Krakow Film Festival 2024

It is «you whites» who created «us blacks»

AFRICA / It is false to strive for justice «at home» while constantly exploiting «over there», writes one of the contributors in a new anthology.

Penser et écrire l'Afrique aujourd'hui Seuil
Author: Alain Mabanckou
Publisher: Forlag, France

53-year-old Alain Mabanckou was born and raised in Congo-Brazzaville (officially the Republic of Congo), or «Little Congo», as it is called to distinguish it from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). For 30 years, Alain Mabanckou has lived alternately in France and the United States. The last 15 years mostly in the US, where he is a professor of creative writing and French literature at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Mabanckou writes in French, teaches in English, and receives awards for his books in both languages. But he often points out that he could never have become a professor in France; they are still too busy keeping people from their former colonies down.

When Mabanckou visited the Kapittel Literature Festival in Stavanger in September, it wasn’t long after he had completed an honorary one-year professorship at the Collège de France. But as he said, «When Collège de France was founded in 1530, France was preoccupied with Africans as slaves, now they treat us as subjects. Postcolonial studies have come much further in the US than in Europe.»

Europe has sown little and will reap correspondingly in the future

Optimism for the future

Two of Alain Mabanckou’s novels have been published in Norwegian: Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty (2012) and Black Bazaar (2016), while Little Pepper is expected to be released in 2019. However, most of his eleven novels have been translated into English. But Mabanckou is not just a novelist – he also writes poetry and non-fiction and produces music. In Penser et écrire l’Afrique aujourd’hui (Thinking and Writing Africa Today), he has gathered texts from eighteen influential African intellectuals and, ironically, one French intellectual to reflect on how Africa is being thought of and written about today.

One of the contributors is Professor Achille Mbembe, originally from Cameroon but based in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he teaches at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). In December, Mbembe was in Bergen to receive the Holberg Prize for his outstanding research at the intersection of philosophy, political science, and history. At Flesland Airport, he was stopped, questioned, and searched by three Norwegian border guards, and he used this experience during the award ceremony to talk about borders, freedom, and security. He writes about the same topics here: it is impossible to live in safety in one part of the world while contributing to creating insecurity in other parts of the world; it is impossible to demand equality under the law «at home» if you do not practice equality under the law «abroad»; it is false to strive for justice «at home» while constantly exploiting «over there». Europe has sown little and will reap correspondingly in the future, predicts Mbembe. Europe has focused on being/ego/self, while Africa is more concerned with the relational, the interpersonal. Mbembe is optimistic: Africa is the future, concretely and as the hope itself. The continent has a young population with an imaginative power that challenges our stereotypical dichotomies with a blend of baroque creolization.

Alain Mabanckou

Us and them

Another contributor is the almost equally well-known economist Célestin Monga, also originally from Cameroon. Monga has worked at the World Bank and the African Development Bank for many years but has also taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard. His breakthrough came with the book Anthropology of Anger (1996), where he analyzes the wave of democratisation sweeping across the African continent at that time. Anger and democracy, resentment and the lack of self-determination are also themes in Penser et écrire l’Afrique aujourd’hui. Monga is a strong advocate for industrialisation in Africa. He reminds us that Europe took 35 years to double gross national income per capita in the 20th century, while China achieved the same in just 12 years in the 21st century. He suggests that Africa can do it even faster now. He says that opinion polls show that people’s dreams are roughly the same in Belgium, Bhutan, and Burundi. «We just need to regain belief in ourselves.»

Mabanckou himself contributes a chapter on everyday racism against Africans in France. His observations resemble those described by Tania de Montaigne in L’assignation. Les Noirs n’existent pas . He reminds us that it is «you whites» who created «us blacks». With a personal story about how an African American in Washington cursed him out and threatened to kill him because Mabanckou’s people had sold his people as slaves to Europeans in the 18th century, he shows that Europeans not only created an «us» and «them» but also a divided «them». There may not necessarily be any common ground between an African American and an African living in the United States.

Everyday racism is also the theme of François Durpaire’s contribution, «Y a-t-il des ‘Noirs’ en France?» (Are There ‘Blacks’ in France?). Here, he makes the point that the only thing a person from Senegal, one from the Caribbean, and one from Gabon always have in common is that they come from countries that France colonised. Why do they have to be «black» or «African» in France is incomprehensible; why can’t they be cosmopolitans like most other immigrants?

It is impossible to give all the contributions the space they deserve in a short review, but the book deserves great attention.

Ketil Fred Hansen
Ketil Fred Hansen
Hansen has a PhD in African history. He is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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