Between the Black American and the African: Misunderstanding

This is Chapter 6 of Letter to Jimmy by French-speaking African writer Alain Mabanckou. Written on the twentieth anniversary of James Baldwin’s death, Letter to Jimmy is Mabanckou’s ode to his literary hero and an effort to place James Baldwin’s life in context within the greater African diaspora.

Alain Mabanckou

Alain Mabanckou

In France, you hope to make progress on your quest for self-discovery, far away from the limita­tions imposed on you by your own country. Such a search proves to be more complicated than you imagined. The experience of migration places you face to face with other cultures, other people, and leads you to reconsider your ideas. Leeming writes that, ironically, once settled in Europe, you are forced to admit that the “old” continent had not in any way changed your heritage, and that the transformation would never occur: you would remain a black man as you had been in New York. Europe helps you, at best, understand what it means to be a black man. The Harlem ghetto had aroused in you a “. . . sense of congestion, rather like the insistent, maddening, claustrophobic pounding in the skull that comes from trying to breathe in a very small room with all the win­dows shut.”

Does an end to this confinement affect not only your body, but also your soul? Does Europe provide you with enough room to breathe?

After systematic rejection in your own country, you have to brave at present another reality—withdrawing into yourself, even watching yourself disappear: “The American Negro in Paris is forced at last to exercise an undemocratic discrimination rarely practiced by Ameri­cans, that of judging his people, duck by duck, and distinguishing them one from another. Through this deliberate isolation, through lack of numbers, and above all through his own overwhelming need to be, as it were, forgotten, the American Negro in Paris is very nearly the invisible man.”

Such invisibility allows you initially to be just a “man among others,” no longer someone to be pointed at. This attempt to disappear is almost instinctive, as if you had to distrust the sudden freedom in a world that was yours to discover. However, and you learn this quickly, too, men of color are not all in the same boat in Europe: you are not treated the same as a black American as you would be if you were a black man from Africa, espe­cially from the former colonies. History, you insist, dis­rupts countries and continents. And what greater site of disruption is there than Europe? Of course you need only to walk a few steps in Paris to assess the wealth and prestige of the French culture through its architec­ture, museums and the thoroughfares throbbing with tourists. Still, behind the thoroughfare, there is always a dark alleyway, a dead end, a cul-de-sac. And at the end of this alley, a man is seated on a bench, a can of beer in his hand—the other face of France is now forming: “alien” France, the France of refugees, exiles, and the formerly colonized. The pariahs of the Republic, in some sense. Among them are some who fought for France in the war and who wait in vain for their pension, or those whose relatives were killed at the front and hope to one day see the names of their family members in French history textbooks.

Their presence? Very visible. Like flies in a bowl of milk. And in their voices, a whisper of desperation.

Paris

Paris in this way becomes for you a true laboratory, playing “. . . a defining role in the elaboration of the ‘African experience,’ in the formulation and reformula­tion of a global blackness.” However the serious error regarding the perception of black communities in France, as Dominic Thomas points out in his essay, Black France, is to underestimate the different forces behind their emergence. One must be warned, he insists, against perceiving them as a homogenous community. This is how, in a novel like The Black Docker, from Senegalese writer Ousmane Sembène, the author can describe a black community in which the West Indian ranks higher than the Senegalese, a term referring to all Africans, regardless of their country of origin, with everything that it implies about France’s attitude toward people of color from the black continent . . .

How many times during my long stay in France do you think, Jimmy, I was asked if I was Senegalese? The collective imagination crafted a stock character that we inherited from our participation in World Wars One and Two, fighting for the French. Answering these inquiries with the response that I was Congolese required the patience and precision of a school-teacher, to explain that there were two Congos, even though the borders between the former Zaire (today called the Democratic Republic of Congo) and my country (the Republic of Congo) were carved out by Europeans! Did I also need to inform them that my capital, Brazzaville, had been the capital of Free France during the Occupation? Infu­riated, I often gave up and accepted whatever had been decided about me, a “Senegalese” man. With some per­spective, I realize that I was unwittingly reenacting the experience of my relatives who, in the French army and in the minds of everyone, were known as “Senegalese Tirailleurs” and accepted it.

What place is there, then, for a black American in this “Tower of Babel”? Your quest proves to be greater than you anticipate, Jimmy, extending beyond your particular case as an American citizen of color. It now encompasses the behavior of other migrants, and their way of life, but above all else, it encompasses France’s attitude toward this juxtaposition of people washed up on its shores, each with his own motive, each with his own past . . .

In Paris, the African students you meet live “. . . in groups together, in the same neighborhoods, in student hotels and under conditions which cannot fail to impress the American as almost unendurable.”

Far from being alienated from himself, an African man does not harbor the same fear of rootlessness as an American man of color, even though he has endured his­tory’s injustice, and, unlike an American man of color, has not, “all his life long, ached for acceptance in a cul­ture which pronounced straight hair and white skin the only acceptable beauty.”

