Decolonisation and continuity

Interview with Jacques Chevrier, by Boniface Mongo-Mboussa

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Jacques Chevrier’s work offers an overview of ethnology in reverse, showing how Africans also have clichés about white people.

Researchers and publishers seem to be showing increased interest in colonial literature. Pierre Halen has published Le petit belge avait vu grand (1993) and Jennifer Yee Clichés de la femme exotique. Un regard sur la littérature coloniale française entre 1871 et 1914 (2000). Jean-François Durand and Jean Sévry coordinated the three-volume Regards sur les littératures coloniales (1999), which contains one of your articles. Is there a desire to revisit colonial history?
I didn’t just jump on the bandwagon, as I wrote the article published in this three-volume work – « Un Français à la cour du roi de Ségou au XIXe siècle : premières images du Soudan français » – a while ago when I used to travel to Mali a lot for UNESCO. I had read a great number of texts and travel narratives, notably René Caillé’s Voyage de Tombouctou, as well as an account written by Eugène Mage, a soldier sent by the Ministry of the Navy on a rather ambiguous mission. The mission involved collecting topographical data and observations about the fauna and flora, people, etc. But it was also an opportunity to sign treaties with the African kings and local chiefs. One detects the ulterior motive to conquer, but it wasn’t planned in the sense that it never constituted an African policy. Some people clearly wanted to settle in Africa, to set up trading posts, mainly out of rivalry with the English. Eugène Mage stayed in Ségou for two years, where he was held prisoner. He got arrested. Furious at first, he decided to make the most of it and observed the functioning of the Ségou royal court. It also includes accounts of military campaigns. All of this helps to give a balanced, measured image of Africa. There are voluntary or involuntary, conscious or unconscious oversights, of course, as if there was a desire to eliminate anything unflattering. But those things end up surfacing, and I think that we periodically need to re-evaluate the past in the light of the present. I get the impression that we are in a period of what one has to call a duty to memory. We are clearly rediscovering a corpus that was quickly forgotten and buried in the past.
That means that literary history needs to be revisited too.
There was a period of intellectual terrorism when there were things you could or couldn’t say to be politically correct. That was particularly so vis-à-vis the West Indies. It used to be impossible, when speaking about slavery, to point out that the slave trade only existed on such a large scale because the slave traders who landed on the African coasts found middlemen there. It was a tabooed subject for a long time. We are progressively lifting the taboos.
Stereotypes abound in colonial literature. You published Les Blancs vus par les nègres (1999), which describes African stereotypes about white people. You have a dig in the passing at Orphée noir, Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous preface to Anthologie de la poésie nègre et malgache (1948).
I don’t have a dig at Jean-Paul Sartre. I simply felt when I re-read Orphée noir that he wasn’t perspicacious enough when he contrasted Negritude poetry and the white gaze. He writes, amongst other things (I’m citing from memory), that white people looked at black people for centuries without being looked at. I don’t think that that’s true in either traditional or modern literature. When you re-read these literatures, you realise that white people are represented right from the start, especially in oral literature. In oral literature, narratives take the form of creation myths, explaining why there are black, yellow, white, and red people. One realises that this constitutes an initial construction, which, although not necessarily a stereotype, is at any rate a representation of the white man. This representation develops throughout modern written literature, which is hardly surprising given that writers, who were usually well-informed observers of colonial society, saw how the Europeans they produced slightly stereotyped, slightly caricatured portraits of behaved. I don’t think that this type of stereotype is linked to representation in the strict sense of the term. I think it is more related to these characters’ status in colonial society, because they were very visible. They had power. We are talking about the majors, the policemen, the missionaries in their cassocks, in short, the colonial administration’s auxiliaries, and the people who wore uniforms by which they were identified. As soon as they erupt in the African social landscape – a landscape itself modified by colonisation – a very strange relation can be seen to emerge: on the one hand a curiosity, and on the other the need to name them. Amadou Hampâté Bâ captures this very well in his novel L’étrange destin de Wangrin (1972). When the locals see a steamer on the river, they