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The High Price of Citizenship: Blacks In France, between Racialized Identities and the Republican Rhetoric

Cilas Kemedjio





My working hypothesis may read as follow : France has produced and continues to produce a racialized black identity, based on colonial stereotypes accumulated since slavery and colonialism, in the meantime, France has used the legalistic rhetoric of the color-blind Republic to muffle any claim formulated on racial grounds. The racialized black identity postulates an impossibility for them to claim full membership in the French Republic while the legalistic rhetoric makes it almost impossible for Blacks to use blackness as a credible and accepted (within the context of the French nation) framework for understanding their condition.

Petrine Archer-Straw, in Negrophilia. Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s. (New York : Thames & Hudson, 2000) writes :

« In the course of half a century (20th) a few blacks like Jack Johnson (boxing) had come to enjoy a new kind of freedom and even admiration in Paris. As blacks, they believed that the city offered them greater opportunities to realize themselves and their goals. Those blacks who were ambitious did make it. But they would soon discover that the admiration and success they gained from Parisian society came at a cost. The price they paid was their blackness : if they were to advance, they would have to remain minstrels, singing and dancing a white man’s tune. They would be expected to bring to life the stereotypes already promoted through advertising. » (Archer-Straw 49)

Martinican thinker and novelist Édouard Glissant notes in his novel Malemort the scorn for blackness that is opposed to citizenship in the French Republic : « The One who get elected is not a Negro. He’s a citizen of the Republic ; we aren’t Africans », claims one character. Archer-Straw notes that

« The Negrophiles who fraternized with blacks cultivated a shadowy world of nightclubs and bohemianism ; their interests were in conflict with mainstream, "traditional" values. Blackness’ was a sign of their modernity, reflected in the African sculptures that scattered their rooms » (Archer-Straw 19).

Josephine Baker, the most famous Black Citizen to come out of the Negrophilia vogue, has to paid a high price for her French citizenship, namely her embrace of the « mission civilisatrice », her embodiment of the exotic girl from the colonies, and her silence on what Fanon has termed the black man/woman lived experience in France. Josephine Baker was barely literate and was not schooled in the realities of the French colonial system. Dubois, Alan Locke among other African American intellectuals and activists, without necessary relying on Baker’s tactics and strategies, did engage in a celebration of the color-blind nature of the French Republic that contrasted with the overtly racist institutions of the United States of America. Their discourse was predicated on strategic misrecognitions of the other side of France, namely, the colonial France.

The question that I wish to explore in this presentation can read as follow : is it possible duplicate the Josephine Baker’s model of integration in the French Republic ? is it possible to pay the same high price Josephine Baker paid in her time to become a French citizen ? Is France still demanding from Blacks to follow the Josephine Baker’s model or have the requirements for citizenship being modified to account for the changes that have occurred since the days of La Revue Nègre ? Has Blackness found new consumers since the glory, yet ambiguous days of the Negrophiles ? From Claire de Duras’s Ourika to Fatou Diome’s La Préférence, from Fatou (Josephine Baker’s character in La Revue Nègre) to the film Fatou la malienne (a French film on forced marriage in west African immigrants living in France), from Sembène Ousmane Black Docker and Black Girl to Shay Youngblood’s Black Girl in Paris, I will attempt to provide context for addressing some of these questions.

This presentation falls within my current research that is focused on issues of memory and cultural history. I am investigating the legacy of colonial memory and the impact that memory is having both on the perception of Western anticolonialist (see my essay “The Western Anticolonialist of the Postcolonial Age: The Reformist Syndrome and the Memory of Decolonization in (Post-) Imperial French Thought.” Remembering Africa. Edited by Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boyi, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002. 32-55. see also my research project “Barbarians on Display: Modern Olympics and the Rhetoric of Civilization”) and on Blacks in France (see my Interview with Maryse Condé on the Black Experience in France in Contemporary French Civilization and in the Bulletin of the African Literature Association (Summer/Fall 2003), Volume XXVII, Number 2, 385-405) and my essay (“Étre Noir/e en France: du quartier latin à la départementalisation de la Seine”, Contemporary French Civilization (Summer/Fall 2003), 356-384.).

My work on cultural memory is also linked to my continued interest and research on Caribbean, Haitian and African literatures, especially diasporic connections that are at work in these literatures and cultures. I have teach a course on Black Paris and this presentation, if allow to go forward within the context of this conference, will be of immense importance in opening up new domains within my research.

Potential questions for the workshop :
  • What is the price that Black are being asked to paid in order to be granted cultural and legal citizenship in Europe ? What is required for them to make Europe « forget » that Africans and Blacks were at one time branded as « primitive » ?

  • Does the French model, based on the « mission civilisatrice » have any relevance in other countries such as England, Germany, Portugal, etc with a colonial past ?

  • How does the colonial past that is responsible for the production of a racialized identity enters into conflict with the idea of citizenship (a legal concept) ? In a sense, how does the legal citizenship alter the formulation of this entrenched racialized identity ?

  • In France and since colonial times, Blacks from Martinique and Guadeloupe were told that they were more civilized than Blacks from Africa (see Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks). France used educated Antilleans in her colonial enterprise in Africa. This seems to have created uneasy relations between these two black communities in France. How does the identity imposed on Blacks by former colonial powers continue to reproduce today and what can be done to undo the « colonial mentality »?

  • Maryse Condé has suggested that the more activist presence of Black British (compared to the apathy of Blacks in France) may become a model of integration for Blacks in Europe? Is there such a thing as a Black British model?


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