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Black France in Transnational/Transcolonial Contexts

Dominic Thomas

Comparative research on Africa has, until recently, focused primarily on the transition from colonialism to political independence and on sovereign governance and experimentation with democratization. In many ways, the imperative of this analysis was to explore the relationship between culture and politics in order to provide a more accurate understanding of the circumstances of African colonization through an all-encompassing view of the role culture had played in African history, decolonization, and the complex process of forging modern nation-states. However, a number of scholars are beginning to privilege a broader understanding of Africa’s territorial borders and adhering to an approach that re-contextualizes the constitutive links between individuals and populations in Africa and those circulating beyond the continental borders.

By analyzing the disorientation that had resulted from colonial and postcolonial rule, the collapse of the nation-state, and the emergence of generations of young, alienated, and disenfranchised individuals, my research has gradually become more engaged with broader contextual frameworks that account for these developments. Attention then has shifted towards exploring those mechanisms responsible for population displacement between multiple topographic entities – in this case, Africa and Europe - thereby engaging with complex cultural, social, and political phenomena inextricably linked to colonialism and immigration. Along with the work of other scholars, this research has already had a measurable impact on the humanities and social sciences and is allowing for a far more comprehensive understanding of contemporary developments in Africa and Europe.

My paper constitutes work-in-progress that addresses the cultural, economic, political and social circumstances of population displacement and identity formation through research located at the intersection of anthropological, migration, sociological, francophone, Diaspora, and postcolonial studies, offering new ways of thinking about the symbiotic dimension of relations and population flows between Africa and Europe. This comparative emphasis provides a working example of an approach that aims to impact and influence the future of interdisciplinarity, while of course subsequently enriching newly formulated curricular offerings that would emerge from these seminars. I would hope to be an active contributor and participant at the Interdisciplinary Conference on Black European Studies to be held in Germany in November 2005.

Established cultural critics, such as Abiola Irele (The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora, 2001), Mireille Rosello (Postcolonial Hospitality: The Immigrant as Guest, 2001), Manthia Diawara (In Search of Africa, 2000), and Jean-Loup Amselle (Connections: The Anthropology of the Universality of Cultures, 2001), have provided useful paradigms and contextual frameworks for exploring these phenomena. In distancing oneself (as Amselle suggests) from traditional anthropological frameworks in order to rethink the relationship between the global and the local, the subsequent recontextualization and emphasis on what are also commonly known as “multi-sited ethnographies” are tremendously helpful in delineating the objectives of my project since they allow for the illustration as to how this theoretical apparatus can be put into practice in order to understand the various ways in which all actors – the colonized and the colonizer, immigrants and receiving countries – are transformed by and in diasporic and multicultural spaces through the constitutive dimension of cross-cultural encounters.

The permanence of an African presence and influence in Europe is a reality today, although prevailing discourse regularly undermines this factor. In fact, the official web-site for the Musée de l’histoire et des cultures de l’immigration en France (Museum of the History and Cultures of Immigration in France) that is scheduled to open in 2007 potentially voids the implied positive dimension of the project by employing an ambiguous phrase to characterize its mission - Leur histoire est notre histoire [] attributing value to the constitutive dimension of bilateral relations while simultaneously demarcating divisions through the recuperation of a discourse of separateness and ownership – Their history is our history - in which one is left with the uncomfortable realization that they remain other (them) while we comfortably occupy the space reserved for us.

Lorenzo Prencipe has underscored how the “spatial and relational exteriority of an individual […] have respectively led to a confusion between the terms ‘foreigner’ and ‘immigré’, and then widened the modalities of exclusion and reinforced the barrier between the ‘them’ and the ‘us’.” The point surely should have been to abandon such constructs, to multiply the sites of memory through the delineation of new coordinates that rendered such arbitrary divisions redundant and insignificant. Effectively, such conscious or unconscious linguistic constructs reveal the degree of concern pertaining to what could be described as a “colonization of Europe.”

Immigration and the cultural productions that have emerged from within Europe’s postcolonial communities have generated radically new socio-cultural structures, displacing received identity notions. Accordingly, memory in both Africa and Europe is now also elsewhere. Whether official discourses accept these changing socio-cultural circumstances, Europe and Africa have been transformed by their colonial history(ies), and continue to be defined through a plethora of social forces, including the European Community, la francophonie, Americanization, immigration, and globalization. Returning to the colonial era as a point of entry to recent debates on questions of immigration and national identity in contemporary Africa and Europe seems a necessary gesture, one that will allow for a careful and methodical delineation of the advantages of a comparative approach for the exploration of key issues, but more importantly, relocate the origins of immigration discourse and migratory flows according to a specific set of economic, political, and social coordinates that are inseparable from a colonial, postcolonial, and global geometry.

Furthermore, when it comes to the context of Europe and Africa in particular, the symbiotic nature of the shared experience is all the more powerful. These questions are additionally important today as the European community itself has been forced to think about what a European identity might correspond to – reflection whose urgency has been accelerated by debates concerning extreme right-wing politics in Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, the expansion of Islam in Europe, and the so-called war on global terror.

Potential workshop questions:

  1. Explore contemporary examples of European influences on/in Africa and African influences on/in Europe. This will require a questioning of the validity and pertinence of the term ?Diaspora? when applied to the socio-cultural realities of Africa today, and of course reflection on categories such as nationalism and regionalism.

  2. How do immigration policy and right-wing politics in Europe impact Africans (migrant workers, refugees, asylum seekers, cultural practitioners)?

  3. current debates in Europe concerning secularism, Republican ideals, Islam, and European identity.

  4. Explore the tenuous connection between African ?savagery? and the other the internal symbols within Europe structured around immigration, excision, polygamy, Islam, the headscarf/veil affairs, the sans-papiers affair, etc., as signifiers of ?African barbarism.?

  5. Explore the ?interpenetrative? dimensions of cross-cultural encounters ? Black Europe and Africa.

  6. ?Reverse colonization,? the ?creolization of Europe,? and the ?new Empire within.?
  7. Historical questions, including an attempt to define what an African Diaspora might constitute, and how it might differ from other diasporic models.

  8. How have Africans (individuals, communities, and artists) in Europe responded to genocide in Africa (e.g. the ?Writing Rwanda project?).

  9. What are the limitations of human rights policies as they pertain to Africa, and what are the central debates that inform the application of such policies in Africa and in turn as far as specific ?cultural practices? such as female excision are concerned?

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