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It should come as no surprise that sociologist Bennetta Jules-Rosette, who teaches at the University of California at San Diego, should write a book about Paris, a major site of Francophone African literature. It speaks well of Cultural Studies that it is able to provide a space in which sociology can serve literature by shedding light on the conditions of its production, and can in turn make use of literature as a prism through which to study diasporic cultural life in Paris. It is worth recalling that Bernard Mouralis, who is frequently cited in this study, is a pioneer of this type of multidisciplinary analysis.
Even though Paris has been one of the capitals of the black diaspora since the 1920s, this fact was only recently granted an official cachet, especially with the intensification of the debate on the status of immigrants in France. Particularly revealing was the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Présence Africaine, an institution that deliberately kept its headquarters in Paris with the aim of promoting African and Caribbean literature. Crucial as well was the publication of Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light (1996), by Tyler Stovall, who carefully reconstructed the sociohistorical situation of African American expatriates until the 1950s. Also noteworthy was the semiological inventory of Black Paris carried out in the 1980s by Blaise N’Djehoya, who published with Massaer Diallo Un regard noir: Les Français vus par les Africains [A Black Look: The [End Page 1072] French as Seen by Africans] (1984) and collaborated on No. 43 of the journal Autrement (April 1983), “Black-Africains, Antillais, Cultures noires en France.”
Simon Njami belongs to this same generation of corrosive, tender, “megapolitan,” and “diaspora-wise” gazes to which Jules-Rosette devotes an excellent sub-chapter of Black Paris entitled “Writers’ Gazes on the Parisian Landscape” and follows with a detailed study of these gazes in the texts of Yodi Karone, Simon Njami, Blaise N’Djehoya, and Calixthe Beyala. A writer and editor of Revue Noire, Njami has recently imposed himself as the arbiter of avant-garde stylishness. His foreword to Jules-Rosette’s book is a fresco painted in broad-brushed strokes, which covers the high points of the cultural history of Black Paris from the 1920s to the 1960s.
The Black Paris project appeared embryonically in Jules-Rosette’s contribution to Surreptitious Speech: Présence Africaine and the Politics of Otherness, 1947–1987, edited by V. Y. Mudimbe (1992). The author’s preface also indicates that the source materials for Black Paris were gleaned from public institutions like the Musée de l’homme, from writers’ personal archives, and from conversations that have been partially transcribed following every chapter. The author proclaims her intention to be the reconstructor of the “narratives of longing and belonging that reflect the themes of African writing in France today.” As a definition of her project, another of her formulations is perhaps to be preferred for its simplicity: “I’m working on the history of the Présence Africaine publishing house and the evolution of African writing in France.”
To this end, Jules-Rosette undertakes the construction of a model that explains, over a 50-year period, the relationships of three generations of African writers (the Présence Africaine group, the revolutionary writers, and the so-called “Parisianist” generation) in the specific sociological and linguistic “landscape” of Paris, a former metropolis, a literary capital, a black city. She thereby proposes to elucidate both the specificity of this African literature in French and its position in world literature; to take into account the permanence and the metamorphoses of the literary metaphors for imagining Africa from Paris.
Jules-Rosette’s approach is characterized by a focus that shifts between extreme close-ups and wide angles: in chapter 1, she focuses on Présence Africaine and its relations with anthropology in France; and [End Page 1073] in chapter 2, she opens onto the world with an evocation of the international conferences organized under the aegis of...