Interview with Philippe Dewitte, by Boniface Mongo-Mboussa

Interrogations of the black world
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On the trail of the black movements in France in the first half of the twentieth century. The troubling persistence of representations, and the unity the black world draws from its memory.

When reading your book Les mouvements nègres en France 1919-1939, one wonders why no one before you took an interest in these organizations, which, for the main part, were born in the wake of the French Communist Party, and regrouped the African and West Indian pro-independence militants…
350 files exist in the archives of the former Ministry of the Colonies containing both police reports compiled by informers who infiltrated the black movements, and the newspapers of the said associations. With the exception of a handful of complementary sources – books from the time, political pamphlets, journalistic reports, the accounts of survivors, etc. – all the historical raw material was concentrated in a single archive collection. It was thus impossible to compare and contrast with other sources, which is indispensable in all historical work. In spite of this, these archives were not thoroughly analyzed until the Eighties, even though a lot of people knew they existed and made reference to the protagonists of this history.
In his article on socialism in Africa in L’Histoire générale du socialisme (under the direction of Jacques Droz, PUF, republished several times in the Seventies), for example, the contemporary Africa historian, Yves Person, mentions the names of Tiemoko Garan Kouyaté, Lamine Senghor… But he didn’t know much about them at the time. What he did know, I think, came from what was « gleaned » here and there from the archives by African students and researchers. But I get the impression that people also knew about the existence of these men and these organizations from the oral traditions: Lamine Senghor was the tutelary father of the Senegalese Maoists in the Seventies, for example, even though practically nothing had been written about the « Ligue de défense de la race nègre » at that time. The question one can ask is why real research into the subject was not undertaken, even though these files were unquestionably often consulted judging by the pretty worn out state of the bundles and documents.
I then went to consult other archives, in the hope, precisely, of carrying out an additional verification of my sources. I thus delved into the municipal archives in Bordeaux (where many African sailors and West Indian students lived), then in Bamako (Mali) and in Dakar (Senegal). I only found copies of the archives I had already scrutinized in Paris everywhere I went, in the SLOTFOM collection (Service de liaison des originaires des territoires français d’outre-mer), which regroups the CAI archives (Contrôle et assistance des indigènes), a little « artisanal » police force set up by the Ministry of Colonies at the beginning of the Twenties to survey the « anti-French natives ».
One might have expected the preface of your book to be written by an Africanist, but it was Juliette Bessis who wrote it.
Juliette Bessis, who is a specialist on colonial history and anti-colonial movements in the North African geographic zone, was my thesis research supervisor. She gave me good advice on my subject, as she had, amongst other things, worked on the relations between the inter-war European fascist movements and the colonial subjects’ nationalist movements, particularly in North Africa. Both African and European historians have, in general, ignored the fascistic bent which emerged in certain anti-colonial movements. Juliette Bessis’s experience was thus very useful for understanding certain temptations which also existed in several Pan-Black, African-American and also African movements.
I must add, however, that the inter-war black movements which took this path were very much in the minority, and, moreover, that they rapidly abandoned this route, especially when Mussolini’s Italy invaded Ethiopia in December 1935, provoking an anti-fascist mobilization throughout the country and beyond. For example, the journal La Race nègre run by Emile Faure, a mixed-race Senegalese (from Saint-Louis) and by the Haitian Ludovic Lacombe, and published by the « Ligue de défense de la race nègre » – an organization which was nonetheless born (in 1927) in the bosom of the international communist movement – was, during a short space of time from 1931 to 1935, marked by a kind of pro-fascist fervor.
Your book has been very well received by African and Africanist academics. But today, some consider that it should be published in a shortened form. Do you agree?
Yes, completely, because the book was first and foremost a thesis, which, effectively, was a bit « shortened », but which nonetheless represents 70% of the original academic work. I can’t say that I regret the missing 30%, because I believe in the didactic virtue and efficiency of short texts, which go to the heart of the matter. In other words, the idea of doing a little « digested » form on the subject appeals to me.
Do you agree that some of the analyses developed, or certain situations described, in this book remain pertinent today?
We can, indeed, establish some quite troubling comparisons, even if the facts need to be repositioned in their respective historic contexts every time. For example, the 80s-90s « black trend », with its at times superficial side, and certain media who do not always avoid the trap of falling into the folklore of exoticism, at times irresistibly recalls the inter-war « negro wave », with Josephine Baker and her banana skirt…