transpose. For them, a steamer is a boat, and a boat is a dugout canoe. But it’s a special kind of dugout, because there is smoke, so it becomes a smoking dugout. A whole series of images and metaphors thus emerged through which the Africans described what they saw in their own words. What I wanted to do when I wrote this book was to inverse the ethnological procedure, to produce ethnology in reverse, because there are books that provide images. People have studied the image of black people in painting, literature, etc. But very few have examined the image of white people in African literature. I found it very interesting to turn these African observers into kinds of ethnologists. In Climbié (1957), Bernard Dadié says something to the effect that white people think that black people all look the same. Black people, on the other hand, were perfectly familiar with the curriculum vitae of all the white people in the colony. Their private lives were public knowledge, especially as they made no effort to hide their behaviour. This was because they deeply despised the black populations, whom they often considered to be as lowly as animals. You don’t hide things from a dog. This is clear in Ferdinand Oyono’s novel Une vie de boy (1959), from the famous episode about the little rubber bags (condoms) that the major’s wife throws under the bed. The servants basically say that these white people have no sense of decency and behave as if the Africans were sub-human. I think that this still persists because the human mind tends to function through stereotypes and clichés.
You claim that, in certain respects, Oyono’s writing partakes of colonial literature.
When any writer decides to write, they do so in a given context. All writers are readers first, whether it is in school, or through their personal choices. They are influenced by numerous texts. Irrespective of that, they write in relation to their compatriots. When Ferdinand Oyono wrote, he knew what other African intellectuals were producing, what was coming out of Présence Africaine, etc. That doesn’t mean, however, that writers are slaves to a given context. They may well react, they may decide to do something else. And their very reaction will prove that they have been influenced. I think that this was very clear at the time Ferdinand Oyono was writing. The Senegalese critic Mohamadou Kane has clearly shown that there is continuity rather than a break between colonial literature and the African literary text. It was simply the viewpoint that changed. In colonial literature, the viewpoint can be sympathetic, subversive, paternalistic, or overtly pro-colonial. African writers are necessarily part of that continuity, but in a changing political system. Even though the colonial system still existed, people knew by the Fifties that decolonisation was just around the corner. That changed people’s outlooks. Ferdinand Oyono is a very good example of this transition.
You also point out that the writers of this transition generation maintained very close ties with certain colonial administrators. Fraternal relationships, at times, via the Free Masons, for example.
Let’s say that people do not make their belonging to these so-called secret societies public knowledge. Ties were unquestionably made through the Masons, and through the political parties too. Remember that in 1946, the Constituent Assembly sent a certain number of parliamentary members to the Palais Bourbon in France who, for the most part, went to join the ranks of the left-wing communist party or the SFIO, the ancestor of today’s socialist party. Between 1946 and 1960, Africans influenced French political life as well as their own countries’ political and intellectual life. Take the role played by Félix Tchicaya, the father of the poet U Tam’si, in Congo-Brazzaville. We mustn’t see things in a Manichean manner here either. 1960 was an incontestable turning point. But, one system basically smoothly replaced another, with no real break, and often with the same men. District commissioners became employees of the French Ministry of Cooperation, technical advisors, etc. In 1960, Africa’s presidential and ministerial cabinets were full of French experts, most of who had belonged to the old colonial network. At the time it was known as the Overseas French school, people like the Malian writer Seydou Badian or the Senegalese novelist Cheick Hamidou Kane frequented colonial administrators with whom they kept contact. It’s the same as in French politics, where right- and left-wing people train in the same schools, such as the E.N.A (Ecole normale d’administration). They are cast in the same mould, they think in the same way.

Jacques Chevrier has an « aggrégation » in Modern Literature and is a Professor and head of the Centre international francophone at the University of Paris I-Sorbonne. He has written several books on African literature, notably La littérature nègre (1974, re-published 1999), Les Blancs vus par les Africains (1998), and Littérature africaine (2000).///Article N° : 5261

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