Black France / France Noire: The History and Politics of Blackness


In Black France / France Noire, scholars, activists, and novelists from France and the United States address the untenable paradox at the heart of French society. France's constitutional and legal discourses do not recognize race as a meaningful category. Yet the lived realities of race and racism are ever-present in the nation's supposedly race-blind society. The vaunted universalist principles of the French Republic are far from realized. Any claim of color-blindness is belied by experiences of anti-black ...
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Black France / France Noire: The History and Politics of Blackness

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In Black France / France Noire, scholars, activists, and novelists from France and the United States address the untenable paradox at the heart of French society. France's constitutional and legal discourses do not recognize race as a meaningful category. Yet the lived realities of race and racism are ever-present in the nation's supposedly race-blind society. The vaunted universalist principles of the French Republic are far from realized. Any claim of color-blindness is belied by experiences of anti-black racism, which render blackness a real and consequential historical, social, and political formation. Contributors to this collection of essays demonstrate that blackness in France is less an identity than a response to and rejection of anti-black racism. Black France / France Noire is a distinctive and important contribution to the increasingly public debates on diversity, race, racialization, and multicultural intolerance in French society and beyond.

Rémy Bazenguissa-Ganga, Allison Blakely, Jennifer Anne Boittin, Marcus Bruce, Fred Constant, Mamadou Diouf, Arlette Frund, Michel Giraud, Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Trica Danielle Keaton, Jake Lamar, Patrick Lozès, Alain Mabanckou, Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boyi, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Tyler Stovall, Christiane Taubira, Dominic Thomas, Gary Wilder
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Editorial Reviews

French History - Peter J. Bloom

“This volume makes an important claim for the field of Black French studies as a bridge between constructions of Black identity in France to African American studies…. It is my hope that this particular approach will contribute to a deepening historical and cultural address to the complex implications of black Diasporic subjectivity.”
Contemporary French Civilization - Julin Everett

Black France/France Noire is a must read for any serious scholar of Black French Studies, or indeed, of Black European Studies. This text could also be successfully employed in undergraduate and graduate seminars.”
Black Scholar - Alexander G. Weheliye

Black France / France Noire offers a valuable snapshot of the vexed status of blackness in present-day France and illuminating historical genealogies for its reemergence and significance.”
Africa Today - Yasmina Muthoki Martin

Black France / France Noire: The History and Politics of Blackness… uses a nuanced approach to discuss and problematize variously identified questions by relying on solid contributions from a diverse group of authors to form a well-rounded interpretation of race issues in France…. It offers an ideal introduction to complicated issues involved in formulating a black French identity. It skillfully combines theoretical analyses with personal narratives and historical accounts and represents a meaningful contribution to black French studies.”
History: Reviews of New Books - Rachel Anne Gillett

“The collection, as a whole, is dense but richly rewarding…. Black France/France Noir shows how the past has shaped present outcomes, debates, and difficulties in France but does not draw overly simplistic conclusions or too-easy morality stories. These features, along with the methodological richness of the collection, make it an important read for scholars of France, the French empire, and the black Atlantic. They also make it a strong candidate, almost mandatory reading, for any graduate seminar on modern France, the black Atlantic, or empire.”
From the Publisher

"Black France / France Noire is the most comprehensive and urgent anthology regarding the questions of citizenship and belonging in France since Pierre Bourdieu's The Weight of the World. There's also a salutary combination of scholarly and personal narratives in this book, which elevates it to the stature of a groundbreaking manifesto, the controversial nature of which will be discussed for years to come."—Manthia Diawara, author of African Film: New Forms of Aesthetics and Politics

"Black France / France Noire is the most recent and best record of an ongoing and important international scholarly conversation on issues of color, race, ethnicity, exclusion, and belonging. With essays by both French and American scholars, the collection addresses some deeply challenging questions about how prejudice manifests itself in French life. Some of the French contributors are hesitant to employ ethnic categories, as is the case in the United States, as ways to speak of identity, justice, and injustice in French society. But most of them realize that to eliminate color prejudice in France they must talk about color. This collection is essential reading for scholars who study France, Europe, and the politics of racial discourse more broadly."—Herman Lebovics, author of Imperialism and the Corruption of Democracies

