"Caine's Stake": Aimé Césaire, Emmett Till, and the Work of Acknowledgment


  • Corey McCall Penn State University




Aimé Césaire, Emmett Till, Négritude, History, Poetics


Our reasons for avoiding death are manifold, encompassing among others, motives that are personal, political, and historical. Still, are there ways that we might use words to overcome these common everyday aversions to death and the dead through another modality of language, that of poetry for example? Can the poetic word get us to acknowledge the particulars of death despite the various reasons we have to disavow it? Might we use language not simply grasp death abstractly (or more accurately, fail to grasp it) but instead to realize what death means in its awful particularity? These questions are prompted by Aimé Césaire’s poerty and his prose, and by his elegy for Emmett Till in particular. Through his writings and his political work, one of Césaire’s key aims was to get people to acknowledge what they would prefer to avoid.  Césaire’s work, both his poetry and prose, urges readers to see the things they would prefer not to see and to show us how language stakes us to the world in all its terrifying awfulness and wondrous splendor, despite our desperate attempts to avoid this realization.

This essay is divided into two parts. The first part looks at how this problem of alienation and the need to acknowle this alienation motivates Césaire’s writing more generally, focusing on the ten years between 1945 (when his essay “Poetry and Knowledge” is published) and 1955 (when the second edition of his Discourse on Colonialism is published). In order to consider how alienation and acknowledgement work in this celebrated text, I consider related works and their contexts from the period from 1950-1956, including his famous letter of resignation from the French Communist Party. This sets the stage for the reading of Césaire’s Ferraments provided in the second section.  The second part examines how and why Césaire sought acknowledgement for Emmett Till’s brutal murder through his poetry, focusing specifically on his poem “…On the State of the Union” from his 1960 collection Ferraments.