Black America and Us


This issue is built on conversations started a few years ago with some of our contributors. Cases Rebelles are one of them. In their contribution, they describe how an exclusive focus on an African American understanding of Blackness invisibilizes the global Pan-African struggle and allows colonial states like France to distract us from its own anti-Blackness both in France and in its colonial dominions.

Sur la Terre, un coin de paradis. “Paris, Paris, Paris,” Josephine Baker ///

The grimacing ghost of Josephine Baker heads towards the Parisian Pantheon with songs of praise and the blessings of a deeply reactionary government. She is the ideal, the parangon, the poster child for the type of Black people French white supremacy loves to extol. The crowning of a career built mainly on cliché-laden performances, as well as racist erotization, explicitly shows the kind of expectations that power as well as a large part of public opinion harbor. Nothing in Baker’s ‘work’ challenged the racial order that was in place in France (and territories under French rule). On the contrary, it reinforced that very order, and it is no wonder that all her gesticulating and flailing resulted in her starring in colonial duds like Princesse Tam Tam (1935) or in singing the horrific La petite Tonkinoise (1930). It makes sense then that she would be the first Black woman to join the “great men” that the nation honors, at a time of Europe’s historic fascistization and by the grace of a government which infamously pursued extremely repressive and anti-social policies. Ours is also a time when the representation of Black people is used ad nauseam for variegated whitewashing purposes. This ceremony marks a climax in the ritual that consists in putting Black bodies on display, as seen in 2018 in a voguing event hosted at the French Presidential Palace or in the selfies taken by president Macron with two shirtless young Black men in the Caribbean island of Saint Martin.

Josephine Baker is without a doubt the most renowned and consensual representative of the class of Black exiles from the U.S finding sanctuary here. Some of these spectacular Black people, “les Blacks,” were the showcase to French people’s relation to the Other while being at the same time the object of an astounding fetishisization which, according to scholar Tyler Stovall, reveals a broader obsession with “America and Americanness” that benefited African Americans, a “kind of model minority,” supposedly embodying the most advanced stage of Blackness.

Whether they be artists, athletes, intellectuals, they were all objects of entertainment. And it was all the much easier to gush about those Black people insofar as they were not the bearers of any colonial conflictuality capable of disturbing the French imperialist project. On the contrary, welcoming them in Hexagonal France enabled an extremely critical discourse at times (notably in the press) on the most spectacular aspect of the U.S. racist system: segregation. France was salving its conscience while enforcing the same kind of racial segregation and imposing forced labor in its colonies.

The centering of one diaspora was built against other Blacknesses, the threatening descendants of the French colonial empire. This distant Blackness could hold a mirror to France that was favorable, reassuring, and rewarding.

Combative at home—Baker, for instance, worked with the NAACP—fetishized in France, some African American artists in Paris helped (willingly or not) to cement the idea that no battle needed to be fought against French white supremacy, that the belly of the beast was the United States. In doing so, they were ignoring the fact that the beast of white supremacy was a many headed one. From the 1910s and 1920s on, globalized African American culture helped establish them as the bearer of the most evolved form of Blackness and a terrifyingly efficient tool of depoliticization. By clinging to Baker, to those Black people reduced to their bodies and ability to entertain, the French state resolutely turns its back to a mature and responsible understanding of its racial and colonial history and shuns any kind of accountability.

The Most Advanced Diaspora ///

At the turn of the 20th century, during the 1900 Paris Exposition, a Black U.S. delegation had played to a tee their role of the vanguard, of the most civilized Black people, of the most advanced diaspora with the prize-winning “L’Exposition des Nègres d’Amérique” (“The American Negro Exhibit”), whose curator was none other than sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois. Paradoxically, while the first pan-African conference was held on April 23-25, 1900 (Du Bois was in attendance), The American Negro Exhibit would allow African Americans to differentiate themselves from other Black people.

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Charts and graphs showing the condition of African Americans at the turn of the century exhibited at the 1900 Paris Exposition. / Material prepared by W.E.B Du Bois.

