Public Thinker: Annette Joseph-Gabriel on Black Women, Frenchness, and Decolonization

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
"The women in my book really disrupted France’s ideas about citizenship, about who belongs. I’d like us to be similarly disruptive."

Annette Joseph-Gabriel is a leading scholar of Black French studies, working at the intersection of French and Afro-diasporic culture, literature, and politics. She conducts research and teaches courses on race, gender, and citizenship in France, the Caribbean, and Africa at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where she is an assistant professor of French and Francophone studies. Her work centers the voices and lived experiences of Black women thinkers and activists and shows how their contributions can offer us new ways to think about contemporary cultural and political questions.

In her new book, Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire, Joseph-Gabriel brings to the fore the often-unacknowledged leadership of Black women in anticolonial movements in France, Africa, and the Caribbean in the mid-20th century. Kesewa John, a historian interested in the intersections of Black feminist and Black radical histories of early 20th-century Caribbean activism, talked with Joseph-Gabriel about the diversity of Black women’s thought in liberation movements in French-speaking Africa and the Caribbean circa 1940–1970 (that is, as the French empire was reconfiguring itself); Blackness and Frenchness; searching for radical Black women of the past; and the trouble with imperialist naming conventions.

Kesewa John (KJ): Thank you for talking to me, Annette. I’m so awed by your work. I think a particular accomplishment of your new book, Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire, is drawing together Black women who had quite different relationships to the French state and carefully drawing out their political differences as well as their similarities as people. They’re all remarkable women. Why was that important to you?


Annette Joseph-Gabriel (AJG): I am always interested in reading across a range of ideas. The women I study had different ideas about what it would mean to get free. They disagreed with one another. These tensions have always been part of Black intellectual debate and movement building.

It’s still the case today, sometimes to the point of spectacle. There was the Cornel West / Ta-Nehisi Coates kerfuffle some years ago, which was then compared to the conflicting views of W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.

Because Black women are not afforded the same intellectual status, their differing views don’t get cast as irreconcilable intellectual camps. But that can be a good thing. Bypassing that framing of singular, exceptional minds in conflict allowed me to consider their differences in more productive ways.


KJ: You have just articulated what I could feel in your work but not name: that it’s important that we enunciate Black women not just as political actors but also with diverse and conflicting positions, and working in totally different contexts. Not necessarily, as you say, to the point of spectacle, but so we can consider the variety of ways freedom can be imagined.

Black women can, as capably as anyone, read, reflect, and determine what to do next. And that can look radically different from one woman or movement to the next. And that’s more than okay; it’s thought-provoking.


AJG: More than okay. Sometimes we forget that.


KJ: Given how much talk there is currently around misogynoirist cyberbullying (in the UK, particularly around Diane Abbott, the first Black woman Member of Parliament), the section in Reimagining Liberation on Malian feminist activist Aoua Kéita’s experience of threatened and actual violence against her, a woman who dared to speak and organize, is particularly poignant.


AJG: She carried a gun in her purse!


KJ: Do you think she was the only one of the women you discuss who was threatened with actual bodily violence as she went about her work? It makes me wonder if the active silencing of women was far more prevalent than perhaps historians have considered.

AJG: I had a section on women, violence, and decolonial politics in the book but cut it out; it didn’t quite fit. Most of the women did face violence, or at least threats—which are also a form of violence.

But others also tapped into the violence of the decolonization moment in uncomfortable ways. There is of course Aoua Kéita, the first woman elected to the Malian parliament, in 1960, who felt compelled to carry a gun in her purse throughout her electoral campaign. She once briefly considered shooting a bunch of village women who were going to beat her up for daring to stand as a candidate for election. And then there is the Congolese anticolonial activist Andrée Blouin. Her campaign to get women to vote included touring villages with an imposing woman from a popular beer commercial who threatened to “bust women up” if they didn’t stop drinking and become more politically active.

These are weird little moments, but they recurred so often as I was researching that they had me thinking about violence beyond the kind we usually focus on between the colonizer and the colonized. Fanon has a lot to say about violence in the colonial context, of course. I am fascinated by its multidirectional nature. I think I will return to this question in future work.


KJ: Please do! I felt like your book as a whole was an attempt to struggle against deliberate efforts to write radical Black women out of history, both while they were still living and after their passing.

Do you think the dominance of English in the 21st century further erases the work and contributions of francophone women involved in liberation movements, not to mention those women who didn’t or don’t speak a language imposed by colonizers?