Similarly, even though the paternalism towards Africans has considerably regressed since the days of independence, eloquent traces of it can incontestably be found in French society today. For example, with the post-independence guilt of the 60s-70s, Black people practically disappeared from advertising. But, since the Eighties, with the end of the guilty conscience, and with the concomitant decline of Third World ideology – symbolized by the 1983 success of the book by Pascal Bruckner, Le Sanglot de l’homme blanc (Seuil) – the return of Black people in advertising can be observed. Yet, whilst guiltiness is an unhealthy, sterile and even mortifying sentiment, the rejection of this guilt – which, in itself, is a good thing – has too often been translated into the display of an overriding egotism. Moreover, stereotypes from the past, and paternalistic and racist images, resurged in the Eighties without anybody saying a word, which says a lot about what remains in the French collective subconscious, which is in part still marked by colonial imagery. The cannibal with a bone in his nose, the kind, crafty, fun-loving and funny Uncle Tom, were thus back in the 80s and irresistibly evoked the advertising of the 20s. On this point, I refer you to the Négripub exhibition and its highly eloquent catalogue (Somogy, 1992). Amongst other examples, you can see a West Indian customs officer lauding the merits of an alpine cheese with the words « C’est autrement bon » (1985), a reply which echoes the « Y’bon » of his Banania forefather. Already in the 30s, Léopold Sédar Senghor inveighed against these shameful images: « I will
tear the Banania smiles from all the walls in France« . Fifty years later, the somewhat inane smiles of the overseas customs officer covered the walls of France… just as Senghor entered the Académie française!
It would seem, however, that the situation has evolved a little since the Eighties. Increasingly, when adverts feature Black people, they are depicted as French consumers like everybody else, with a level of melanin higher than the national average as their only distinguishing feature. If I were as cynical as they are, I would say that the advertisers have no doubt noticed that in France, Black people now represent a not negligible part of their « target », and that it is perhaps not very judicious to upset them.
Finally, to nuance what I have just says about the relative durability of the colonial collective subconscious, the French now have a more fraternal relation with Black people in general, and with the Africans in particular. The recent sans-papiers movement, which demonstrated African migrants taking their destiny into their own hands, no doubt contributed to this.
You write: « What do a Harlem shoe-shiner, a Sahelian farmer or a West Indian sugar-cane worker have in common? The gaze of the Other. Black identity first of all affirms itself in opposition to the racism of the Whites. We may even wonder whether the « black world » exists first of all in a negative manner in the subconscious of Negrophobes who reject the pigmented humanity en masse. » I agree with this sentence, but, at the same time, I wonder if all Black people can be brothers?
Africultures shows that, indeed, within the « black world » – if this expression means anything – there are a certain number of common interrogations. For, fortunately, there is more than skin pigmentation and the gaze of the Other to unite Black people throughout the world. There is also a common memory, born out of the sufferings of the slave trade, the misfortunes of colonization, and the struggles of the independence eras. There is also the universalism of the pan-Africanist cause – from the Trinidadian George Padmore to the Ghanaian Nkwame Nkrumah – the influence of « black » literature – from the Martinican Césaire to the Nigerian Nobel prize-winner Wole Soyinka – the repercussions of the struggle for equality – from the American Martin Luther King to the South African Nobel prize-winner Nelson Mandela. A vision of the world, or specific artistic sensibilities, no doubt even exist, which give the cultures of the African continent a « colour » that stands out from from the rest.
But, I believe, there was quite a marked propensity to Negrophilism, or an exacerbated culturalist tendency positing the « black world » as a global entity, with a unique identity, in the black movements from 1919-1939. This attitude is understandable at the time, as Africans were considered by the majority of the population as « big children » who needed educating. The very term « African civilization » made people smile, and at times people veered towards the most extreme fringes of Europe’s societies, going as far as denying « negroes » any degree of humanity. It was thus necessary, come what may, to restore the dignity which colonization and the racists ridiculed every day, and that initially had to find its expression in exacerbated, at times excessive, affirmations of identity, which went as far as the inverse proclamation of the superiority of Black people. The fascistic bent I was referring to earlier needs to be placed in this context.
Today, we have nonetheless come a long way, and this radical quest for identity no longer has the same meaning. It would indeed be dangerous to claim a factitious world identity, which would in fact boil down to an ethnic unity. Such an idea, fuelled by the economic inequality affecting the African continent, or by the social injustice which affects the majority of African-Americans, could just as easily give rise to a purely and simply racialist movement, proclaiming its radical alterity, and indirectly laying the foundations of a « planetary apartheid ». Notwithstanding, pan-Africanism, which promotes a real intercontinental fraternity within the « black world », remains one of the major and generous utopias of the twentieth century, even if it no longer seems to be on the agenda at present.

* Translator’s note: a reference to the famous French brand of chocolate drink, Banania, whose packaging bears the face of a grinning Senegalese infantryman, which has become synonymous with the stereotype of the happy-go-lucky, subservient African.Philippe Dewitte is a historian, an associate researcher at the URMIS (Unité de Recherche Migrations et Sociétés du CNRS), and chief editor of the journal Hommes et Migrations. Author of Les Mouvements nègres en France 1919-1939 (L’Harmattan, 1985), he has also participated in a number of collective works: Mondialisation, au-delà des mythes (La Découverte, 1997), Toute la France. Histoire de l’immigration en France au XXe siècle (Somogy, 1998). He has just directed the collective publication: Immigration et intégration en France, l’Etat des savoirs (La Découverte, 1999).///Article N° : 5450


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