- Race and Sex across the French Atlantic: The Color of Black in Literary, Philosophical, and Theater Discourse
In this fascinating study of the construction of discourses on race and sex, Frieda Ekotto examines the influence of francophone literary, philosophical, and political traditions on the black diaspora, including African American politics. She takes the reception of Jean Genet's Les nègres in the 1960s-era United States as a point of departure, before expertly weaving together seemingly disparate elements—abstract French theater, the American Civil Rights movement, and riots in the Parisian suburbs—in a way that traces the development of discourses on race and sex on both sides of the Atlantic, showing profound differences in their approaches.
In the introduction, Ekotto establishes some of the parameters of her study and methodology, arguing that scholarship on the black diaspora has arbitrarily privileged the anglophone sphere, without considering sufficiently the role of francophone culture. She posits that the French Atlantic offers "a fundamentally different philosophical and epistemological framework for articulations on black subjectivity throughout history" (xiv) and "a paradigm shift for the political movements of the United States" (xiv).
In chapter one Ekotto focuses on Lorraine Hansberry's response to Genet's Les nègres. First she argues that African American intellectuals often rejected the "abstraction" present in French discourses (in literature, the use of allegory, symbolism, and universals; in politics and philosophy, the use of existential, psychoanalytic, and Marxist theory) because they considered it to be "exoticism" and "essentialism." However, in the French tradition, Genet, Fanon, and the founders of negritude valorized this same "abstraction" as potentially revolutionary, and thus ultimately added a dimension of it to discussions of race in the United States.
Chapter two traces the genealogy of the terms "nègre" and "nigger" as a means of elucidating "the creation of the Other as a category" (xxi) in Enlightenment thought and reasoning. Ekotto argues that Genet's play, by presenting black actors wearing white masks, introduces the notion of blackness as a performance, a construct, thus targeting the very process of dialectical reasoning that affirms racial distinctions.
In chapter three, Ekotto examines the recent Parisian riots, in order to explain their origins in French colonial history. Through a reading of Faïza Guène's Kiffe, kiffe demain she argues that the colonial relationship has been displaced onto the space of the metropolis, with the Parisian français de souche confronting the colonized Other of the banlieue—a latter-day version of the citizen-subject opposition.
Chapter four presents a reading of Dany Laferrière's extremely popular novel Comment faire l'amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer about black men bedding white women in Montreal, in order to explore "the role that sexuality plays in the definition of the black as Other" (xxi). According to Ekotto, by rewriting "the colonial fantasy through the perspective of the black man" (85), Laferrière disturbs the category of the "nègre" so central to Western philosophy. [End Page 139]
Although postcolonial studies has generally considered different linguistic and cultural traditions separately, and maintained stark divisions between literature and philosophy, Ekotto makes a compelling argument for a trans-Atlantic approach, and skillfully illustrates how literary texts in French critique Western philosophy. A minor shortcoming of the study is the lack of a discussion of Aimé Césaire's widely influential plays, since Ekotto limits her discussion of French theater to Genet, and of negritude to Senghor's poetry. Nevertheless, this well-written book will be of great interest to students and scholars alike of French, francophone, and African American literature, as well as postcolonial studies more generally.