Black is the Journey, Africana the Name
Maboula Soumahoro / Translated by Kaiama L. Glover
In this highly original book, Maboula Soumahoro explores the cultural and political vastness of the Black Atlantic, where Africa, Europe, and the Americas were tied together by the brutal realities of the slave trade and colonialism. Each of these spaces has its own way of reading the Black body and the Black experience, and its own modes of visibility, invisibility, silence, and amplification of Black life. By weaving together her personal history with that of France and its abiding myth of color-blindness, Maboula Soumahoro highlights the banality and persistence of structural racism in France today, and shows that freedom will be found in the journey and movement between the sites of the Atlantic triangle. Africana is the name of that freedom.
How can we build and reflect on a collective diasporic identity through a personal journey? What are the limits and possibilities of this endeavor, when the personal journey is that of oft-erased bodies and stories, de-humanized lives, and when Black populations in Africa, the Americas, and Europe identify and misidentify with each other, their sensibilities shaped by the particular locales in which their lives unfold?
This book makes an important intellectual contribution to contemporary public conversations and theoretical inquiry into race, racism, blackness, and identity today, as it probes and questions the academic methodologies that have functioned as structures of exclusion.
What is this “I”?
I need to keep this simple. To get started by attempting to answer the fundamental existential question: who am I? After that I can move on to developing an explanation of the way I situate myself within the French nation and the world in light of the rich history that has fashioned our societies, minds, and bodies. At stake is my ability to express myself in French in a way most apt to define and describe the spaces that will concern us here: the Atlantic world and the French Hexagon. The difficulties are numerous and may seem insurmountable. “I have only one language and it is not mine.” These words by Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida were chosen by French writer and sociologist Kaoutar Harchi as the title of her book, an analysis of the trajectory of five Algerian writers who chose to write in French. In her essay, Harchi explores the connections between literature and politics. This title interests me beyond the colonial question. Indeed, the question also arises in the postcolonial context.
“I have only one language and it is not mine.”
This question of language, I also ask it myself. Born in Paris of parents who migrated from the Ivory Coast in the 1960s, my primary language, the one I use and practice the most, the one I know best, is French. So I should be able to call this French language my own, my mother tongue, my first or “natural” language. Yet this is not the case: this French language is not my mother tongue. It is neither the first language in which I expressed myself nor my “natural” language. Quite the contrary. For me, the French language is a language I acquired, albeit early on. As such, it is by no means a language that was transmitted to me “naturally” by my family, by way of my mother. Because French is not my mother’s language. This is why it is difficult for me to clearly identify my mother tongue. I use the word “mother” here in its original sense, for I speak a language that is not that of my mother, one which I have been using since childhood, which is that of a country that itself is not entirely mine—the language of a country that has spread itself throughout the world. A strong country. A dominant country. A country of whose history I am one of the fruits. For this reason, between my mother and the French nation stands history. Between my mother and myself stands history. Between the French language and myself stands history. An ancient history, at once rich and complex, international, splendid and painful, silent, forgotten, or quite simply denied.
And yet, I exist.
And France is not my mother.
French is not, then, my mother tongue. And yet I am also French and I speak that language. And, again, it is the language I know and have mastered the best.
But this French language poses a problem for me. First, because it is not entirely mine. And then, because it does not allow me to express everything. To express everything I would like to express. In the silences of the French language, I encounter the heavy silences that at times stand between my mother and me when we speak in French. The silences that stand between us would be less frequent, I am very certain, if I could express myself in Jula. Jula is my mother’s language. The Jula language does not belong to me either. I do not speak my mother’s language. I speak a language that is not that of my mother. What does all this mean for me? How does it affect what I am able to say? What I am permitted to say? What I manage to express fully? Or not. I have found a solution to this situation and to these endless questions: I speak English. This allows for distance. The English language does not belong to me, it owes me nothing, and I owe it nothing in return. Things are so much simpler that way. I have loved this language since childhood; I learned it in stages, year after year, and ended up mastering it after much effort and many years of study. The English language has been so very practical for me. It bears none of the emotional weight that burdens both French and Jula. In English, I am free. I can express myself unfettered. I can reinvent myself. But in doing so, I create and establish new silences between France, the Ivory Coast, and myself. It is very difficult for me to express myself in French and in France on the subjects that I consider throughout this book. However, this is precisely the difficulty I hope to probe and to overcome. This will happen, inevitably, through the affirmation of my individuality within the context of an immense ensemble. And so, I must dare to say “I.”