Format-wise, Du Bois and Atlanta University students offered an absolutely unprecedented vision of the living conditions of African Americans 37 years after emancipation, and chose to put together a most factual representation of them. Statistics on education, property, mortality, poverty were translated into hand-colored artistic graphics of surprising and unexpected shapes which enabled the visualization of the spectacular “progress” made by African Americans within the span of a few decades. Du Bois gave the audience food for thought and cleverly placed the social sciences at the heart of a counter-photographic project. The exhibition was also accompanied by hundreds of photos, including monochromatic portraits and photographs of Black people going about their daily lives, a collection of newspapers, 200 books written by Black people as well as a bibliography of 1,400 titles and 350 patents filed by Black scientists.

Despite the bold quality of Du Bois’ design, we ought to trace back the root of the presence of the U.S. Black delegation to understand the political aims of the project. The creation of the exhibit was the result of a collective effort at the behest of the educator, entrepreneur, and founder of the Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington, an advocate for the development and economic emancipation of Black people through work and industry, rather than through the fight for civil and social rights. His active lobbying for a separate exhibition devoted to African Americans led to the appointment of Thomas J. Calloway, a lawyer who was (tellingly) working for the U.S. Department of War, to set up the project.

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Charts and graphs showing the condition of African Americans at the turn of the century exhibited at the 1900 Paris Exposition. / Material prepared by W.E.B Du Bois.

Calloway argued, the current European invasion into Africa (as represented by the Fashoda Incident and the Boer War) would only bring European and African peoples into closer proximity. America, especially as exemplified in the achievements, could furnish Europe with such ‘evidences’ of the Negro’s value as a laborer, a producer, and a citizen that the statecraft of the Old World will be wiser in the shaping of its African policies. Second, the progress and development of ten million former slaves in thirty-five years would silence criticism of America’s presence in the Philippines, Cuba, and other nations where there were dark-skinned people. In other words, the American Negro Exhibit was tantamount to a justification for American imperialism and speaks volumes about the accommodationist and assimilationist rhetoric at the heart of the exhibition.” (Marcus Bruce, “The New Negro in Paris,” in T. Stovall, T. D. Sharpley-Whiting, and T. D. Keaton (eds), Black France / France Noire, 2012.)

People colonized by Europeans, subjected in particular to the various human zoos regularly set up during the World Fairs, did not enjoy the same kind of agency that year. In the colonial group of Paris’s Trocadéro, each colony (Sudan, Dahomey, Martinique, Guadeloupe, etc.) was represented through its buildings, products, plantations and… inhabitants, including a living diorama of Madagascar (as general Galliéni was ending a colonial war there and a bloody repression); a type of representation that justified their subjugation under the guise of civilizing them. The advancement, progress, and perfectibility paradigm bolstered a eurocentric, evolutionist conception of Blackness that positioned other Blacknesses as uncivilized, waiting to be conquered thus rationalizing colonial domination. The U.S. Black diaspora secured its place as the most modern one globally through an explicitly expansionist and imperialist agenda. The idea of the most advanced diaspora is identical to the “évolués” (the “evolved” ones) category applied in colonial territories; it does single out a class of people amongst the subaltern, of which the center can profit while it keeps expanding.

Cultural Battleground ///

The regime of the exhibition engenders the constant desire to respond, to correct, to amend. This impulse to resist dehumanization by controlling and mastering the production of one’s own image, representation and public narrative had made Frederick Douglass the most photographed American of the 19th century. In captivity, the defeated King of Dahomey Behanzin appropriated little by little photo sessions (for which he was forced to sit), in order to regain dignity and agency. The underlying idea behind these dynamics is that the relevant response to systemic violence and domination produced by regimes of representation turns out to be organizing, creating and massively disseminating our own representation. Yet, it also entails submitting to the regime of proof, to the neverending escalation in proving to the dominant group the value and the possibility of redemption for Black people according to white criteria. The idea of a resistance embedded in the refusal of exposure, of the image, of the spectacle, in absconding from this mechanism to the margin existed—a number of colonial photos testify to this—but this seemed like a fight in vain in the face of the fast-paced industrial development of photography as a weapon of domination.

