My sister, Markay, recommended Black France by her professor, Dominic Thomas. It’s an academic book discussing race and identity in the post-colonial French world using the literature of those whose lives embody the great destructive paradox of colonialism, that is, whose lives are split between contrary national/ethnic identities or haunted by the loss of their national or ethnic identity in the post-colonial world. Whether one lives in formerly French Africa or is of African heritage currently living in France, the end of colonialism abruptly destroyed the identities of those citizens involved. It destroyed both their cultural and political identities and while we are used to hearing about the destruction of political identity with French immigration issues and the politically compromised aid to Africa, Black France explores primarily cultural identity issues.
Consider the life of a thirty-year old Cameroon writer, who despite her African heritage was raised in a French Colonial school where she was taught French tradition, history, and literature. Once French colonial Africa ended, what was she to do with her French identity? The French oppressor leaves – he rolls his tanks into the belly of huge planes, abandons his military bases, withdraws his money from institutions, ships his police force back to France, and vacates government positions – but the French Africans remain, and their family heritages have become so intertwined with the foreign culture of the oppressor that it seems ridiculous to suggest that formal French departure signifies a simple liberation, a simple freeing of the oppressed to cast off their education and cultural heritage and to take the reins of an abandoned colonial state and live prosperously.
How can a country’s legal system function if it was specifically designed by colonists to subjugate the native population and created not to function fairly and democratically? How can one be free if she speaks or writes in a former oppressor’s language? If one’s skin color signifies their African Heritage, but the fluidity of migration between a colonialist’s homeland and one of its colonies leads these Africans, who grew up in French-Africa, to France for work or education, how are they to understand themselves relative to French citizens in contemporary Paris? Who are they and how are they classified after French colonialism formally ends? Are they immigrants? Does their skin color forever prohibit them from attaining the status of ‘true French citizens” even though they were born, raised, and educated within France’s borders?
These are the major questions of post-colonial thought, and Dominic Thomas’ use of literature as the lens through which to view post-colonialism is more illuminating for me than a purely theoretical approach, because it examines the daily and practical effects of the post-colonial condition on individual lives. Anyone interested in Francophone studies would find this book extremely useful as an illustration of the fundamental issues of identity, immigration, and race in modern France and Africa. Also, this book, (and it seems Francophone studies as a whole), provides a definitive and more easily comprehensible example of the sometimes dense abstractions of much of post-colonial theory. Furthermore, the story of post-colonial France touches on many issues beyond just the particular split between France and her former colonies. For one example, the book explains how the European Union’s change of immigration and currency policy has complicated the lives of post-colonial Africans. Using France as a representative example, the book explains how EU policy further alienates France from Africa while at the same time connecting the two continents more intimately. Some French have fiercely resisted this increasingly intimate connection with former colonies, most notoriously experienced as increasing immigration of French-Africans to France. These same “conservative” French citizens struggle to maintain their idea of French national identity by rigidly and narrowly defining a French citizen. A variation of this struggle with citizens of former colonies has occurred and is occurring in many countries in Europe.
Beyond the basic ideas of post-colonialism, the book’s discussions of race and identity are above my head, and I am anxious to sit my sister down and force her to explain to me more about what is going on. There are some passages regarding the global economy and concepts of post-colonial theory that I need her to explain to me, and I just simply don’t know enough about African history to grasp some of what is discussed.
I desperately want to learn, however, because as a student of literature I have noticed that post-colonialism continues to be a fundamental theme in modern literature, a theme that often involves mixing various cultures and histories to generate new literary visions free from older patriarchal and colonial structures and traditions. As an individual who believes in progress, I also believe that the post-colonial viewpoint has applications beyond the political or purely academic. One can use the concepts of forced history (history dictated from a foreign or removed perspective) to examine the media’s influence on modern thought – in what ways are we free to determine our own ideas if particular narratives are consistently shouted at us through the TV? In what ways are we connected to and therefore culpable for actions by individuals in our country or world who claim the same heritage, culture, identity, and history as us? We live in an extremely complex post-colonial world, but often we choose to ignore it by rigidly reciting simplified and uneducated political statements on immigration, terrorism, trade, and foreign wars. Our forefathers left us with these complicated issues, and yet we often ignore their long, troubled history, and the local memories and histories of the many different groups involved, viewing these problems as isolated contemporary issues that we can deal with without dialogue with the past.
Despite the fact that I need my sister to explain these ideas more thoroughly to me, this book, Black France, provides a very useful and enlightening view of the complexities of post-colonial France and Africa, asking questions applicable to every Western country.