To embrace the pronoun “I,” relying on the magic of a special dispensation, amounts to completely ignoring the classic injunctions of scholarly research. Hoping for some sort of emancipation and liberation, my conscious use of the pronoun “I” also signals a wholehearted claiming of individuality and a refusal to respect numerous and very serious protocols concerning the idea that critical distance must be maintained at all costs. In that respect, I renounce this so-called critical distance along with the notion of scholarly neutrality and objectivity; I remain indifferent to the accusation of non-rationality or of an inability to reason or analyze. For scholars, the pronoun “I” is absolutely prohibited. The human being, the individual, must disappear completely and thereby leave room for the purely intellectual, detached, disinterested, and disembodied. It is this last point I wish to interrogate. For my “I” is that of a Black woman who has evolved primarily between the French Hexagon and other territories of the Atlantic Triangle. For these reasons, my body cannot be erased from the equation. How could it be otherwise? The spaces in question here are those that fashioned this body that is mine and that, no matter where it is, is perceived as Black. And this perception has concrete consequences that themselves can only exist in direct contradiction with any intellectual claim to critical distance. Such distance is impossible for me. I do not even want it. I prefer a situated point of view, approach, and analysis. For the truth of the matter is, we are all situated. Personally, I simply do not have the luxury of being able to disembody myself and to think about the world, about society, or about people in a completely detached way.
This pointed use of the pronoun “I” requires, moreover, another form of courage and audacity. The courage and the audacity to finally dare to say “I” as one looks at one’s own family, one’s own life, one’s personal trajectory, and, in so doing, brings together scholarly research and private, intimate experience. The courage and the audacity I refer to here require doing so in the context of the French academy and in the French language. For I am referring to a trajectory and an ancestry that are inscribed in specific historical periods, contexts, and geographic areas that plunge us inevitably and irrevocably into a particular French history: that of France’s imperialist or colonial history, that of a racialized and racializing France, and that of a contemporary France whose status as a postcolonial Republic can be easily accepted, unlike its neo-colonial status, which also endures.
It is out of this combination of elements that the French title of this work emerged: The Triangle and the Hexagon. For me, it is simply a question of writing, publishing, speaking, and embracing these questions in France and in French, although for a long time it has been more comfortable, more practical, even, for me to pursue these Afro-diasporic reflections outside of France and in English – in other spaces, that is, also situated in the Atlantic arena, primarily the United States, but also the Anglophone Caribbean, where I have long felt freer, less paralyzed by the idea of thinking, formulating, developing, and completing this project. This feeling of freedom emerged out of my path through university, marked as it was by life-saving encounters that provided me with a more global approach to this Atlantic world. Given this, I must mention the centrality of courses by Édouard Glissant and Maryse Condé, scholars and writers who, though they were never awarded a tenured position in the French academy, built important careers in universities in the United States. I realize now that this ease and this freedom are in fact intimately connected to the deafening silence imposed by France, and to the impossibility—the illegality, even—of speaking about, naming, contemplating, or probing subjects, questions, and themes still considered unsettling to this day. These subjects, questions, and themes are nonetheless thoroughly mixed up in the great history that has transformed the space of the Atlantic and the rest of the world since the fifteenth century. This great history has produced, moreover, the forms of globalization within which we continue to exist.
In a context such as this, the personal and the intimate are intertwined with the political, the public. Being, then, of African origin, born Black in France toward the end of the twentieth century, my history and my journey are in fact inscribed in a history and in geographies far vaster than myself. That said, this history and these geographies weigh on and structure my life. Thus, in exploring them, in studying them, I explore and study myself. I become the subject of my own study. The question that presents itself, then, is what to do with this state of affairs. How am I meant to position myself? I suppose the answer implies a “coming out” of sorts, or perhaps what gender studies have defined as the indispensable precondition from which the individual situates herself politically, and in full acceptance of herself, within the society in which she lives. As far as I am concerned, I am a Black French woman. This part of my identity counts and will not be rendered invisible, neither in French society nor in French academia. This Black identity, because it is fundamentally political, inasmuch as it emerges from a wide range of historical processes, has of course been the subject of intellectual, political, religious, cultural, economic, and social consideration for centuries—specifically, as I noted earlier, since the beginning of the modern era. But beyond everything I have just mentioned, this Black identity has both implications and consequences.
Excerpt from “Introduction: Black Speech/Speaking Blackness” in Black is the Journey, Africana the Name, 5-10, Polity Press, 2022, Translated by Kaiama L. Glover.
About the Authors
Maboula Soumahoro is an associate professor at the University of Tours and president of the Black History Month Association, dedicated to celebrating Black history and cultures.