AJG: Oh, absolutely! The dominance of the English language enacts that erasure in both anglophone and francophone spaces. I cannot tell you how often I will be having a conversation in France or the Antilles about Black women’s activism, and people will invoke Rosa Parks and Angela Davis before they will reach for a Paulette Nardal or Jane Léro, some of the most politically active Black women intellectuals in 20th-century Martinican and French political history, if they do at all. Radical Afro-feminist groups like Paris-based Mwasi are doing important work today, but there is still a ways to go.

KJ: So, you grew up in Ghana. When did you start learning French?


AJG: I was six. In elementary school. In addition to English and one Ghanaian language, we also studied French, because we are surrounded by French-speaking countries.


KJ: Do you speak many other languages?


AJG: I speak two Ghanaian languages and understand a third. I also understand Martinican Creole and speak it, but not fluently.


KJ: I’m persuaded that French is marketed and romanticized as a particularly white (European) language. Do you think being Ghanaian influenced your ability to connect Blackness and Frenchness?


AJG: I’ve always associated French with Togo and Cote d’Ivoire, because most of my French teachers learned French there. Their accents and turns of phrases were French to me. I wasn’t thinking explicitly in terms of Blackness then. But I knew—based on my experience as a Ghanaian who spoke English, but did not identify as English—that language, race, and nationality are distinct.

On the other hand, nationalist narratives ask us to conflate language, race, and nationality by claiming, for example, that you are French if you are white and speak French. But growing up where I did, that equation never balanced. It just didn’t make sense.


KJ: Although—or because?—I grew up Black in London, I had a similar experience. My dad is St. Lucian, so with his knowledge of Kreyol, he could help with my French homework, which blew my little mind. With him also playing music in Kreyol at home, I connected the Caribbean with Frenchness.


AJG: Right. Right.


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KJ: The first time I went to Paris, a St. Lucian “auntie”—who was a French and Spanish teacher—took me to stay with a Martinican friend and her family who lived in the heart of “Black Paris.” Coming from multicultural London, I recognized my Black second-gen migrant self in this whole other world and language.

Furthermore, looking back, my first French teachers were mostly Jewish, Indian, and Algerian women: France’s “others.” Our teachers were not uncritical francophiles, nor especially proud of being French. It wasn’t until much later that I realized this was not necessarily the way most people encountered the French language.


AJG: Encountering French in the classroom is one thing. But then encountering French in the people who speak the language, who carry the history and fused cultures around with them, is another thing entirely.


KJ: Exactly. Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting has pioneered studies of Black francophone women. How has her worked shaped yours? Are there any other Black women scholars whose scholarship or careers you hope to emulate?


AJG: Tracy was my dissertation advisor, so her work has informed mine a great deal. Negritude Women is an important foundational text because it shows how crucial Black francophone women were to the literary movement, Negritude. It also shows why it matters to recognize Black women’s roles in shaping intellectual movements. How we understand Negritude’s reclaiming of Blackness changes when we consider the intervention of a woman like Paulette Nardal. When Nardal wrote that Black women in Paris felt the need for racial solidarity long before the Black men who were more favored, well, that hit home for me.

Of course, the “favor” Nardal writes about is the exoticization of Black men by angst-filled white male intellectuals and artists who wanted to find themselves in their “primitivism.” So, it’s a favor that is bound up in colonial desires. But that exoticization also opened doors that remained shut for Black women. It’s tricky. It’s messy. It’s also true. So yes, Tracy’s work is an influence, and so are the writings of the Black French women we write about, like Nardal.

There are so many Black women scholars I admire for their scholarship, for how they write, how they think, how they imagine community. There are far more than I can name. Trica Keaton is one of the most generous scholars I know. Mame-Fatou Niang is the kind of fearless I can only aspire to be. I have long admired the scholarly practice of Akosua Adomako Ampofo, Kaiama Glover, Marlene Daut, Régine Jean-Charles, and Jessica Marie Johnson for how they engage with different publics. Really too many to name.

KJ: I hear you. Discovering so many brilliant black women scholars has been a real highlight of my journey into academia. Something I found uniquely valuable in your work is that you write about Black women and their politics with such care. Are there any figures you would like to do more work on? Or women from other time periods?


AJG: I’d mostly like to read more about other women. I also want to see more scholarship about women who are not canonical. The Martinican writer Yva Léro, for example, is a direct descendant of the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne! How crazy is that? I’d love to read more scholarship about her and her writings.

I am working on women from other time periods. Since the minute the Lumina luxury tower went up in downtown Fort-de-France, in 2012, I have been troubled by the fact that it was named after a woman who played a key role in the 1870 uprising against white plantation owners’ racist violence and economic exploitation in Martinique. The irony, the incongruity: Lumina Sophie’s name is now imprinted on the Martinican landscape, but as a tower of luxury apartments, not as someone who protested some of the injustices that this tower now represents. She deserves to be recognized differently, both in scholarship and in public memory. I would like to contribute what I can to that.

