“African Women Are Standing Together Against White Male Imperialism”

Andrée Blouin, Suzanne Césaire, Eugénie Eboué-Tell, Aoua Kéita, Paulette Nardal, Eslanda Robeson, and Jane Vialle. Seven Black women who, despite having been forgotten, were instrumental in the fight against France’s colonization of Africa in the mid-20th century. Their memories have been revived in a remarkable book available in both France and the United States, written by Annette Joseph-Gabriel, associate professor of Romance studies and gender, sexuality and feminist studies at Duke University in North Carolina.
Annette Joseph-Gabriel. © John West/Nasher Museum of Art/Duke University

France-Amérique: Would you describe yourself as an Afro-feminist, or do you disagree with this term?

Annette Joseph-Gabriel: I am perfectly happy with that description, given that I am both African and a feminist. My aim is to raise awareness about the Black female writers and philosophers who fought against French colonization after World War II. Most of them are unknown or have been forgotten. I selected seven for my book, and they can be more or less divided into two categories. The first group includes Suzanne Césaire, the wife of Martinican poet and politician Aimé Césaire, and Eugénie Eboué-Tell, the Guianese-born wife of Félix Eboué, the governor of Chad, who rallied to General de Gaulle’s cause in August 1940 and became the first Black person to be buried at the Pantheon. They can be defined as activists within the French institutions of the time. To gain independence for their respective countries, they invoked the Declaration of Human Rights, the French Constitution, and the concept of citizenship. They were convinced of the universal application of these texts, but using them was also a strategic decision.

You mentioned two categories of Black women who fought against the colonizers and imperialists…

Another group of female writers fought colonization from the outside. They include Jane Vialle, a French journalist, Resistance fighter, and senator from what is now the Central African Republic, and especially Aoua Kéita, a Malian midwife, trade unionist, and politician. They relied on the local population, particularly in rural areas, but I insist on their literary qualities, even though their works are part of a militant, anti-imperialist approach.

Your book reveals just how much of colonial history remains to be written…

It’s true that this part of history is little known, barely documented, and even erased.

You also demonstrate how relations in the United States between French activists and their African American counterparts were far from smooth. Could you tell us more?

Black Americans found it hard to understand why French women were fighting their own battles and not also joining the civil rights struggle in the U.S. It was therefore difficult to create ties between African Americans, French women in Africa fighting colonization, and West Indian women, who didn’t consider themselves African at all. Regardless, the intellectuals within these movements often met in Paris. It was in the French capital that the term “Negritude” came into being, following a meeting between Léopold Sédar Senghor, an African from Senegal, and Aimé Césaire, a West Indian. And while each group was fighting its own battles in its own countries, we must understand that White domination was and remains the main adversary of African women in the West Indies, Africa, and the United States. White supremacy, whether real or assumed, explains both slavery and colonization.

© Hervé Pinel/France-Amérique

African Americans have barely contributed to the decolonization of Africa. Why is that?

Yes, paradoxically, African Americans are often more American than African. Living in an imperialist country, they have themselves absorbed a small dose of imperialism. Even today, most African studies programs and African publishing houses are in the United States.

If you had to write the same book about the contemporary period, could you identity African activists who are as passionate and committed in the political arena today as those in the 1950s and 1960s?

Maybe not. Today’s Afro-feminist activists often step back from political struggles and instead work for NGOs with a presence on the ground. They are aware that colonization is over, but that White imperialism persists. We have also seen the rise of domestic imperialism among political elites and the “Black bourgeoisie” denounced by Frantz Fanon. However, there are also a considerable number of Black female writers. African, Caribbean, and African American women, such as Toni Morrison, Marie NDiaye, Simone Schwarz-Bart, and Maryse Condé, now occupy a dominant position in the literary and artistic world in France and the United States.

You were born in Ghana but you became a French citizen in 2017. You explain that your naturalization was not celebrated with any sort of ceremony, and that you received your documents in the mail with no additional comment. Did this affect your idealization of French citizenship?

It is true that, if I had become a citizen of the United States, I would have had a more solemn ceremony during which I would have been asked to wave a paper flag. But I am not sure that would have been better. Above all, I believe that Americans, unlike the French, worship their constitution. However, the French take their citizenship and their rights for granted, which is why they feel little need to make a display of either one.

Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire
by Annette Joseph-Gabriel, University of Illinois Press, 2021.

Interview published in the December 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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