"Black skin may be officially invisible to France's government bureaucrats, statistics-gatherers, and devotees of French republicanism, but as a lived experience, blackness in France is very real. People of color routinely endure discrimination and find it difficult to gain full acceptance as French. Race matters in France, and the more that people talk and write about it, the more salient a social and political phenomenon race and racism in 'color-blind' France becomes. Black France / France Noire makes a major contribution by directly addressing experiences of blackness and anti-blackness in France."—Edward Berenson, author of Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa

"In Black France / France Noire, leading thinkers and intellectuals raise challenging questions about how France's history of slavery and colonization, and immigration from its former colonies, are shaping the important, increasingly public discourse about blackness and racism."—Valérie K. Orlando, author of Francophone Voices of the "New" Morocco in Film and Print: (Re)presenting a Society in Transition

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822352624
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 6/30/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 344
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Trica Danielle Keaton is Associate Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Muslim Girls and the Other France: Race, Identity Politics, and Social Exclusion and a coeditor of Black Europe and the African Diaspora.

T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting is Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Distinguished Professor of French and of African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Pimps Up, Ho's Down: Hip Hop's Hold on Young Black Women and Black Venus: Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French, also published by Duke University Press.

Tyler Stovall is Professor of French history at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light and a coeditor of The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France, also published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Black France / France Noire

The History and Politics of Blackness

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5262-4

Chapter One


Theorizing and Narrating Blackness and Belonging

Black France: Myth or Reality?

Problems of Identity and Identification


The session of the conference "Black France;" in which I presented a short version of this text, was entitled "Black Ontology in Formation." For me, the two components in the title, "ontology" and "in formation;" reflect the general concepts that constitute ontology: essence and existence. "Black ontology" thus can be read as an interrogation of the Black being-in-the-world: a question that concerns identity and identification, but one that is also relational whereby the Black subject evolves, asserting both belonging and difference, that is, being-for-self and being-for-others, located both here and elsewhere.

The foundation of a Black ontology is thus necessarily "in formation"; it is both dialectical and an always-unfinished process, thus a project, in a Sartrean sense. "Black ontology in formation;" echoes Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy of the subject, in which he inverts the order of succession by making existence precede essence: "l'existence précède l'essence" If such is the condition, the Black as a subject is neither predefined nor a given for all. On the contrary, he is constantly in flux, a dynamic subject, able to create and transform the self by one's own will or actions. Existence preceding essence, as Sartre advocates, allows the subject to face down stereotypes as well as entrapment in rigid representations, preconceptions, and reductive images created by the self or by others.' This commentary in the form of an introduction echoes "Black Orpheus," Sartre's well-known preface to Senghor's anthology of African and Malagasy literature.

"Black France" too could be taken as a fixed semantic utterance, as a generic image of the Black, or as a clearly defined identity and an obvious identification with a distinct and homogeneous group constituted by Blacks in France. In the following pages, I would like to first parse the problematic character of the term "Black" as well as its limitations and complexity. I will then seek to show, quickly perhaps, that in spite of this trend, the affirmation of a Black identity has served as a common reference for identification with a specific community in France. Even if it is not the only factor, this identification has been productive; it has, throughout the twentieth century, allowed for, among Black intellectuals in France, a cultural awakening that has led to a political awareness, a common social consciousness, and a sentiment of common belonging across time and space. If, in spite of the problematic nature of the term "Black," one can nowadays speak of a "Black France," it is because this group represents an "imagined community" based more on other factors than on race or skin color. Therefore, if existence precedes essence, and existence is a becoming, then a Black ontology—the Black both which he is and who he is—can only be conceived as a project. The reflection presented here in fact seeks to mine the signifiers "Black" and "Black France," as an identity and as a group with which one identifies in the name of that identity.