In the wake of World War II, the United States emerged as an economic superpower and domestically saw the breathtaking development of a consumer society. The emergence of a youth class sped up the rise of pop culture, of cultural products made for mass consumption through movie and musical icons notably. This trend spread throughout the West, promoting a triumphant vision of the American way of life. “That’s what we get to see, what we love is the image of the U.S. that we get. Are there any little Blackos in France who wouldn’t dream of being American?” was the answer of Grand Jack, a founding member of Black Panthers in France (the name was kept in English)—a pioneer antifascist Black crew founded in the late 1970s—when asked about their fascination with the United States. The American Dream has a specific way of resonating with Black people: it creates and fosters the desire to migrate, to move and settle over there or at least the desire to mimic, emulate—a desire built on clashing, contradictory elements.

In spite of its authenticity, African American cultural and creative vitality is central to the apparatus of standardized production manufactured in the service of capitalist domination. What starts as a local trend, emerging organically from living conditions and very specific social contexts turns into an artistic phenomenon prescribed to the whole world.

Even if appropriation, reinterpretation, and thus creolization, is obviously bound to happen in the process of reception, the result is still a move towards a global, homogenous Black culture disproportionately informed by African American culture.

French Black Panthers were die-hard fans of Black rock’n’roll from the 1950s, and their concrete activism was a reaction to the French anti-Blackness of the Rebels, a white crew whose members sported the dixie flag. They were fighting each other in a foreign language and with U.S. references.

Indeed, to fully grasp the extent of the cultural clout of U.S. Blackness, we can focus on a most peculiar and telling semantic shift: in everyday conversation, the English word “Black” came to replace at some point the French word “Noir” to talk about Black people. This shift from “les Noirs” to “les Blacks” occurred in the late 1970s and 1980s, with the development of disco, funk, and hip-hop culture in France. Its use culminated after the French football team’s victory at the 1998 World Cup, the vapid catchphrase “Black-Blanc-Beur” encapsulating the spirit of a winning multicultural team (devoid of any Asian presence), as much as the illusion of a pacified and proudly diverse nation, in which all racial tensions had been resolved overnight. Why the use of English then? What kind of distance does this create? What kind of derealization does this bring about for Black people here? “Black” was a linguistic import linked to the new, youth culture coming from the U.S.: the word itself and the people to whom it referred were cooler, more modern, more palatable, less threatening. Concurrently, in 1980s France, anti-Black violence was rampant and grassroot, autonomous anti-racist struggles were being brazenly and patronizingly appropriated and rebranded by the Socialist Party. This linguistic erasure relegated us to a kind of non-existence, a non-space, to a paradoxical state of invisibility and symbolic displacement.

New technologies like television, and later the internet played a major part in this dynamic and forcibly enrolled us in the wrong war: we were craving to see reflections of ourselves. For decades in France, Black representation was so messed up that one would welcome and praise any Black character or artist who would appear on the screen. Unsurprisingly, they were mostly appearing in U.S. productions, movies, or tv shows. Our expectations, as Black people living in France, were very low. Generations after generations we have been programmed to desire a confused mix of so-called “America” and “Black America.” Original sins, beautiful nonetheless, such as music, dance, and sports became the systematic tool of a cultural imperialism that was both alienating and liberating for us.

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Let’s Break, by Sidney, 12”, 45 RPM, Maxi-Single, released in 1984. Photo by Cases Rebelles.

Hip hop is a case in point. In contemporary history, the hip-hop show hosted on French TV by Sidney is an essential and inescapable milestone. Sidney Duteil was the first Black TV show host in France and, while he was spreading the Gospel of a complex, rich culture, what he offered was the image of a funny, slightly clownish Black man, reminiscent of Joséphine Baker. Consequently, he quickly became the object of caricature. The fact that it was the first TV show in the world dedicated to hip hop—it did not even exist in the U.S., the very cradle of this culture—illustrates the kind of reassuring and mollified dynamics between France and the U.S. as far as U.S. Black culture is concerned. Furthermore, the TV channel’s cancellation of the show, after it had been on air for less than a year, demonstrates how trends are just that: exciting and disposable.

Zouk and reggae, two musical genres coming from the Caribbean, never benefited from the same kind of exposure in the media despite being an unprecedented global phenomenon. But zouk was directly connected to French colonial history and here probably lies the problem. When in 1980, the Guadeloupean band Kassav’ was singing “lagé mwen,” a colonial helmet featured on the album cover, it was difficult for French media to get past the confrontational stance. Hip-hop seemed like a fresh, young, brand new culture coming from a nation that was, most of the times, not understood as colonial and born out of genocide.

