Unearthing Afro-Diasporic Feminist Solidarities and Decolonial Citizenship

October 2023

Annette K. Joseph-Gabriel, Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020); 260 pages; ISBN 978-0252084751 (paperback)

When reflecting on the radical futures that Black women thinkers have envisioned in spite of their systemic objectification by colonial systems of power and their invisibility in postcolonial ideologies, what would have been the common trajectory between Suzanne Césaire, Paulette Nardal, Eugénie Éboué-Tell, Jane Vialle, Andrée Blouin, Aoua Kéita, and Eslanda Robeson? Annette K. Joseph-Gabriel’s Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire proposes an original intersectional answer through the lens of what she terms “decolonial citizenship.” Her critical reasoning around this concept draws from multiple influences, including the work of Étienne Balibar, Walter Mignolo, and Aníbal Quijano and their notion of the coloniality of power, as well as Sylvia Wynter’s claim against the idea that Human is Man. (Man, in Wynter’s assertions, is maleness, Whiteness, Christianity, rationality, bourgeoisie or heterosexuality, and colonial conquest). Joseph-Gabriel maps out her argument by rejecting the colonial foundations of citizenship and by excavating the range of activism, epistemologies, sites of contestation, and political communities that these Afro-diasporic women crafted to unsettle the rigidity behind citizenship and identity. She underscores that “decolonial citizenship” does not mean that her Black thinkers “were decolonizing citizenship” (13). The range of genres that she creatively analyzes (manifestos, essays, autobiographies, personal correspondence, literary texts, practices of belonging, Joseph-Gabriel’s own accounts of her family experiences) echoes the multiplicity of visions that these women carved out to dislocate French universalism from local, national, and global perspectives. Hence Joseph-Gabriel successfully participates in the rich debates about how we conceptualize, locate, and teach Black feminisms from diverse intellectual perspectives and geographies.

Joseph-Gabriel structures her book by interweaving the interventions and productions of these seven women and by convincingly examining the direct and indirect convergences of their intellectual and geographical routes between 1929 and 1958. The notion of “political protagonists” (6), a term she borrows from Keisha-Khan Perry (197n3), is effective for depicting women’s intersectional disruption of the rigid borders between the domestic and the public spheres and their intertwining of private life experiences; public and global political engagements and empowerments; and pioneering intellectual work.1

In chapter 1, Suzanne Césaire’s archipelagic consciousness is framed within a viable geoliterary scope: Haiti, “Le grand camouflage,” and Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. This frame allows Joseph-Gabriel to argue that Suzanne Césaire uniquely articulated a “Caribbean renaissance that comprises citizenship as both artistic and political transformation” with “Haiti at the heart of this vitalist vision” (48). She reads Césaire’s junction between “anticolonial resistance . . . and diasporic creation through dance” as her radical vision of Black liberation (53–54). This statement can interestingly intersect with the Bergilde paradigm, a notion I forge in my own book, Suzanne Césaire: Archéologie littéraire et artistique d’une mémoire empêchée (2020), in order to explore the ecopolitical performance of Bergilde, a fictional peasant female dancer in Césaire’s “Le grand camouflage.” By examining some of her Tropiques essays, but most essentially “Le grand camouflage,” alongside her correspondence with writers and politicians, Joseph-Gabriel accurately argues for the need to study concomitantly her correspondence and her essays to capture the depth of her pioneering thought, a dynamic I also propose and explore in my book. Suzanne Césaire’s thought is hidden in the archives of Aimé Césaire and politicians or scholars of her time, and Joseph-Gabriel explains that “prohibitive costs of permissions” from the attorneys of Marc Césaire (Suzanne Césaire’s son) “have shaped the possibilities for representing Césaire’s voice and archive” in her book. If we need to “be attentive to the terms of archival visibility” (15), as Joseph-Gabriel states, how should we then unearth silenced women voices? How do we disrupt the in/visibility slot where overlooked women thinkers are entangled? Should we always speak for them or be their interpreters when access to the archive is an obstacle? These are the fundamental questions that readers may ultimately ask when exploring chapter 1.