A glance at the history of language and the history of mentalities reveals changes in representations of the Black as well as semantic fluctuations of the word "black." Over the course of centuries, meanings and images have been modified according to attitudes and ways of thinking, but also according to the political, economic, and religious interests of those in positions of power. When ancient writers in Greco-Roman antiquity such as Herodotus and Pliny depicted Blacks as strange creatures with strange morays, as Frank Snowden argues they did, the color black was generally perceived as a mark of difference or as an object of artistic attention, and not according to the racialism of later epochs. In the Middle Ages the Greek antiquity's aithiops (man with burnt skin is replaced by the Moor, found, for example, in medieval French epics such as chansons de geste. The Renaissance and the Age of Discoveries bring the Black to Western Europe where he will serve as a domestic and an exotic object. By the early modern period, the Black can be found in the works of the great masters of Western European painting such as Rembrandt, velasquez, and Rubens. In the Enlightenment, despite notions of progress and an open-mindedness imputed to the philosophes, the Age of Reason is yoked to slavery and the slave trade, which in turn influenced their attitudes. In addition, the discourse about Blacks during the Enlightenment is inscribed in an intertextual relationship that reproduces stereotypes about Blacks.

The classification of humanity proposed by the racialist theories of the nineteenth century characterizes the "Black race" in these terms: "À propos de la race 'nègre': ses lèvres sont proéminentes, son front bas, ses dents en saillies, ses cheveux laineux, à demi-frisés, sa barbe rare, son nez large et épaté, son menton en retrait, ses yeux ronds, lui donnent un aspect spécial parmi tout le reste des races humaines" (With respect to the "Negro" race: his thick lips, low forehead, protruding teeth, partially woolly and frizzy hair, sparse beard, broad and flat nose, receding chin, and round eyes give him a peculiar look amongst all other human races). Such definitions based solely on external features are reductive and globalizing. If one considers the entire so-called Black population of the world, these external characteristics are not necessarily found among all Blacks, nor are they visible among everyone classified as such. At the end of the nineteenth century and during the twentieth, the Black swings completely into savagery, excluded even from the category of the "noble savage" that nurtured the West's nostalgia for a Golden Age. Literature, in turn, serves as a vehicle of representation informed by ethnocentric sensibilities drawn from prejudices and stereotyped images of the Black, which have been propagated and crystallized in the collective Western imaginary.

This brief synopsis reveals the lexical uncertainty between the terms "Africans" and "Blacks," with the "black" becoming more directly linked to Africa, savagery, and slavery. "Black" becomes further confused with "African," followed at times by a lexical fusion that makes the two words interchangeable. The semantic and representational transformations of the word "black" cannot escape, after all, preconceived ideas and negative images associated with Black people, because they are all rooted in the ideology of their time and are part of the various discourses that have justified and legitimized slavery, colonial conquest, and the missionary enterprise. Marked by negative connotations, the word "black" is oftentimes banished from the language and replaced by "African" for reasons of political correctness. My contention is that by abolishing the term "black" rather than restoring its neutral value through regular use, political correctness has not only contributed to its derogation but installed a political incorrectness that defies the logic that all Black people are not African, and all Africans are not "black."

On the other hand, over time, colonization, slavery, and migratory phenomena have, alongside cultural hybridity, produced biological hybridity, which, whether one cares to admit it or not, renders relative the definition of "black" as a fixed racial category and destabilizes group identification. The skin color of all who have been racialized "black"—the aithiops, the Pharaohs of Egypt, the Moors, those of Africa or of the Americas-spreads across a chromatic spectrum, varying from the very black to the almost white. One might be reminded here that many African Americans and West Indians can trace their lineage back to a white or, to a lesser extent, Native American ancestor. There is also the phenomenon of "passing," which in the Americas typically refers to a Black person passing for white, if one's complexion is especially fair and one's features are not marked phenotypically as "black." The "one-drop rule" in the United States in effect racially codifies anyone as "black" who has a hint of "black blood." One could add to this racial litany the kinds of intraracial distinctions that have existed in Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean societies along color and class lines. Among Afro-Caribbeans, color and class often combine and evolve into the desire for what has been called lactification: light skin is considered ideal, and those possessing lighter skin are frequently situated on a higher socio-economic level. All of this brings to mind the question, albeit pointless, of whether the President of the United States, Barack Obama, son of a Black African father and white American mother, is "really" Black: some find him "too Black," still others feel he is "not Black enough:" The long arc of history reveals indeed that the contours of what or who is considered Black/ black is not fixed, is uncertain and susceptible to vicissitudes. Therefore, in our contemporary moment, can one speak of a "Black France"?

