The Making of a Militant Artist
Publication Year: 2010
Published by: Indiana University Press
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Foreword by Danny Glover
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Ousmane Sembène was one of the world’s most passionate filmmakers, and the novelist who perhaps best captured the turmoil of modern West Africa. He was a staunchly political figure who, in an era of violent power plays, used storytelling as a means of leverage. He was a visionary who understood the power of imagination as a form of resistance against the colonizer...
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In 1972, I was in my senior year at the Faidherbe High School in Saint-Louis, the first capital of French West Africa (AOF). The educational institution, today known as the Omar Tall High School, was named after Louis-L�on C�sar Faidherbe, the famous polytechnician and civil engineering officer who was appointed governor of Senegal in 1852...
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More than a duty, it is a pleasure for me to express my gratitude to all the individuals and institutions whose contribution made this work possible. Of course, special debt is owed to Mount Holyoke College, which provided, at many points in the research process, generous financial support to fund my numerous trips to Africa and Europe, as well as within the United States, to gather research material...
PART ONE . On the Banks of a Mighty River: Ousmane Sembène’s Childhood
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Casamance, Sembène’s native region, holds a prominent place in his imagination. This artistic investment in a locality pervades his entire corpus, from O pays, mon beau peuple! (1957) through L’harmattan (1963), a novel centered around the 1958 referendum organized by Charles de Gaulle, a momentous event purported to determine the future of French colonies in Africa...
2 At the Crossroads of Cultures
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Lower Casamance is blessed with a variety of landscapes and rich, rain-drenched soil. This has attracted, in addition to traders and colonial administrators, natives from other parts of Senegal. In the early 1920s, Ziguinchor was a bubbling hodgepodge of ethnic groups, religions, and languages (Joolas, Mandingos, Serers, French and Portuguese Creoles); yet this was only a rough outline of the shape of things to come...
3 Youth and Its Discontents
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Since early childhood, Ousmane Sembène has been an incorrigible vagrant. “I needed some space, being always in the same place used to wear me out in the long run. . . . I learned a lot through my childhood experiences. I learned languages and dialects that I would put to good use, four decades later, when I traveled around the continent. I never felt alienated at all. I would stop at any given village and after a couple of hours...
4 Colonial Violence
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Oumar Faye’s return to his native land is one of the key moments in O pays, mon beau peuple! On the ship bringing him back home, he is gradually sinking into a nostalgic mood, his heart heavy with longing and his mind all fired up by bitter-sweet memories of the past. He cannot remember the beauty of the landscape without thinking of the violence and...
PART TWO . Dakar: The Turbulent Years
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5 The Lebu Ghettos of Dakar Plateau
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Ousmane Semb�ne did not leave Ziguinchor with a light heart. Even though he had developed an intense passion for adventure, such a journey to the unknown, at only 15, was bound to raise some apprehensions in the young man. His uncle Baye W�l� Semb�ne felt that his nephew was indeed a bit hesitant, and that was the reason why he came in person to make the trip to the capital with him. When Semb�ne arrived in Dakar in...
6 The World of Labor
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In Ziguinchor, Moussa Sembène had already introduced his son Ousmane to the world of labor. “At night we used to go carp fishing. It was cast-net fishing, and the dugout had to glide slowly on the water. We had to row without making the slightest noise. Sometimes I would fall asleep, on and off, then my father would throw fish bait in my face and stuff...
7 The Experience of Racism
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Spatial organization has always been the most telltale feature of colonial racism. But if Santhiaba, the “native” district in Ziguinchor, was something like an outgrowth, a collateral effect of the European settlement, things were altogether different in the Plateau of Dakar. It is perhaps worthwhile to say a few words about the history of the current Senegalese...
8 “Here We Come, Marshal!”
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When Pétain, premier of Vichy France, announced the Armistice on June 16, 1940, the colonies received this news as a big letdown, especially in Senegal, the most French of all. People had mixed feelings about this turn of events, and there was a great deal of incredulity, and even shame, involved. France, “Mother of the Arts, Arms and the Law”1 was now under the yoke of Nazi Germany, that “embodiment of absolute Evil.” The rhetoric of imperialist conservatism had hit its mark. Ousmane Sembène...
PART THREE . Dakar in the Postwar Period
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9 The Winds of Change
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As one can easily guess, in the above cited opening lines of Black Docker, Sembène is vicariously on his way to France through the sad musings of Diaw Falla’s mother. In spite of the disappointments and misgivings about France in the aftermath of the war, he was unwavering in his faith that there, at least, opportunities he was denied in Senegal would be up for grabs. At only 23, Sembène was already experiencing the hardships of life in...
10 The Moment of Truth
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Even though a number of economic, social, and administrative reforms were initiated at the Brazzaville Conference, on the political level no commitment was made to shake things up. As Xavier Yacono rightly points out, “in the beginning of 1944, the word ‘decolonization’ sounded dead in French ears, as the ideal of one day turning a French African into an African French remained much valued.”1 Already in 1945 the expression...
PART FOUR . The Making of a Militant-Artist
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11 “The Village”
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“Once upon a time, there was a king who ruled over a small territory, in the south of what would later become France. This dates back to a distant and forgotten past, twenty-six centuries ago, to be accurate.”1 Thus began an article written by Michel Richard, the first in a special issue that the magazine Le Point devoted to Marseilles, to celebrate the city’s 2,600 years of existence. Michel Richard reminds us that the oldest French city is...
12 The Docker
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Ousmane Semb�ne worked as a docker at the Place de la Joliette, Quay J3, Gate 25. Before that he used to do some stints as a day laborer, but he did not have a professional card. In postwar Marseilles, a docker was always associated with foreignness and poverty. Semb�ne was then in his prime, performing his herculean tasks to the best of his physical abilities...
13 The Militant
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“At the time,” says Emile Belsenti, a retired docker, “the problem for us workers, was to be able, at least, to survive. You could no longer eke out a living with that job.”1 One would think that with the Marshall Plan, the situation would get better, but far from it: the plan made things worse. Like everybody else, Sembène struggled to keep his head above water, but these hard times also taught him the value of human solidarity: “When...
14 The Fire-Giver
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Ousmane Sembène, the erstwhile docker, will no doubt leave a rich legacy to posterity. Through his work, he has been one of the most prominent Africans of his time. To provide just one example, his last movie, Moolaade, made when he was already past his eighties, conquered the most diverse audiences; it also represents Sembène’s strongest statement as to his exceptional vitality as a man and an artist. This long career has been marked...
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We began this study by following the ship bringing Oumar Faye back to his native Casamance in O pays, mon beau peuple!, after years of war, exile, and learning in Europe. This foreshadowed Sembène’s own return, after Senegal’s independence in 1960. Like Oumar Faye, Sembène went back to his native land after twelve years in Marseilles; years...
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Page Count: 218
Illustrations: 5 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2010