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Writing a history of Blacks in France

Pap Ndiaye





I'm starting a book on the history of Blacks in continental France from the 17th century to present times. This history has never been undertaken, in spite of a few historical studies on the presence of Black Africans and Carribeans in France, as well as a pioneer work by the American historian William B. Cohen on Blacks as seen by the French. There is an obvious historiographical gap which needs to be filled. My book — under contract with a major French publisher — will be a contribution to the field of African-French studies, still in its infancy. I do not intend to extensively cover a history in need of detailed studies and archival work. My purpose is rather to encourage historians to delve into this topic by raising a number of methodological and theoretical issues, while providing a global historical overview of Blacks in France.

As a historian of the United States particularly interested in African-American history, I have been more and more aware of the lack of academic work on African-European populations. My expertise in African-American history has helped me think about what could be done on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. On a more personal side, I'm myself of French and Senegalese descent: my project is also a way to reconcile academic and personal interests while always maintaining a rigourous scientific approach.

Moreover, recent French developments, sometimes dubbed "malaise noir" by journalists, have raised a number of issues related to Blacks in France : their history, their socioeconomic situation, the racial discriminations they face in their everyday life, their lack of public visibility, etc. These issues have long been neglected, mostly because of a French republican ideology which has swept on the side ethno-racial questions which were seen as threatening the national cohesion. The situation is slowly changing, as more and more French recognize the existence of a sizable Black minority with specific problems and needs. This is why my project is not only "academic", but it intends to contribute to the ongoing debate on France and its ethno-racial minorities. In this perspective, I'm also conducting interviews with various Black people (from Caribean and African descent) in order to understand the ways they see themselves, their frustrations, their hopes, etc.

The interdisciplinary conference organized at Johann Gutenberg University is obviously of high interest to me. I'm particularly interested in the workshops on Black history and Black european studies curricula. I would like to present a paper on the history of French Blacks, which would explain why this history has been so neglected (for ideological, political and academic reasons), why it should be developped and how. I believe that this field will emerge provided that a political demand expressed by Afro-Europeans themselves be clearly seen. However, as my paper claims, tensions will and do arise, between academic work and social demands.

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