KJ: Colonial French Sudan [became] contemporary Mali. Why do you uphold this horrible academic convention of using colonial names for places that changed them immediately upon independence?


AJG: I love how wonderfully messy this question is. This was a deliberate choice, but it wasn’t because I wanted to uphold an academic convention. It’s because French Sudan and Mali are not the same place.

Here’s what I mean: I grew up in Ghana, but my grandfather grew up in the Gold Coast. We did not grow up in the same place. Certainly, there are things that remained the same: our languages, some of our traditions and values. But I say they were not the same place because, as political entities, there are a great many differences between a colony and an independent country.

Yes, I know that colonialism’s legacy is still with us today. But our ideas about community, the definitions and meanings we give to our nationhood—all those things are shaped by our colonial past. How we saw ourselves as a collective when we were under British rule is very different from the collective that we imagine ourselves to be today. And much of that imagining was forged in the crucial moment of the independence struggle.

So, when I write about French Sudan it is because, for better or for worse, it was French Sudan. Its borders, its administration, the legal and political structures that the colonized used, resisted, circumvented, all the things that went into the restrictions and possibilities of citizenship in the book … those things were all French Sudan.

That said, what they really were was French-Sudan-becoming-Mali. So, you’ll notice that once French Sudan becomes Mali, I begin referring to it as such.

My book is looking at women who were laboring in that pivotal moment of becoming. And the name change is one way to mark that demarcation, that break with France that they hoped would be total and complete.

On any given day, I wouldn’t refer to Ghana in the 1940s as Gold Coast. But if I am writing a book about the way colonialism impacted ideas about community and belonging—and how it determined who was considered a citizen in the moment when Gold Coast was becoming Ghana—then it would be important to me to grapple with all that colonialism did. Including stamping a name onto a space and delineating that space as property. It would be important to me to grapple with all the violence of commodification conveyed in a name like Gold Coast, and all the violence of ownership conveyed in a name like “French” Sudan.

Of course, other scholars are free to choose the naming conventions they want in their work. They can refuse colonial names as a way to refuse to replicate the rhetorical violence, as a symbolic act of resistance. That too is valid. This was my choice and it was a deliberate one.

KJ: I cannot and will not argue with this. It’s interesting when you talk about independence as a moment of becoming. It sometimes feels like too many historians researching former colonies don’t understand the degrees to which the people are formed by that experience, even those of us who were born decades after independence and/or in the diaspora. It’s a convention I really struggle with and against, as I generally find it frankly disrespectful of the autonomy of people whose countries were colonized.


AJG: I totally get that.


KJ: But also, it lends itself to erasure. I remember learning about the invasion of Abyssinia being a cause of World War II in secondary school and being unmoved by the role of a country I’d never heard of. I was doing my PhD when I realized that Abyssinia and Ethiopia were one and the same place! And Abyssinia’s not even a colonial name; it’s just the name Europeans preferred until the 1930s.

It also comes down to audience and intention. My students in Guadeloupe are mostly Black, and Haiti’s history is intimately bound up with their own. Some of my students are from Haiti and are of Haitian descent. I can’t imagine a situation in which they would find it useful for me to use the name St. Domingue because we’re talking about 18th-century Haiti; it’s not any less their history because it’s before the revolution. I would further hate to insult them under the guise of academic authority by insisting they employ it.

I also try to apply that principle to my writing: Am I contributing research on the history of the Caribbean for Caribbean people to enlarge our understanding of our past? Or am I doing something else?


AJG: See, I would totally use “St. Domingue” and do in my writing; but of course, I wouldn’t insist that my students use it. I like that we come down on different sides of this.


KJ: Me too. Rich and thought-provoking. You deftly skip over the special relationship between African Americans and France, and particularly Paris. Even when discussing Eslanda Goode Robeson, you absolutely eschew the “we are free in France” narrative perhaps most recently revived by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and focus on her in Africa and mention her in the UK.


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AJG: There is great scholarship about African Americans in Paris. Paris was an important meeting place for Black writers and artists. It was also not the only point of convergence. Black transnationalism doesn’t look like the wheel-and-spokes model that places the colonial metropolis at the center of intellectual and cultural production. Haiti was an important space, as were Cuba, Senegal, but also the places that are rarely mentioned. Essie Robeson went to Chad to retrace Félix Éboué’s steps, but when we think “return” in the diaspora narrative, we don’t really think Chad, do we? Paris is a seductive place for a lot of scholars and writers, not just Coates.


