for you men” may make you think that the speaker is being empathetic towards the intended audience. But upon closer examination, one will find that the speaker is being quite sarcastic. His “Too bad for you men” isn’t meant to be read in a sympathetic tone, but in a snarky one. It’s very similar to the phrase often said in the Southern United States – bless your heart. It sounds nice, but it’s really not.
When analyzing a poem, it’s very important to examine the structure. This work is divided into four stanzas, all with three lines. It is a free verse poem, meaning that the lines don’t rhyme. (This poem is translated from French, but the lines don’t rhyme in French either.)
Language and Imagery
Too bad for you men who don’t notice that my eyes remember
slings and black flags
which murder with each blink of my Mississipi lashes
In this powerful opening stanza, Césaire is shaming the audience for not remembering the suffering that he and other people of African descent have gone through. People of African descent are mentally traumatized by the things they have seen, and every time they close their eyes they see horrific images.
The second stanza shames the audience again, only this time instead of shaming them for not remembering his suffering, he shames them for acting like they don’t see the physical characteristics of someone who his sad and broken down when they look at him. He has deep dark circles under his eyes and visible stains of tears. And yet, they pretend that he (he symbolizing all African people living under colonization or racism) are fine.
Following on from the second stanza, the speaker is telling the audience that there is something deep and powerful within the spirits of the African people that they cannot see with the naked eye. He calls it “a buffalo sunk to the very hilt of the swamp’s eyes”, a beautiful example of a metaphor.
It is in the last stanza that the poem’s theme becomes so clear. Despite the hardship and oppression that the people have gone through, nothing can stop them from growing stronger and stronger. “…egg-headed islands of flagrant sky under the calm ferocity of the immense geranium of our sun” is a metaphor that symbolizes the beautiful paradise that Césaire and his colleagues hoped to have when all people of African descent bonded together in unity regardless of nationality, another key goal of the Negritude movement.