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Global Experiences: Being Black and French

Marie-Hélène Koffi-Tessio

My dissertation is on René Maran, his own definition of who he is and his relationship to Europe, Africa and the Black World at large. Maran is my starting point and my plan is to extend my research to study the ways in which Black people in France create or recreate an identity of their own.

In 1921 the Goncourt Prize was awarded for the first time ever to “a man of color”: René Maran. Maran’s work and profile are of interest because his composite identity (Black, Martinican, French) and complex representation(s) of himself made him both an indigenous black European but also a quintessential “other”. Born in Martinique to Guyanese parents, raised in France near Bordeaux and then employed for 13 years as a colonial state worker in French Equatorial Africa, René Maran’s life embodies what is called today a global experience.

Leaving “an Island in the Sun” for the metropolis is an experience many Caribbean people lived. As Christiane Makward’s remarkable research shows, it is an experience that Mayotte Capecia, the (in)famous author of Je suis martiniquaise (1948) also lived. Along with René Maran’s Un homme pareil aux autres (1947) her book had the mixed honor of being a case study for Fanon’s Peau noire masques blancs (1952). In 1963, the BU.MI.DOM program (Bureau pour les Migrations des Département d’Outre Mer.) organized and implemented the migration of a large number of Antillais towards the Métropole, making the experience of the crossing a common one and favoring the creation of a social group of French Caribbean people living in France. The post-war years as well as the post-independence years witnessed the migration of people from Africa to the former colonial metropolis creating a sub-group of people often torn between two continents and fatherlands.

The reasons why Maran’s case was rare are many: in 1904 at the age of 7, Maran was growing up a black child in a boarding school near Bordeaux. As an adult, Maran chose to speak against colonial turpitude using literature as his means of denunciation. Surprisingly enough that very book was awarded the most prestigious literary prize in France and Maran became the source of a scandal.

Maran’s itineray is in many ways similar to Fanon’s (Martinique-France-Equatorial Africa/Algeria) and Félix Eboué’s a colonial worker born in Guyana and whose ashes rest in the Panthéon. Today Eboué is almost forgotten and until recently, Maran was barely remembered. Although he was declared the “précurseur de la négritude” by L.S. Senghor and despite his indictment against the colonial system in Batouala (1921) Maran is still treated with some suspicion by most African and Caribbean scholars. However, Fanon remained famous for his commitment to the Algerian cause, his theorization of the colonial oppression and his analysis of color alienation.

Maran never seemed to have the slightest doubt about who he was: a Frenchman who happened to be black. In all his novels and his poems his insistence on his Frenchness and his love for his country is remarkable. Nevertheless, a study of his works--especially the fictionalized autobiographies--reveals a constantly shifting identity, one torn between three continents and shades of colors. Djogoni (1910/1965) the story of a mixed-blood man, Le coeur serré (1931) the story of a white boy born to French parents in South America and growing up in France and Un homme pareil aux autres (1947) the story of a black man who left France to work in Africa.

I am interested in questions of identity, representation and self-representation of blackness in French and Francophone literatures. This project is part of a larger research project on how notions of identity and alterity within people of African descent living in France are expressed and/or mediated through literature. Yamina Benguigui’s documentary Le plafond de verre (2004) [The Glass Ceiling] shows how second-generation children in France are still perceived and sometimes define themselves as others and foreigners despite their being born and raised in France. Conversation with young people “issus de l’immigration” brings to light surprising statements such as “I am not French and I am not African. I do not know what I am” (Y. 25 years old). Gisèle Pineau a French writer born in Guadeloupe voices a similar feeling: “I tell the story of my childhood, one torn between France and Guadeloupe. I do say torn, with inside my heart the conviction that I was nothing, because I was from nowhere, I was without a clearly defined identity, I was rejected by everyone”. Senegalese-born writer Fatou Diom chooses to embraces her multiple backgrounds in Le ventre de l’Atlantique (2003) and decides to search for a space of her own, a place where she can reconcile all the facets of her identity; ironically enough such a place seems to be utopian, for only in her writings she can claim herself both as whole and multiple; “Rooted in all places, exiled in every place, my home is the place where Africa and Europe lose their arrogance and simply accept to be added each to the other: on a page I can fill with the alloy I inherited from them (…) I look for my country where a composite identity is valued, where there is no need to separate each stratum. I look for my country where split identities disappear”. Writing has become the land she can fully claim as hers, the abstract space where her multiple selves can be reconciled.

The questions I would like to see treated at the workshop are as follow:

  • should Black European History be constructed as one history or has each European country its own “Black History”?

  • is black migration intrinsically different from any other types of migration, i.e, Asian or East-European?

  • what does or should constitute a reference for identity for black people living in Europe?

  • what is the specificity of Black History in Europe as opposed to Black History in America (or Black History in Africa)?

  • what should be included in a curriculum on Black European Studies?

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