A few precisions and oversights should be noted in this chapter. Joseph-Gabriel explores the letter in which Suzanne Césaire analyzes, for Janheinz Jahn, a stanza of Aimé Césaire’s Cahier. This letter is important; however, it is difficult to access it through the information that the book provides (51). Fortunately, the letter is quoted in its entirety in Ernstpeter Ruhe’s Une oeuvre mobile: Aimé Césaire dans les pays germanophones (1950–2015).2 Also, the title of Suzanne Césaire’s play is not Youma, as Joseph-Gabriel writes (15), but Aurore de la liberté, an adaptation of Lafcadio Hearn’s novel Youma. And in an analysis of Césaire’s use of the Haitian Creole expression “Laissé grainin,” which Joseph-Gabriel translates as “let it seed, let it bear fruit,” it would have been helpful to note that Césaire’s own French translation of the Haitian creole is “laissez faire, laissez porter.” Similarly, to define the Antilles, Césaire forged the concept “communauté mort-vie” (death-life community), which does not translate as “stillborn community,” as Joseph-Gabriel proposes (44).

Focusing on Paulette Nardal’s articles in the journal La Femme dans la Cité (from 1948 to 1951), her short story “En Exil” (in La Dépêche, December 1929), and a 1931 tourist guidebook, chapter 2 examines Nardal’s political vision about race, class, and gender in Martinique and France, social misery and inequalities, the contribution of market women as key “economic actors,” the Metropole/Overseas Department conundrum, and assimilation; and her critique of the communist-oriented vision of a Martinican women’s organization and the need to build transatlantic feminist alliances. Thus far one cannot assert how and when Nardal and Césaire crossed paths, but Joseph-Gabriel proposes insightful ways to bring their thoughts together. For instance, she succeeds in intersecting their respective archipelagic visions, their deconstruction of the entangled boundaries between colony and metropole, and their shared outlook on the necessity not to camouflage the history of colonial exploitation beneath the beauty of the Antillean landscape (69–71).

Chapter 3 is a comparative analysis of the work of two French senators, Eugénie Éboué-Tell (representing Guadeloupe) and Jane Vialle (representing Ubangi-Shari, now Central African Republic). Both figures played key roles in the French Resistance; crafted unique political platforms advocating concomitantly for French Republicanism, Black liberation, and political and cultural equality through French citizenship; and aided in the creation of global Black feminist networks and solidarities. Éboué-Tell’s call for a “composite black French identity” (102)—a preface to Édouard Glissant’s thought, I posit—and Vialle’s “imagined decolonial future” (112) were new modes to “refigure the colonial family” (110).

Chapter 4 juxtaposes My Country, Africa, a 1983 “autobiography” of Andrée Blouin (which Blouin did not write herself and criticized), and Henri Lopes’s 1997 novel Le lys et le flamboyant, based on Blouin’s life.3 Blouin was an orphaned métisse; an anticolonial activist involved in several political parties and feminine movements in Guinea, Ghana, and Belgian Congo; and a key member of the Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba’s inner circle, as his chief of protocol. While unknotting the problematic threads between author, subject, narrator, translator, and authenticity, Joseph-Gabriel uses the notions of double belonging and textual métissage to explore Blouin’s vision of Pan-African citizenship rooted in “multiple racial, cultural and political influences” and expanding “African nationalism beyond oppositional blackness” (141).

Grassroots rural solidarities, reclaiming space as anticolonial resistance, and transgressive embodied mobilities by poor and nonliterate women are at the center of chapter 5’s study of Aoua Kéita’s autobiography, literary text, and historical archive, Femme d’Afrique. Joseph-Gabriel successfully explores Kéita’s agency as a midwife, the first woman deputy, and a crucial political protagonist in Mali’s independence; her work for rural women’s enfranchisement; and her renunciation of French citizenship, emphasizing Kéita’s pioneering feminist rewriting of decolonization and redefinition of citizenship where the “intertwined oppressions of colonialism and patriarchy” are contested (147).