On the contrary, Africans have the self-confidence— perhaps even an exaggerated one—of coming from a continent of clearly defined borders, from a suppos­edly sovereign nation, which they dream deep in their hearts will be emancipated, unchained from the bonds of dependence on colonial power. In this respect, they share a common heritage with other immigrants whose lands are still under French control.

Black Americans, on the other hand, have to seek out their identity. The product of a historical rape and a ruinous voyage, they want to retrace the steps of the crossing that cast them out of their native continent, Africa, into the cotton fields where strains of gospel rang out between cracks of the whip and the barking of guard dogs. Ameri­cans cannot forget the desire to rebel, or the leg cut off after an escape attempt, or the ropes of the gallows. Nor do young girls forget the vicious Master’s abuse of power that would produce an entire line of bastard children.

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

In America, as Frantz Fanon points out, “the negro struggles and is opposed. There are laws that disappear, piece by piece, from the Constitution. There are decrees that forbid certain types of discrimination. And rest assured those things did not come as gifts. There are bat­tles, defeats, cease-fires, and victories.”

Black Americans ran aground in a land that was not their own—the New World. This land of refuge reduced them to a status so low that they do not par­ticipate in the decisions of this nevertheless multi-racial nation, dominated by whites with a heavy hand. With this in mind you declare, “It is entirely unacceptable that I should have no voice in the political affairs of my own country, for I am not a ward of America; I am one of the first Americans to arrive on these shores.”

In short, while Africans are naturally attached to Africa, black Americans for their part mythologize it, spin legends about it, dream of it as a promised land, as if it represented the ultimate and absolute freedom. They long to return to the birthplace of their ancestors. Their Africa is, as a result, a kind of “dreamland.”

Meanwhile, Africans want to change their land, their “real countries,” to reclaim from the colonizers the power to decide the fate of their own people, to put an end to the exploitation of the wealth of their natural resources. It is a fight for freedom, a struggle to regain territory. Africans want to drive out the colonizers; black Americans are fighting simply to be recognized as full citizens.

And yet, black Americans and Africans are strangers to one another. Africans have a clear idea of Africa which involves them regaining control of the fountainhead, a fountainhead from which they believe all of the lost children—the so-called blacks of the diaspora—will one day come back to drink. Blood is thicker than water, after all.

Black Americans do not have a clear idea of Africa, but they do have certain ideas of Africa that situate them on one side of an unbreachable gap between myth and reality. There is the myth of their ancestors, torn from the continent; the reality is the battle they fight for acknowl­edgement and identity in their new homeland.

* * *

The uneasiness between Africans and black Americans is even more apparent when it comes to intellectual debate.

From the 19th to the 22nd of September 1956, the first literary congress of black writers and artists convenes at the Sorbonne in Paris, under the initiative of Alioune Diop, founder of the journal Présence Africaine. You are enlisted to cover the event for Preuves et Encounter, and you watch closely the birth of the Negritude movement by Aimé Césaire, Léon Gontran Damas and Léopold Sédar Senghor. Instead of drawing you closer to Africa, this encounter heightens your feeling of confusion. You consider the congress to be a true disappointment. The representatives of the Negritude movement are discon­nected from reality, and when they express themselves— in France, in the French language, the language of their colonizers—their approach to the issues at hand is biased, in the sense that it is Franco-French leaning, and drowns the fundamental questions in theoretical posturing.

Negritude remains a vague and empty notion that seems separate from you. Certain African intellectuals— such as Manthia Diawara—do not attempt to hide their reservations on the subject. Diawara is not convinced that having a mutual “white adversary” creates a shared culture. And when Senghor, in a poetic speech, praises Richard Wright’s Black Boy, you realize that the Senega­lese poet has not yet understood the scope of the total misunderstanding that characterizes relations between Africans and black Americans. Senghor’s interpretation of Black Boy in fact underlines Richard Wright’s African heritage. Yet what Richard Wright authored in truth was an American autobiography that one cannot com­prehend outside of the context of his personal experience as a black man in America, and all of the struggle, repres­sion, denial and displacement that entails. In reality, the African intellectuals’ takeover of this 1956 congress dem­onstrates their desire to appropriate the personal experi­ences of black Americans into the concept of Negritude in order to give the latter the appearance of being more open, of having a broader base. Your uneasiness with this surfaces when, three years after the congress, you would confide the following to the historian Harold Isaacs: “[Africans] hated America, were full of racial sto­ries, held their attitudes largely on racial grounds. Politi­cally, they knew very little about it. Whenever I was with an African, we would both be uneasy . . . The terms of our life were so different, we almost needed a dictionary to talk.”

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Alain Mabanckou was born in Congo-Brazzavile in 1966. He is the author of Broken Glass (Soft Skull 2010), Memoirs of a Porcupine (Soft Skull 2006) and African Psycho (Soft Skull 2007) among others. He currently divides his time between Paris and California, where he teaches French Literature at UCLA.

Copyright © 2014 by Alain Mabanckou from Letter to Jimmy (translated by Sara Meli Ansari). Reprinted by permission of Soft Skull Press, an imprint of Counterpoint.

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