"Black" can be a generic term that designates multiple and diverse subjects originating from various continents and parts of the globe with completely different trajectories and historical paths: Africa, the Americas, Asia, and now Europe. Linguistically, it does not seem certain that in English "Black France," the title of a recent book, necessarily covers all that is signified in the words "France noire." While "Black France" may be transparent in the same way that "Black America" is, "France noire" by contrast proves to be polysemic. The first meaning is devoid of any racial reference: it trivially refers to an underground France, parallel, clandestine, and invisible. In the second sense "France Noire" is amenable to politics and history, and embodies the French imperialist vision. It designates, in effect, Blacks outside France, but from a territory in France's possession and under French political dominance, as is the case with the African colonies and the French overseas departments and territories. Book titles such as AOF AEF La France noire: ses peuples, son histoire, ses richesses illustrate this significance, which compartmentalizes the Black as a colonized subject and a subaltern. The third meaning of "France noire," a contemporary one, concerns the Blacks within Metropolitan France. It implicitly raises the questions of belonging and non-belonging while simultaneously acting as an intervention, affirming the Self as a being and as a subject. It thus relates to the signification of "Black France," which is the topic of Dominic Thomas's book. In their semantic similarity, "Black France" and "France noire" go well beyond a simple physical Black presence in France. In the signified, they carry a subtext: a claim for the right to speak, the contestation of dominance, marginalization, and invisibility within French society where these exclusionary practices contradict republican ideals.

A France noire situates the Black in a double liminal position: French but Black, or Black but part of France. Speaking of the West Indies, the Guyanese writer Léon Damas, with his usual humor and irony, summarizes this liminality with a pun: "pas Français à part entière mais entièrement à part" (not fully French, but French fully apart. These multiple levels of meaning equally establish France noire as both a semantic and political subversion: the colonial partitioning of the voiceless and the assimilated is substituted by the desire to break the colonial mold and to escape marginalization by speaking out.

Who then is this France noire? They are the Blacks both from and in France: Black French, French Blacks, Blacks and French, Franco-Africans, the Franco-Afro-Americans. One could add Franco-Caribbean, a label that would be in principle tautological since Antillians are officially French. These terms, in their variation, sufficiently show the fluidity and the semantic indeterminacy of the word "black," as well as the open and non-exhaustive character of what constitutes a France noire. The appellation seems transparent, but in reality is diverse and complex: multinational, multicultural, transcontinental, and even multicolor.

Black Metropolitan France is not established as a homogenous block but instead represents an assemblage of micro societies. Today, it brings together individuals of multiple and distinct geographic origins. Born and raised in France or elsewhere, they are of mixed and non-mixed unions; they have come from Africa or the Americas, at different times and for various reasons: to fight for France, to study, to seek political freedom, or to find better economic opportunities. Their ideological orientations follow distinctive paths: involvement in the promotion of Black culture, union involvement, or participation in entertainment or sports. Generally, the majority of these Blacks, despite their diversity, find themselves similarly positioned in this global orbit with respect to their origins, France, colonization, political domination, cultural assimilation, and even social marginalization and invisibility. They belong, however, to a diversified local milieu, other and different. The history of the Black Americas diverged from that of Africa with the slave trade, which in turn, inaugurated a new history, created new cultural forms, new identities, and new identifications, even as those Black and African origins are not necessarily disavowed but reclaimed. This was the case in the first quarter of the twentieth century with the Indigenist Movement in Haiti and the Harlem Renaissance in the United States. Within these multiple cleavages, one could add that in the case of union militancy, the workers' solidarity is also a class solidarity and not just racial. In his novels, Ousmane Sembène shows, for example, how these different categories are related. The relationship with the place of origin comes with ambiguity: despite their desire for identification with Africa, Black Americas' gaze on Africa is one of an outsider. The French Caribbean writer René Maran's novels, for example, offer a benevolent gaze from an outsider's position, not from within. The Africa of the Harlem Renaissance is an appealing Africa, but one that is equally trapped in a vision from the outside that exoticizes her: as attractive and mysterious as she appears in various, though certainly not the vast majority of, Western European representations. It is this mysterious Africa that Countee Cullen, a poet from the Harlem Renaissance, questions in his poem "Heritage":