Deferred Struggles ///

In the protests following the murder of George Floyd we witnessed an impressive international show of Black solidarity and questioning of global anti-Blackness. Yet, many occurrences of imitation were troubling. The massive reenacting of Colin Kaepernick’s famous protest gesture (an unambiguous expression of a visual culture that was invasive down to bodily expression) was a significant example of that. The demonstrators, a majority of Black and non-white young people, were rallying under the slogan “Black Lives Matter” (in English), and were most of the time demanding justice for George Floyd without really learning the name of the many people killed by French police year after year, whose family and friends were still waiting for the justice system to show a modicum of respect to them ; except for Adama Traoré, THE french victim. These instances of mimicry left the French police state relatively unscathed since neither neo-colonial politics in Africa, nor criminal European migration policies killing Black Africans on a daily basis, or the imprisonment of migrants in immigration detention centers were included on this conversation about global anti-Blackness, despite them being the most radical expressions of disdain for Black lives.

A lot of people took this opportunity to deploy an anti-racist paradigm grounded in liberalism, asking for more inclusivity in the name of citizenship, to the power-structure of the French nation-state —to hell with the non-citizens! Some capitalist or institutional structures issued solemn statements or promised to donate money. A fashion magazine we had never heard of even announced on social media that they would be giving Cases Rebelles a certain amount of money without getting in touch with us first… In fact, over the last few years we had to refuse several times to participate in some events organized by activists, but funded through capitalist channels—the organizers did not seem to have a problem with this, nor felt the need to warn us beforehand. Connections with the United States have undeniably normalized collusion with capitalism. The past years, the microfocus on online agitation and the mainstream media coupled with the culture of representation, happening, individual promotion, star activism made a highly visible media-compatible intelligentsia rise to fame, while consolidating our powerlessness, our inability to disturb, start strikes, blockades, occupations, etc. It is hardly a surprise since those are dynamics closer to branding and career development than to time-tested modes of organizing in the traditional labor movement, in the autonomous immigration movements or the anti-imperialist organizations/pro-independence movements.

During the movement, the victims’ families (with the notable exception of Assa Traoré, Adama Traoré’s sister) were strictly kept out of the media spotlight in favor of so-called experts or star activists called upon to talk about racism and engage in the fruitless, pointless effort of comparing the levels of racism between France and the U.S.. Of course, the Afro-descendant populations, heirs of French slavery (from Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guiana, Reunion), are never invited to this ‘game,’ whereas the condition of Afro-descendants in the U.S. derives from the same type of trajectory, namely, kidnapping and deportation. The fact that these populations were deported to territories far from the colonial metropolis allows their erasure. The attack in Martinique against two statues of abolitionist Victor Schœlcher, a symbol of the abolitionist tale, which had preceded the worlwide wave of protest following Floyd’s murder was never mentioned.

That the United States should be deemed both the poison and the antidote, that is to say the space where racism, white supremacy are supposedly the most brutal and the place where the resistances are the strongest generates this kind of flawed moment that ultimately does nothing to harm the coloniality of the French state.

Furthermore, this simplistic binary cartography of the Atlantic world blithely ignores the reality of a country like Brazil, where about 40 to 45% of deported Africans were sent: most Black people living in France would be incapable of naming Brazilian victims of state violence even though the annual numbers are staggering.

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Victims of state violence drawn by Xonanji, member of Cases Rebelles for their book 100 Portraits contre l’État policier, 2017.

