For a few years now, France has been buzzing with the strangest allegations concerning French people of African descent. Recently, we heard a sociologist explain that the root of a certain teenage delinquency was to be found in their parents’ sahelian culture. I am not saying that coming from abroad to settle in a very different environment than the one you knew before is a simple process. Nor that you do not have to learn the language, school your children, try to mix with others and do whatever you can to adapt.
What I am saying is that I’ve hardly ever seen the French learn African languages when they choose to settle in Africa where they do not particularly mingle with the populations. What I’m also saying is that the African immigrants living in France cannot bear the failure of integration on their sole shoulders.
A lot of that failure has to do with subjects the country is not eager to get to grips with. Black youths growing up in France do not for the time being come across the story of their presence in the country. In what ways is their being French legitimate? Why should they claim this place as theirs and call it home? These questions are never answered. Blacks are viewed as foreigners even when they were born in France.
The French West-Indians are perceived as strangers from the inside: French because they’ve been robbed of their sub-Saharan ancestry and names, but not really acceptable because they’re not white and because they’re a painful reminder of a crime committed against millions of people.
Parts of the country’s history like the slave trade, slavery in the West Indies, colonization in Africa or the fact that men from the Sahel were actually brought in France during the late sixties and early seventies in order to work in the factories are not addressed in schools. Thus, the feeling of having nothing to do with a nation’s narrative still presented as totally white.
Despite all that, a lot of Black French are perfectly integrated. Some of them manage to become successful in their careers but they cannot become role models in a country still pretending to be color blind. From my point of view, color blindness will never be a reality unless you gouge out people’s eyes.
Thinking about the country’s complex relationship with some of its children I have started to deal with it in my novels. My first work on the topics of race, history and being in the diaspora was a book called Tels des astres éteints (Like burnt out stars)1. I must admit it was highly political and rough in some ways for a country where those issues are viewed as peace disturbers.
My aim was not to hurt but to depict reality like it is. Yes, there is a lot of frustration, bitterness and anger in our black French communities and there are reasons for that. I am by no means condoning violence nor recommending resentment as a way of life. As I writer, I am interested in telling untold stories and addressing hidden matters. That’s what I did then and doing again in my new book, Blues pour Elise (Blues for Elise)2.
Portraying Black French characters, I have decided to focus on intimacy, family life, things that are not mentioned in the many talks we hear of black people in France nowadays. Nobody seems to know that we also have love affairs. We’ll, they’re all in the book!
Paris, October 14, 2010.
1 Released in january 2008, not yet translated into English.
2 Released in october 2010, and of course not translated.