Joseph-Gabriel posits that a transnational scope is fundamental to allow global solidarities embedded in liberation struggles to flourish. Thus, “transnational citizenship” (28) complements her notion of “decolonizing citizenship,” and in chapter 6 she analyzes Eslanda Robeson’s unique vision of “Global South consciousness “(179), “Global South resistance” (182), “Global South citizenship” (183), and “Global South feminisms” (184). She concludes by considering how Robeson’s travels and engagement “prompt us to account for Black women’s work in imagining the Global South as a project of collective anti-imperial resistance” (186). Yet in her epilogue, Joseph-Gabriel returns to the decolonial citizenship paradigm that she views as the essential backbone of her thinking because it is “the spark” of these women’s practice of “decolonial citizenship in the French empire that illuminates our way toward a decolonized world” (195). Perhaps, it would have been useful examining whether a global South citizenship and feminist consciousness is the necessary conceptual umbrella and mindset for constructing decolonial citizenship, or if decoloniality must remain the critical underpinning of the book.

Some factual errors should be pointed out. For example, to avoid the confusion between the country of Guyana and France’s overseas department, “French Guyana” should have been spelled “French Guiana” throughout the book. Also, Aoua Kéita’s 1975 Femme d’Afrique is not “the first autobiography published in French by an African woman” (26; see also 145); Marie-Claire Matip’s Ngonda was published in 1956. Nonetheless, Joseph-Gabriel’s work enhances the debates about overlooked African American and francophone thinkers and artists initiated by T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Jennifer M. Wilks, and Jennifer Anne Boittin.4 By persuasively intertwining scope and praxis, Joseph-Gabriel shows how Black female thinkers mapped out multidirectional literary and cultural productions along with political and embodied experiences in order to resist imperialism. Hence, as a thought-provoking intersectional work that engages readers in exploring global feminist alliances, Reimagining Liberation participates in essential cross-disciplinary discussion about the need to excavate pioneering Afro-diasporic women’s epistemologies and visions of citizenship.

Anny-Dominique Curtius is a professor of francophone studies at the University of Iowa. Her interdisciplinary research interweaves cultural theory and cinematic, visual, and performing arts of the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and Sub-Saharan Africa; post/de/colonial museum studies; and tidalectical ecocriticism. She is the author of Suzanne Césaire: Archéologie littéraire et artistique d’une mémoire empêchée (Karthala, 2020), the first book to analyze Césaire’s seminal work.

[1] Joseph-Gabriel cites Keisha-Khan Perry, “The Gendered Racial Frame of Land and Housing Rights as Human Rights Issues,” presented at the Human Rights, Borders, and Barriers Symposium, University of Arizona, Tucson, 22 January 2016.

[2] See Ernstpeter Ruhe, Une oeuvre mobile: Aimé Césaire dans les pays germanophones (1950–2015) (Würzburg, Germany: Königshausen and Neumann, 2015), 124–25.

[3] My Country, Africa: Autobiography of the Black Pasionaria originates from interviews that Jean MacKellar conducted with Blouin while she was living in exile in Paris. Joseph-Gabriel perceptively points out that Blouin’s lawsuits against MacKellar to prevent the publication of the book were an attempt to “take back control of her narrative” (122) that had been thwarted by MacKellar’s entangled translation and transcription.

[4] See T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Negritude Women (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002); Jennifer M. Wilks, Race, Gender, and Comparative Black Modernism: Suzanne Lacascade, Marita Bonner, Suzanne Césaire, and Dorothy West (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008); and Jennifer Anne Boittin, Colonial Metropolis: The Urban Grounds of Anti-imperialism and Feminism in Interwar Paris (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010).

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