KJ: Living in Martinique did more to disabuse me of my notions of Paris’s romance than I would have ever believed possible, and it happened very quickly. The relationship Martinicans and Martinique have with Paris as a metropolitan center is complex, fraught, with a heady mix of longing, desire, and (self-)loathing, and it is fundamentally unequal.


AJG: Yes, yes, yes.


KJ: Bearing witness to that made it really hard for me to enjoy Paris as I did as a young person in London for whom it was just a short train ride away. But then I discovered Marseille anyway, and French people feel about Paris and Marseille like English people feel about London and Manchester—you have to choose your team!


AJG: Listen, I lived in Aix-en-Provence, which is right next to Marseille, so I completely understand the rivalry.

KJ: Reimagining Liberation is the book I’d always wanted to read as a Black girl studying French. What impact do you hope it will have on the field of French studies?


AJG: A colleague described my book as “provincializing France,” which I found so very provocative in a good way. I’d really like for us to rethink the place of France in our field. I’d like us to rethink the way we replicate imperial structures through the weird divide between “French” and “francophone.” The women in my book really disrupted France’s ideas about citizenship, about who belongs. I’d like us to be similarly disruptive.


KJ: “Provincializing France” sounds like a call to action. You’re not a historian by training, but your work necessitates archival research. How did that happen? Do you consider yourself a historian of Black francophone women?


AJG: I don’t consider myself a historian. My primary sources are historical texts, but my methods are primarily literary. Close reading is very much my bread and butter. I learned from two Black women scholars, Tracy Sharpley-Whiting and Tiffany Patterson, that you can’t bypass history when studying literature. Certainly not literature by Black women writers. There are a lot of reasons for that, but that’s maybe a conversation for another day. The challenge of doing historical work in a field that sees itself as primarily literary is, well, also a conversation for another day.


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KJ: My research has led me to trawl through archives in the English- and French-speaking Caribbean, and in the UK and France. Black women are notoriously absent from state archives, and you have mined personal archives and autobiographies for your research. Do you think writing histories of Black women always requires rethinking classic research methodologies?


AJG: Absolutely. Absolutely. I could have written my book about the Negritude “founding fathers” and focused on a small slice of their written work. I could have written about Aimé Césaire and just focused on three plays or two poems or whatever.

But with Suzanne Césaire you can’t leave anything on the table. You have seven published essays. That’s it. I needed everything I could get my hands on. Every last letter she wrote about her children’s grades, about her mental and physical health during World War II. You can’t read those seven essays in a vacuum when you don’t have decades of a publishing career to help you understand the trajectory of her work, evolutions in her thinking, and so on. Traditional and discipline-bound research methods alone don’t cut it.


KJ: You’ve just published this incredibly important book. What do you want to accomplish next?


AJG: I am working on my next two book projects. One is about children and slavery. It began, like most things I do, with conversations between Black women. First I attended the panel discussion between Evelyne Trouillot and Merle Collins at that epic CSA [Caribbean Studies Association] conference in Haiti. Then some years later I had a conversation with Dr. Nazera Wright, who is such a brilliant and generous scholar, and the project crystallized very quickly after that. The other is a book about French Caribbean feminisms. I see that as a more long-term project. I also want to read widely, carefully but also carefreely … is that a word?


KJ: You’re a public thinker: If you say it, it’s a word!


AJG: Ha!


KJ: For anyone just discovering the world of Black French studies, what would you recommend as an introduction?


AJG: In French, Pap Ndiaye’s La Condition Noire. In English, Black France / France Noire, edited by Keaton, Sharpley-Whiting, and Stovall.


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KJ: Final question: Do you think the global pandemic’s repercussions will have an impact on the future of Black French studies, compared to how you might have answered nine months ago?


AJG: Oh, it most certainly will. Already access to archival sources, the ability to conduct interviews, all those things have become quite difficult for US-based academics. Scholars based in what we’re now calling the global South have been doing critical work for a long time with the limitations that are now going to become a reality for those who have had relatively greater access to resources.

The pandemic isn’t an equalizer, of course; it will just deepen the unequal access to resources. It will also be an excuse for universities to cut even further what little financial support they allocate to a field that has been hit hard by the attacks on the humanities. The future in that sense looks grim.

So, we need to decide: What are the stakes of our work? Why do we do what we do, and for whom? Where are the alternative spaces where we can do this work and be more effective? I am deliberately avoiding the clichéd “now more than ever” hand-wringing. There is no “now more than ever” about this. The necessity has always been there. It is still there.


Correction: October 9, 2020

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the 1870 revolt in Martinique as the last rebellion of enslaved people.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

Featured image: Annette Joseph-Gabriel. Courtesy of Annette Joseph-Gabriel