Historical essay
When Pain is Political: Paulette Nardal and Black Women’s Citizenship in the French Empire

When Pain is Political: Paulette Nardal and Black Women’s Citizenship in the French Empire

October 12 marks the 122nd anniversary of the birth of Martinican writer and intellectual Paulette Nardal. It also marks 79 years since Nardal survived one of the first maritime attacks of World War II. She was travelling from the then-French colony of Martinique to Paris when her ship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. Her account of this harrowing, near-death experience is a reminder that although popular memory ignores black women’s roles in the Second World War, they were actively involved in diverse capacities including as survivors, spies, and concentration camp detainees. Their story is an important one that remains to be told. Paulette Nardal’s experience provides a useful point of departure for this story.

In her correspondence with the French colonial government in Martinique relating the attack, Nardal showed that pain can be political. Her demand for France to recognize her as a civilian war victim and survivor highlights the convergence of race, gender, disability, and citizenship. It also provides insight into the strategies that black women employed as healthcare became one of the arenas in which they challenged colonial power.

Portrait photographique de Paulette Nardal. (Wikimedia Commons)

Paulette was born on October 12, 1896 to Paul Nardal and Louise Achille. Her father was the first black engineer in the Department of Public Works in Martinique.1 She moved to Paris in 1920, where she studied English at the Sorbonne, one of France’s most prestigious institutions of higher education. As the oldest of the seven Nardal sisters, Paulette soon became the center of a vibrant group of black intellectuals from Africa and the diaspora who met frequently at her home in Paris to discuss race, culture, and art. She also worked as a journalist and wrote for a slew of French newspapers and black journals, founding her own bilingual English-French publication, La Revue du monde noir/The Review of the Black World, in 1931.

In 1939, Nardal had returned to her home island Martinique to work on a government-commissioned film project when World War II began. While she secured passage aboard the SS Bretagne to return to her work in Paris, she never made it back to the City of Light.

The SS Bretagne was a day away from the English coast when it was torpedoed by a German submarine. In her attempt to escape the ship, Nardal tried to climb down a rope into a lifeboat. She lost her grip and fell into the lifeboat, landing on her knees. Her injuries were extensive. According to her medical file, she suffered a “compound comminuted fracture of the left patella with extensive laceration of the knee joint and tissues of the thigh and a fracture of the outer condyle of the femur. She had also a simple fracture of the neck of the left femur.”2 Nardal spent eleven months recovering at the City Hospital in Plymouth as German Luftwaffe bombs rained down around her. She would walk with a cane for the rest of her life. After this life-altering attack, she chose to return not to Paris but to Martinique.

When scholars relate this episode in Nardal’s life, they do so quickly, avoiding the gory details, perhaps out of respect for Nardal and to avoid making her ordeal a spectacle for contemporary readers. I choose to dwell on the details of her injuries here because Nardal did in her own writing. Specifically, in a letter to the governor of Martinique written in 1943, Nardal emphasized the trauma and physical pain she had to live with after the attack. She concluded with a clear articulation of what she needed from the French government, a renewable annual allowance allocated to her as a civilian victim of the war.

Nardal’s demand for disability benefits can be read as a disruption of French colonialism. It challenged the French state not to dismiss her as a colonial subject with no entitlement to state protection and resources, but rather to recognize her as a citizen impacted by the war.

Two different voices emerge in Nardal’s letter to the governor. The first pleading voice spared little detail about the nature and extent of her injuries. She stated frankly, “I am, in reality, Mr. Governor, a partial invalid for whom walking is excessively painful and who spends, lying down, the time she does not devote to work.”3 The French word that Nardal uses for lying down is étendue. It is best translated as stretched out or prone and conveys a sense of vulnerability. This vulnerability, her physical agony, and her dependence on her 79-year-old father for subsistence, came together to create what Nardal described as “this painful situation which has been done to me and all the anxieties it implies for the future.”

Martinique — Fort de France. (Bain News Service/Library of Congress)

Nardal’s frank discussion of her pain and long-term suffering was intermingled with a more forceful tone. She informed the governor that in requesting disability benefits, she was asking for no more than what she was due: “And allow me, Mr. Governor to remind you at this time, as I said at the beginning, that the Minister of the Colonies was perfectly willing to fund the project that brought me to Martinique in 1939.”4

Sami Scalk’s Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction provides a useful frame for reading Nardal’s two voices together. Schalk writes about black women’s speculative fiction and argues that these texts allow us to imagine disability “differently from the stereotypical stories of pity, helplessness, and victimhood, of … isolation, of overcoming.”5 Nardal’s two voices disrupt the binaries of victimhood and overcoming adversity by explicitly describing the pain that accompanied her disability and by forcefully reminding France of its obligations towards her as a citizen and war victim.

Nardal’s letter to the governor was not fiction, but in many ways it was speculative because it called into being a future that had not yet come to pass. When she wrote to the governor in 1943, Martinique was still three years away from becoming the French overseas department it is today, an administrative status that makes all Martinicans French citizens with theoretically the same rights as citizens in mainland France. At the time of her letter, however, the island was still a colony, subject to the whims of a governor and an appointed colonial administration rather than represented by democratically elected officials. Nardal’s demand for state recognition meant that she dared to imagine a different world in which black Martinican women could be citizens with rights to healthcare and not colonial subjects who fell between the cracks of French legislation that made no provision for their needs.

Nardal did not receive her requested disability benefits, but this did not stop her. She made a living by teaching English to Martinican dissidents who were preparing to join the French Resistance to fight against Germany’s wartime occupation of France. Like Nardal, these Martinicans travelling to Europe to liberate France were also making a statement that they were French citizens. Towards the end of World War II, Nardal also founded a women’s social justice organization, the Feminine Rally. In subsequent years, she would write again to the governor, this time demanding welfare and educational programs for single mothers and working class women throughout the island.

That journey to advocacy and imagining citizenship on a larger scale for all Martinicans began with the first step of naming her pain and placing it squarely in the context of colonial and wartime politics. For Nardal, citizenship would be a path to decolonization because it would allow black women to access the lifesaving healthcare, educational opportunities, and political enfranchisement with which they could even more effectively challenge colonial oppression.


  1. For a comprehensive biography of the Nardal family see Emily Musil Church, “In Search of Seven Sisters: A Biography of the Nardal Sisters of Martinique,” Callaloo 36, no. 2 (2013), 375-390. Return to text.
  2. G.E. Larks, “Re: Mademoiselle Paulette Nardal,” in Victime civile de guerre, Archives départementales de la Martinique, 1M861/D. Return to text.
  3. Paulette Nardal, “À monsieur le gouverneur de la Martinique” in Victime civile de guerre, Archives départementales de la Martinique, 1M861/D. Return to text.
  4. Ibid. Return to text.
  5. Sami Schalk, Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 2. Return to text.

Annette Joseph-Gabriel is a scholar of francophone literature, culture, and politics. Her research focuses on race, gender, and citizenship in the French-speaking Caribbean, Africa, and France. Her book Decolonial Citizenship: Black Women’s Political Imagination in the French Empire is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press as part of the New Black Studies series. It examines Caribbean and African women’s literary and political contributions to anti-colonial movements. Dr. Joseph-Gabriel is currently an Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.