    What is Africa to me:
    Copper sun or scarlet sea,
    Jungle star or jungle track,
    Strong bronzed men, or regal black
    Women from whose loins I sprang
    When the birds of Eden sang?
    One three centuries removed
    From the scenes his fathers loved,
    Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
    What is Africa to me.

Another example, taken from Claude McKay's Banjo, illustrates the distance that sometimes exists between Blacks of different origins, such as that expressed in the following dialogue between Ray, who is in search of and nostalgic for Africa, and a student from Martinique, who refuses to identify with the "Black race" or with Africa:

Non, mais elle [l'impératrice Joséphine] était créole et, à la Martinique, nous sommes plutôt des Créoles que des Noirs.... Its étaient dans un café de la Cannebière. Ce soir-là, Ray avait rendez-vous avec un autre étudiant, un Africain de la Côte d'Ivoire. Il demanda au Martiniquais de faccompagner, voulant leur faire connaissance. L'autre refusa disant qu'il ne tenait pas à fréluenter les Sénégalais et que leur bar africain était d'ailleurs un bar des bas-fonds. II crut devoir mettre Ray en garde contre les Sénégalais.

"Ils ne sont pas comme nous," lui dit-il. "Les Blancs se conduiraient mieux avec les Noirs, si les Sénégalais n'étaient pas là."

No, but she [the Empress Josephine] was Creole, and in Martinique we are rather more Creole than Negro.... They were in a café on the Cannebière. That evening Ray had a rendezvous at the African Bar with another student, an African from the Ivory Coast; he asked the Martiniquan to go with him to be introduced. He refused, saying that he did not want to mix with the Senegalese and that the African Bar was in the seedy part of town. He warned Ray about mixing with the Senegalese.

"They are not like us," he said. "The whites would treat Blacks better in this town if it were not for the Senegalese "


Excerpted from Black France / France Noire Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword: Black… A Color? A Kaleidoscope! Christiane Taubira ix

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction: Blackness Matters, Blackness Made to Matter Trica Danielle Keaton Tracy Sharpley-Whiting Tyler Stovall 1

Part I Theorizing and Narrating Blackness and Belonging

Black France: Myth or Reality? Problems of Identity and Identification Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boyi 17

The Lost Territories of the Republic: Historical Narratives and the Recomposition of French Citizenship Mamadou Diouf 32

Eurafrique as the Future Past of "Black France": Sarkozy's Temporal Confusion and Senghor's Postwar Vision Gary Wilder 57

Letter to France Alain Mabanckou 88

French Impressionism Jake Lamar 96

Part II The Politics of Blackness-Politicizing Blackness

The Invention of Blacks in France Patrick Lozès 103

Immigration and National Identity in France Dominic Thomas 110

"Black France" and the National Identity Debate: How Best to Be Black and French? Fred Constant 123

Paint It "Black": How Africans and Afro-Caribbeans Became "Black" in France Rémy Bazenguissa-Ganga 145

The "Question of Blackness" and the Memory of Slavery: Invisibility and Forgetting as Voluntary Fire and Some Pyromaniac Firefighters Michel Giraud 173

Part III Black Paris-Black France

The New Negro in Paris: Booker T. Washington, the New Negro, and the Paris Exposition of 1900 Marcus Bruce 207

The Militant Black Men of Marseille and Paris, 1927-1937 Jennifer Boittin 221

Reflections on the Future of Black France: Josephine Baker's Vision of a Global Village Bennetta Jules-Rosette 247

Site-ing Black Paris: Discourses and the Making of Identities Arlette Frund 269

Coda: Black Identity in France in a European Perspective Allison Blakely 287

About the Contributors 307

Index 311

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