A.K. Joseph-Gabriel: Reimagining Liberation

Reimagining Liberation. How Black women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire

Joseph-Gabriel, Anette K.
New Black Studies Series
243 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Kaliane Ung, University of Pittsburgh

On 22 May 2020, Emancipation Day in Martinique, protesters toppled two statues of Victor Schoelcher, chanting “Schoelcher is not our savior”. The next day, French president Emmanuel Macron tweeted that these acts soiled the memory of the French abolitionist and the French Republic. Schoelcher’s myth deems him to be the man who prepared the decree that abolished slavery in the Caribbean colonies. The protest shed light on another aspect of history, one which would favour the agency of enslaved populations in rising up against France, as opposed to the white saviourism attached to a benevolent “Mother Country”. In 2020, several monuments were ripped down in the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s death to denounce racial injustice and its diffusion in urban spaces. The French government has read the “adjustment” of history as being linked to the circulation or “importation” of ideas from the United States, ignoring the fact that intersectional theoretical frameworks have emerged from francophone thinkers Edouard Glissant, Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor, and Frantz Fanon, among others. Annette Joseph-Gabriel’s timely monograph Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire examines French citizenship as a collective fiction, a set of stories shared by communities, constructed around policies and myths, and reinforced by the rhetoric of republican ideals. After the word “race” was erased from the French Constitution in 2018, denouncing racism has been claimed to be betraying the national fiction in which the disappearance of the word “race” would result in the disappearance of racism.

The book presents six trajectories of Black women who overstep binaries to fight stereotypes and to reimagine citizenship at the end of the French Empire. In so doing, Joseph-Gabriel re-establishes the intellectual legacy of creativity and activism of Black women thinkers, whose intellectual production was erased through their close ties with more famous Black male figures. Suzanne Césaire, Eugénie Eboué-Tell, Jane Vialle, Andrée Blouin, Aoua Kéita, and Eslanda Robeson take centre stage as examples of resistance and endurance in (un)becoming French, their legacies being reassessed in terms of race, gender, and class. Insisting on their heterogeneous uses of the “language of citizenship” (p. 7), Joseph-Gabriel considers Black identity as a lively and mobile site of enunciation for creating, rather than countering, narratives of belonging. These Black women thinkers had to invent new ways to emerge as political beings, sometimes working outside of the intellectual and political structures that were available to them. Focusing on transatlantic intellectual exchanges and travels as delineating “geographies of resistance” (p. 7), Joseph-Gabriel redefines French citizenship as always on the move, beyond the paradigm of assimilation, echoing the Spiralist literary movement in Haiti. Having or chasing a citizenship “on the move” allows borders to be renegotiated in an elastic geography charted by intellectual affinities.

The geographical and intellectual itineraries examined in the book span continents between 1945 and 1960, when the French Empire was dismantled by the departmentalization of its overseas territories. Joseph-Gabriel’s choice of six portraits is informed by an interdisciplinary approach between literary close reading, cultural studies, and historical analysis of archival documents, with one woman organically leading to the next, mapping out a constellation of Black female thinkers sharing innovative theoretical interventions on identity and citizenship. The first chapter is devoted to Suzanne Césaire, who addresses the “malaise” of cultural assimilation (p. 34) and argues for a poetic and political engagement with the world, depicting Caribbean archipelagos as “bridged spaces” (p. 45) that would transgress colonial boundaries in favour of “interconnected spaces, histories, and experiences” (p. 49). Following Arthur Rimbaud and the surrealists, Césaire defines the poet as a “voyant” (p. 46) who would understand the social nuances and tensions beyond the islands’ idyllic settings.

In the second chapter, on Paulette Nardal, Joseph-Gabriel highlights how fetishizing the exotic female body when it circulates in the Western metropolis contributes to the erasure of the Black woman as a political subject. In her analysis, Parisian streets retain memories of the imperial gaze on the Black body. She subverts this legacy by disrupting the ethics of revelation through the use of madras head ties, which affirm Caribbean identity outside of language. Noting that Nardal complicated the imperial language of “discovery” in her history of Martinique, Joseph-Gabriel reinterprets the politics of the gaze in the wanderings of the Black flâneuse. The third chapter focuses on Eugénie Eboué-Tell’s and Jane Vialle’s different takes on French citizenship during their post-war tenure in the French Senate, holding France accountable to its republican ideals while advocating “a more expansive definition of Frenchness” (p. 103) against models of assimilation of the African “Other”.

Chapter four examines how Andrée Blouin’s condition of being metis in colonial Africa influences her writings. Stemming from her intimate experience of racial discrimination and privilege, the textual hybridity of Blouin’s bilingual My Country, Africa is also part of a wider polyvocal approach to life writing as it is practiced by Black writers (see Kaiama Glover’s A Regarded Self). Joseph-Gabriel extends the definition of Blouin’s métissage and conflicted political feelings towards Africa and France as a call for a form of pan-African citizenship. Reading Blouin alongside Senghor’s claim that all Africans are metis, the book offers a compelling example of theoretical resilience as Blouin refused to locate herself in a single identity. Similarly, the following chapter by Aoua Kéita on “Rural Women and the Anticolonial Movement in Femme d’Afrique: La vie d’Aoua Kéita racontée par elle-même” examines the continent-wide affiliation through the choice of a polyphonic narration that crafts the literary persona as a dynamic political subject. According to Joseph-Gabriel, Kéita writes back at patriarchal violence to reject her assigned position as a subaltern, gesturing towards a future archive for a multigenerational narrative. Ending with Eslanda Robeson, the book opens up to transnationalism in the Global South to envision a project of liberation, whose Black subject would be a world traveller endowed with global citizenship and Central Africa a crucial place to establish anti-imperial resistance.

The Black political subject is more often dead than alive. At a time when the slogan “Black Lives Matter”, translated as “les vies noires comptent”, highlights racist police brutality in France, Joseph-Gabriel examines Black thought as a vibrant self-invention through travel, correspondence, and activism. In emphasizing Black women’s creative fictions through activism and calls for a more inclusive rethinking of citizenship, she is in conversation with contemporary francophone women thinkers Léonora Miano (Afropéa: Utopie post-occidentale et post-raciste), Françoise Vergès (Un féminisme décolonial), and Mestiri Soumaya (Décoloniser le féminisme: une approche transculturelle). Written in an accessible style, this intermedial study will have a strong appeal to the general public and would be a good introduction to activism in francophone studies.

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