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Black Studies in France at the Crossroads: Between the Colonial Legacy and postcolonial Afropessimism

Ch. Didier Gondola

In 1981, when President François Mitterrand arrived to power in France, many observers heralded that this electoral victory would usher a new era of transparent relationship between France and its former African colonies. Elected as the first socialist leader, since the brief and tumultuous term of Leon Blum during the 1930’s Front Populaire, François Mitterrand was thought by many to embody the kind of political vision and values that would change for better France’s detrimental policies vis-à-vis its African “pré carré” and redefine French citizenship by promoting what was then dubbed “la France plurielle,” France’s nascent idea of a multicultural society. For the very first time in French history, there was indeed a convergence of views between the two Foucauldian categories of knowledge and power with respect to Africa and blacks in France.

Since the 1950s, the great majority of French Africanists have leaned to the left and seemingly espoused progressive ideas toward the African continent and African studies in general. In 1981, they had a historical opportunity to influence France’s policies towards both its African “protégés” and its black citizens.

I argue in this project that far from accomplishing these two goals, French Africanists have connived with the French socialist government to preserve France’s Foccartian policies in what author François-Xavier Verschave has rightly termed the “Françafrique,” a nebulous conglomerate of French and African researchers, journalists, secret service operatives, business agents, and politicians that have created a web of illicit political and financial transactions in Africa. Similarly, the socialist era in France (1981-1995) has also set the stage for what could be termed “l’Afrance”, an extra-territorial space in France in which illegal immigrants and even some black citizens of France have been confined. L’Afrance is the absence of France, a space of marginalization, discrimination and racism, a sort of purgatory that coexists side by side with a legal system and society (la France) that has failed to live up to its revolutionary ideals that claimed to provide liberté, égalité, and fraternité to all regardless of religious beliefs, ethnic backgrounds, and skin colors.

In this project, I carefully examine French Africanists’ discourse about Africa since the 1950s and its implementation into France’s African policies. I also try to probe evidence of academic and political collusions in France’s role in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and oil company Elf’s active role in the civil war in Congo since 1997. One cannot peruse this Africanist literature without failing to uncover some continuity between what V.Y. Mudimbe has called the “Colonial Library” Bibliothèque coloniale) and current themes (e.g. the criminalization of the African State, the need for France’s intervention in African affairs, the (Francophonie, etc) and epistemological paradigms utilized by French Africanists. Finally, I try to show that Africa’s disparaging treatment by the French media, government, and intellectuals has trickled down to the general public and negatively impacted black citizens’ full integration and assimilation within the French Republic.

Questions for the Workshop: Racism and the Academy

  • How have racial categorizations of blackness and Africanness informed the ways in which Black African Studies have developed in Europe since African countries gained independence in the 1960s? How do they compare with the situation in the United States and Canada where the situation and history of blacks sharply differs?

  • How has the ectopic location of Black Studies (predominantly concentrated in European universities and not African universities) affected the studies of black cultures, societies, and diasporas?

  • Are there some disciplines that have influenced the studies of black people more than others? Did Anthropology and history, for example, took the lion’s share and inform most of what the West knows about black people not only in terms of methodology, but also paradigms and facts? If so, what were the major paradigmatic shifts in European Black Studies?

  • To what degree Black Studies have played a role in building knowledge about Western societies themselves? For instance, how has Black Studies, and more specifically African Studies in France, contributed to the construction of racial, national, and cultural categories in France?

  • How diverse is the make up of Black Studies faculty in European academic circles? Has the absence of black scholars been a major factor that limited the validity and legitimacy of Black Studies in Europe? In other words, has the exclusion of black scholars allowed for the existence of a breeding ground for racist thoughts in Black Studies?

  • My current research deals with three eclectic topics. The first one concerns African-American and African migration to Europe and resulted in the publication of two pieces: “But I Ain’t African, I’m American! Black American Exiles and the Construction of Racial Identities in Twentieth-Century France,” in Heike Raphael-Hernandez (ed.) Blackening Europe: The African American Presence, pp. 201-215, New York: Routledge AND “Itinéraires africains: De l’Hexagone unidimensionnel à la case de l’Oncle Sam,” Black Rennaissance/Rennaissance Noire (New York University) 3.1, Fall 2000, pp. 40-55. The second one deals with the use of the emblematic figure of Buffalo Bill by Congolese youths in the 1950s as an interface to mediate their construction of blackness and maleness.

    I initially published a paper titled “La contestation politique des jeunes à Kinshasa à travers l’exemple du mouvement ‘Kindoubill’ (1950-1959),” Brood & Rozen, Tijdschrift voor de Geschiedenis van Sociale Bewegingen 2, January 1999, pp. 171-183, and I am currently working on expanding this topic through archival and fieldwork research. Last month I presented my findings at UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) at a conference called The Mediation of Global Blackness. My paper was titled: “Tropical Cowboys: The Young ‘Bills’ of Colonial Kinshasa and the politics of masculinity.” My last project is a discussion of Black/African Studies in France and this is the one I would like to present at the BEST conference (please see proposal attached).

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