The complexity of Afro-diasporic lives suffers from the acceleration of the absolutist influence of the United States especially through social media platforms. It is thus extremely difficult to resist the injunctions of the news cycle, the economy of attention, language, concepts, epistemologies sweeping through virtual highways and crushing everything in their path. No matter how accurate and apt they may be, the theories, concepts, etc. forged elsewhere will never have the foundation and the relevance of the material built from a strong connection with ground work, the struggles, and dialogue, which establish a power relationship. The adoption of concepts by way of translation, with the U.S. source being wielded as an argument of authority (as if the work of conflicting creativity in situ could be sidestepped), leads thought into a dead end and generates incomplete understandings. As far as the academic world is concerned, the U.S. university is also a juggernaut. Its centripetal force stems from its economic power, its ability to digest counter-discourses, to cultivate avant-garde knowledge and to welcome radical thinkers within it, thus attracting students and researchers from all over the Black diaspora. France is no exception. Attending a U.S. university is often a necessary step in an academic career. Also, while the past decade has witnessed some changes, we still hear many stories of students who have to go to North America to work on topics related to Black communities. This ability to draw people in is also unfortunately a facet of the U.S. soft power and all the solemn land acknowledgments about occupying unceded Indigenous can’t change the fact that the settler colonial project is being reinforced in the end.

As the academy is a locus of power, the outflow of students and professors to U.S. universities undeniably prevents struggles on the ground from being waged from within against the stiffness of French institutions and plays on the power relationship there—or lack thereof. Black Studies or Ethnic Studies in the U.S. were institutionalized through struggles led by students parallel to the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement. It was articulated to a demand from the communities themselves. The dynamic is significantly different in France. The critical tools and thoughts forged by Black people are often discredited here, the subject of gross caricature, suspicion (as a U.S. import), when they are not outright ignored. If these concepts and theoretical tools do enter the French university, they are sometimes misunderstood altogether. Moreover, they are often latched on by white researchers who already occupy a comfortable position in the academy. We witness therefore a depoliticized appropriation-transmission, which is done in a radically vertical way and simultaneously a deterritorialization of knowledge, cut off from subaltern communities and activist spheres.

In Praise of Radical Diasporism ///

Against the crushing power of the nation-state and the exclusionary politics of citizenship, we believe in radical diasporism and transnational connections. Our fate, as people of Black African descent, dispersed time and time again in the world through deportation and exile, must be used as a tool to disrupt the power that the state, its representatives, and its armed wing continuously exercise on individuals.

The focus on U.S. Blackness creates a simplistic bipolar dynamic that constitutes a breach in Panafrica.

French coloniality unfolds in many situations that the parallel with the United States makes invisible. Moreover, as people living in France, we must not only fight against what affects us, but also fight the actions of our so-called elected representatives and France-based companies that affect many other populations, against their imperialist power to cause great harm. France still owns colonies such as Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guiana, Réunion, etc. where descendants of slaves and indentured workers live and are owed justice, reparations, and independence. Its policy of conquest goes on since it recently annexed the island of Mayotte, stolen away from Comoros and has been sabotaging the decolonization process in Kanaky, which finds itself facing typical settler colonial endurance.

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Victims of state violence drawn by Xonanji, member of Cases Rebelles for their book 100 Portraits contre l’État policier, 2017.

As far as historical justice is concerned, France was never held accountable for numerous colonial massacres and crimes against humanity in Saint-Domingue, for the Voulet-Chanoine mission in Tchad, in Algeria, Thiaroye, Madagascar, Cameroon are but a few examples. France’s steadfast support of authoritarian regimes made it complicit with the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda. Its ecocidal policies stretch from Guadeloupe, Martinique, Polynesia to its domestic nomadic populations submitted to systemic environmental racism.

French imperialism is also evident in its military presence in Africa and all of its Françafrique policy on which a political organization like Survie has been doing outstanding work for decades—an organization that doesn’t draw a lot of Black people’s attention. France is also the third biggest arms exporter in the world, which makes it an active participant in all the ensuing slaughters and bloodshed. A staunch internationalism must make this reality unacceptable to us and keep us away from all narrow, petty demands for inclusion, representation or diversity. Companies like Bolloré, Bouygues, or Total have been involved for decades in collusion with authoritarian regimes.

These are the circumstances, the people against whom we can act. Stories we need to know. Battles we have to fight. Doggedly turning our gaze towards the U.S. means averting our eyes from Africa, its complexities and the battles to be fought there.

We have to constantly rethink the dynamics of identification and solidarity with other populations in order to become truly threatening diasporas for all our local power-structures, from here to the United States, but also to the Congo, Senegal,the Ivory Coast, Brazil, Sudan, or Guadeloupe, and many other places. It is a broad but imperative fight. ■