A few months before the 2012 presidential elections in France appears this ‘beautiful book’, La France noire, Trois siècles de présences (‘Black France, Three centuries of presence’ (eds.) Pascal Blanchard, Sylvie Chalaye, Eric Deroo, Dominique Thomas & Mahamet Timera, La Découverte, 2011). Since immigration has become an issue of politics and demagogues, many black people in France believe they would be better off in the English-speaking countries — the situation of their “brothers” living there seems to them more bearable.
Yet, before the French Revolution and, to some extent, during the colonial period, it was better to be a black person in France than anywhere else. One sees it with the massive arrival of African-American intellectuals in Paris, victims of racial segregation in their home country. It wasn’t until the 1980s that this feeling, this attraction to France declined, and that a black person would think himself more free, more accepted and more recognized in Britain, the United States or in Johannesburg, even if his citizenship was a fully vested right in France.
The presence of black people in France spans the last three centuries.
Three centuries during which the people of Africa, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean and the United States have contributed to the building and preserving of the French nation. The black person’s ‘status’ has obviously changed over time: he has changed from being a ‘freedman’ to being a colonial subject; from being native to being a ‘Senegalese soldier’. He became the “Negro”, and then simply “le Noir” [‘the black person’], before being considered an immigrant and, in the 1990s, “a Black”. Since 2000, the debates focus on the citizenship of the “Noirfrançais” [‘the Black French’], those visible minorities who no longer wish to be relegated to the Republic’s margins — as in ‘I, too’, the poem by Langston Hughes where “the darker brother” who ate in the kitchen before he rebels and yells that he is America too and that when company comes, he’ll be at the table. France can no longer turn a blind eye to these “voiceless people” that are present throughout its whole territory.
We’re convinced that La France Noire will soon become a book of reference. The clarity of its content assures it a wide audience. Several leading thinkers and researchers (Achille Mbembe, Pap Ndiaye, Dominic Thomas, Elikia M’Bokolo, Françoise Vergès, François Durpaire …) have contributed the results of their experiences. The book is remarkable, with more than 750 documents, photos, press clippings and iconographies that show the contributions of these indisputable “black presences” whom you’ll not necessarily find in the manuals that tell the official history of France.