Eslanda Goode Robeson and her husband, Paul Robeson. He is in profile in the right of the image, she looks at him with a little smile on her face.

Writing Black Women’s Stories in French: A Review of A Decolonial Feminism and Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire

Nous, qui sommes sans passé les femmes,
nous qui n’avons pas d’histoire,
depuis la nuit des temps, les femmes,
nous sommes le continent noir.

refrain:
Levons nous, femmes esclaves
Et brisons nos entraves,
Debout! Debout !

We, who are without a past, women,
we who have no history,
since the dawn of time, women,
we are the dark continent.

refrain:
We rise, women slaves
And break our shackles
Stand up! Stand up!

“Anthem of the Movement for the Liberation of Women” (Hymne du Mouvement de Libération des Femmes)1

Since January 2011, an archived rendition of the “Anthem of the Movement for the Liberation of Women” (MLF) has garnered more than 300,000 views on YouTube. The song was collaboratively written by MLF leaders and sung for the first time in March 1971 to commemorate the lives of the women who died during the Parisian Commune, when radicals revolted against a conservative French government in 1871. It has since become one of the iconic songs sung during protests in France to support gender equality. Many YouTube users have commented on the video, some praising the host for the upload and quoting verses from the anthem, with others responding with words of feminist solidarity such as “Vive le féminisme!” For most of the users who commented on the video, the lyrics validated a moment of nostalgic triumph and solidarity. Some admitted that listening to the song brought them to tears. The video and its high number of views contradicts the sentiment “We, who are without a past, women…,” by instead affirming and documenting women’s resistance in the MLF in France. But, as Black women who viewed the YouTube video have pointed out in the comments section, these types of “women’s anthems” too often speak to a women’s movement that denies the existence of French Black women and appropriates metaphorical language like “the dark continent” and slavery to speak to a presumed-white audience. Non-white users ultimately ask: what happens when women’s liberation movements promote a brand of French feminism that is singularly bourgeois, intellectual, and white?

A dark-skinned woman looks up from the bottom left corner at some abstract imagery in blue to the right.
Cover of Reimagining Liberation. (©University of Illinois Press)

Feminist praxis must not only render visible women’s history, suppressed and silenced by patriarchal traditions of storytelling, but also endeavor to frame women’s contributions beyond the simplistic frames of recognition and commemoration. For Black women in France, this means rigorously evaluating how Black women contributed to our understanding of freedom and citizenship from the age of slavery to the present day. Both Françoise Vergès’ A Decolonial Feminism (forthcoming in English with Pluto Press in 2021) and Annette Joseph-Gabriel’s Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire (University of Illinois Press, 2020) decolonize our understanding of French feminism and citizenship and center the stories of Francophone Black women. The two shift the focus away from traditional frames of “intellectual French feminism” that begin and end with Simone de Beauvoir. They also draw on praxes of freedom, such as marronnage, innovated by Black women and living in a system of racial capitalism in France and in the French empire.

French cover of A Decolonial Feminism. (Amazon)

The history of decolonial citizenship and feminism in the French empire extends into the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when colonial slave law, Le Code noir (1685) and Enlightenment texts such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) imposed colonial notions of humanity and citizenship to explicitly exclude non-European women and men. Vergès shows how just as the Declaration of the Rights of Man gave white men the right to exist, so too did French black codes recognize white women as rights-bearing people under the law. Although Enlightenment ideology also excluded white women from the definition of the ideal subject, which Olympe de Gouges notably took on in her Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen (1791), white women gained legal subjecthood in the French colonies. For instance, Vergès explains how before white women in the Indian Ocean colony of Réunion could vote, “they had the right to possess human beings,” thus “the white woman was literally a production of the [French] colony.”2 In this colonial environment, Vergès locates the origins of decolonial feminism in the concept of marronnage, where enslaved women and men questioned codified and “naturalization of oppression,” through numerous acts of resistance, acts too often occluded in genealogies of French feminism.3 Just like marronnage, decolonial feminism “does not endeavor to ameliorate existing structures, but to combat all forms of oppression” by finding a language to represent the contributions of non-white women throughout the French empire.4 For this reason, Vergès argues that a decolonialized feminist politics must pursue equal rights while dismantling colonial structures like capitalism, racism, and imperialism that cast non-white women as not fully human.

