BLACK STUDIES à la FRANCAISE
By Corey E. Walker
Saturday/Sunday, February 14-15, 2009.
Pap Ndiaye’s La Condition Noire, released in October 2007 in France by Calmann-Lévy, has not been covered by American book reviewers or sparked debate in the Afrosphere. If a lack of commentary in the States proves the off-the-radar status of Black France, Ndiaye’s careful research and variety of sources shows that more than a few French Americanophiles have kept a trained eye toward the US.
On June 17, 2008, the NY Times published, “For Blacks in France, Obama’s Rise Is Reason to Rejoice, and to Hope.” The article sought comment on the presumed Democratic nominee from, among others, Youssoupha, a well known rapper who also holds a degree from the Sorbonne, arguably France’s most prestigious university. Along with politicians commenting on the Obama effect, Léonora Miano, a novelist, remarked that she regretted that she had forgotten to sport her Obama t-shirt.
Enter Pap Ndiaye’s La Condition Noire and his in-depth research tracing black political history from Africa, the Antilles and back to the Republic. Luckily, however, Ndiaye’s work does more than offer lifeless historic recounts; he pays special attention to moments of trans-Atlantic political exchange among people of African decent and, as an activist and sociologist, offers recommendations for the future.
Naturally, Ndiaye devotes pages to the American godfather of panafricanism, W.E.B. DuBois, but he also brings to the foreground DuBois' francophone counterparts-- Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Tiemoko Garan Kouyaté. If you remember these activists and statesmen from a college course on Négritude, Ndiaye goes further in fleshing out their importance in their historic context as well as their contributions to a resurgence in contemporary black French identity.
His essay raises the bar by taking to task essentialist afrocentric thinkers, France’s controversial Dieudonné and President Nicolas Sarkozy, while moving towards a fundamental problem in attempting to justify political solidarity among blacks.
La Condition owes a great deal to Tommie Shelby’s We Who Are Dark: the Philosophical Underpinnings of Black Political Solidarity and his argument similarly condemns the tendency to call for black political unity based on an idea of shared culture. This is no simple task. If there exists more than one black America here in the US-- the black America middle class ensconced in suburbia and the black America mired in poverty-- France’s black population may be even more fractured.
Ndiaye points out in great detail that France, as a colonial power, treated black populations that it encountered differently. Blacks in the Antilles enjoyed a higher social status than those from West and Central African colonies; a sizable biracial population further complicated minority dynamics; further, Maghrebians account for another, complex political and social demographic.
La Condition also marshals into its arguments a nuanced interpretation of adherence to black identity, delineating through surveys and interviews a fine (literally, thin) and épaisee (thick) identification. The examination gets at the heart of how political solidarity can be found, for example, between a young woman from Martinique, a citizen of the Republic who may be employed in a pharmacy, and a young man recently arrived from Senegal seeking work as a night watchman.
Though the book’s subtitle is “an essay on a French minority,” the depth and research may place it beyond popular interest. The minutia explored, however, is interesting; Ndiaye describes 18th and 19th century France’s black population; laws restricting black presence and behavior; African soldiers’ roles in the first and second world wars; and a bizarre near-equivalent of the US COINTELPRO, the Service de contrôle et d’assistance en France des indigènes des colonies (Control and Assistance Service for Colonial Natives in France).
In fact, Ndiaye’s writing is accessible even when it ventures into identity theory. The last two chapters, “The Black Cause: forms of solidarity among blacks” and “Conclusion,” restate some of the statistical facts from which the reader gathers a clear picture of the social costs of being black in the Republic. The black population of France, between 4 and 5 percent of the entire population (the French government does not gather exact numbers on minorities), is younger, more highly represented in working class professions and concentrated in large urban centers-- Paris, Marseille and Lyon.
The limited access to social resources resulting from these characteristics and potential remedies form the core of his analysis. La Condition Noire goes some distance in outlining attitudes regarding affirmative action, which the French call discrimination positive, and other social disadvantages shared by blacks on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the conclusion, anticipating a summary judgement that his essay is glorifying a social victimization experienced by the black French, Ndiaye aptly points to multiple examples of political agitation. The riots that started in the Parisian suburbs in October of 2005 has not erased itself from the country’s memory even if the wider population and Black France have forgotten about the role blacks played between the world wars and after in red politics of the hammer and sickle variety.
Ndiaye finally appeals to actively increasing the number of minority associations that would, either through a federation or more informal connections, champion their group’s interest. In a striking comment on contemporary black French political organization, Ndiaye relates that foreign academics were not surprised by the creation of the CRAN, Conseil Représentatif des Association Noirs (Representative Council of Black Associations), but that it did not exist earlier.
The appeal to blacks to organize politically to address issues of social justice-- equal access to good schooling, employment discrimination, disparities in housing and treatment by law enforcement-- is a nod to American associations like the NAACP and the Urban League. In the French and American context, arguably as well as elsewhere, it is la condition of blackness that Ndiaye points to as a political rallying point.
Admittedly, on placing an emphasis on the power of minority associations, Ndiaye may be looking at American examples through rose-colored lenses. It is currently debated and lamented (by some, anyway) that these organizations have lost touch with the younger generation whose political activity finds, if at all, outlets through blogging, niche media and the subversive power of hip hop culture.
The fact that the US has elected a black president has people of African decent in the Americas and Europe hoping to expand the geographic boundaries of Black Studies. The academic discipline to which La Condition contributes was, like jazz, unquestionably born in the US. Ndiaye’s effort reflects that what others in the Black Atlantic have witnessed has created a double-consciousness whose social expressions and commentary are multilingual and stretch beyond the aftermath of the antebellum South.
With thanks to New Black Man.
Corey Elliott Walker is a freelance writer and poet. An Atlanta native, he received his BA from Sarah Lawrence College, focusing on French and Africana Studies. His interests include national and international politics, French history and society, popular music and urban culture. He lives in Chicago where he is pursuing a JD.
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