While Vergès uncovers the roots of decolonial feminist praxis in the history of French colonialism, Joseph-Gabriel demonstrates how seven Black women challenged the persistence of these colonial structures by forging their own notions of decolonial citizenship and belonging in the twentieth century. Through these women’s stories––Suzanne Césaire, Paulette Nardal, Eugénie Éboué-Tell, Jane Vialle, Andrée Blouin, Aoua Kéita, and Eslanda Robeson––Joseph-Gabriel shows how structures like the overseas colonial government, “mixed-race” orphanages, and other public arenas like the Senate and the French National Assembly in France situated these women outside of the realm of citizenship. Joseph-Gabriel explains that “retrac[ing] black women’s contributions to the discourse on citizenship and political identities in the francophone world […] means thinking through visibility and invisibility as central to the project of excavating lives in public archives.”5 Reimagining Liberation carefully examines archival documents (government sources, correspondence, family records, etc.), cultural ephemera, memoirs, and fiction to reconstruct the personal and political lives of these seven women who, for Césaire, Éboué-Tell, and Robeson, are frequently overshadowed by their husbands, or for Blouin, by her male peers. Others have been rendered invisible by acts of statecraft (Césaire, Nardal, and Vialle) or lost in the pages of memoirs that have fallen out of print in the French literary marketplace (Blouin and Kéita).

In doing so, Joseph-Gabriel illustrates a rich history of Black women’s decolonial politics in Africa, the Caribbean, and metropolitan France. In the Caribbean, Joseph-Gabriel writes about how Suzanne Césaire and Paulette Nardal navigated colonial gender politics, fastidiously documenting and reporting to the governor of Martinique in an appeal for proper compensation for their labor. Césaire was denied a living stipend when she and her husband Aimé worked in Haiti for five months in 1944. The two were forced to borrow money from friends and family to augment Aimé’s stipend. For Nardal, this meant she would never see the damages she was owed when her ocean liner was torpedoed by German U-boats in 1939, leaving her temporarily unable to work. In the cases of Eugénie Éboué-Tell and Jane Vialle, they sought to “remake France in its own idealized republican image” of liberty, equality, and fraternity through public office and legislation in the late 1940s and early 1950s.6 For Andrée Blouin in 1938, this meant getting involved in anticolonial West African politics: serving in the 1950s as an organizer for the Feminine Movement for African Solidarity in the Belgian Congo, and becoming the chief of protocol in Patrice Lumumba’s cabinet until she fled to Paris in 1960 following Mobutu Sese Seko’s coup d’état.7 Aoua Kéita was educated, like Blouin, in an orphanage and would go on to become an active labor organizer in several French African colonies while working as a midwife for the French Colonial Health Services starting in 1932. Joseph-Gabriel concludes her study with a chapter on Eslanda Robeson’s travels to French central Africa in 1946 and the interviews she conducted with Éboué-Tell and Vialle in New York and Oubangui-Chari, now the Central African Republic. Taken as a whole, these stories of political activism demonstrate the key role Black women played in shaping decolonial politics across the mid-twentieth-century francophone world.

Although Vergès and Joseph-Gabriel books are structured and read quite differently, they both delicately yet deeply explore the lives of women who are “rendered invisible” (invisibilisées) or are “acknowledged as a potential source of curious amusement” in French women’s history.8 On the one hand, A Decolonial Feminism is a manifesto-style text that charts out an ambitious path for how to recognize, acknowledge, and practice forms of decolonial feminism in the global south. On the other, Reimagining Liberation provides an in-depth study of how seven Black women made significant contributions to decolonization in the French empire during the twentieth century. In many ways, Joseph-Gabriel’s book is representative of the very work that Vergès insists upon. These two works share an investment in documenting how women of color have fought for decolonization in the past and how these stories help to forge a decolonial future.

A Decolonial Feminism and Reimagining Liberation expand our understanding of how the history of decolonization, feminism, and citizenship intersect in the francophone world from the age of slavery to the present day. As feminist scholars and readers delve into the past to illuminate the contributions Black women have made to the struggle for freedom and citizenship throughout the globe, these two texts will offer, for years to come, modes of storytelling that grant narratives of Black women and women of color the legitimacy that they have always deserved.

Notes

  1. Credit to the user “tolbiac12” for the transcription of the lyrics. The translation is my own. as are all in this essay unless otherwise noted. Return to text.
  2. Vergès, Un féminisme décolonial, 49. For an excellent analysis of white women’s role in the institution of slavery in the United States, see: Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers. They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South. (Yale University Press, 2019). Return to text.
  3. Vergès, Un féminisme décolonial, 38. Return to text.
  4. Vergès, 39. Vergès also expands decolonial feminism beyond Francophone borders as well by drawing on examples of women’s resistance to oppression in Latin America, South Asia, and the United States. Return to text.
  5. Annette Joseph-Gabriel. Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire. (University of Illinois Press, 2020), 15. Return to text.
  6. Joseph-Gabriel, Reimagining Liberation, 91. Return to text.
  7. Joseph-Gabriel, 121-122. Return to text.
  8. Vergès, Un féminisme décolonial, 8, 122; Joseph-Gabriel, Reimagining Liberation, 16. Return to text.

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