The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France, is an important collection of essays on the history of race in France. The idea for this work originated in a 1996 conference panel on integrating race into the teaching of French history and since has grown into this sixteen-essay volume, with contributions from American and French scholars. Together, the essays provide tremendous breadth — chronologically (mid-seventeenth to the present), geographically (the Caribbean to Southeast Asia), and topically (philosophical treatises to breakfast food labels) — and they make a significant contribution to both the historiographies of race and modern France. The volume is organized around four distinct yet interrelated themes, each of which underscores the editors’ belief that “one cannot understand questions of race in France without taking the colonial experience into consideration,” (4) and that scholars should “regard metropole and empire as a whole composed of continually interacting parts.” (5) One, if not both, of these beliefs informs every essay in the volume and it is this integration of previously separate areas of study that is the volume’s greatest strength.
In “Race: The Evolution of an Idea,” the contributors focus on the changing conceptions of race in France between the seventeenth and the early twentieth centuries by examining the works of philosophers and scientists in metropolitan France. In contrast to those who identify the origins of modern racial thinking in Boulainvilliers or Buffon, Boulle finds those roots in the work of Bernier, a seventeenth-century doctor and philosopher. Bernier, Boulle contends, was the first to propose a different approach to races which focused on “broad human categories characterized by distinct physical traits” and which insisted “that the transmission of characteristics by inheritance predominates over environmental or cultural determinants.” (15) Bernier’s theories, Boulle asserts, represent an important shift in racial thinking much earlier than previously believed.
Sepinwall examines Abbé Grégoire’s thoughts on race. Noting that his ideas on slavery and the Jews were ‘quite radical’ compared with his contemporaries, she nonetheless cautions against seeing in him an “early version of modern multiculturalism” (28). Despite his abolitionist ideals and his defense of Jews in France, she argues, Abbé Grégoire saw differences in culture and race as “obstacles to social progress.” (28) As a result, his efforts to overcome racial prejudice were grounded in a theory of cultural and biological “homogenization” (29) that is best seen as part of a larger goal to convert all of humankind to Catholicism. In his essay, “Of Monstrous Métis?” Blanckaert explores the debates between monogenists, “partisans of the unity of man,” and polygenists, “doctrinaires of the plural origins of the human race,” (43) by focusing on their varied interpretations of the viability or desirability of the mixed-race métis. Blanckaert concludes that, although disagreements over the status of the métis had split the two camps as early as the eighteenth century, between 1830 and 1859, the debates took on a new nationalist tone, forging the fundamental arguments of later disputes over the natural history of man.
The five essays in “Representations of the Other,” explore the complex ways that racial influenced depictions of the colonized and colonizers throughout France’s empire. Garrigus and Dubois each examine how race functioned in the French Caribbean during the Revolutionary period. Through his close reading of the 1803 novel, La mulâtre, Garrigus demonstrates how “Haiti’s independence was built on racial, cultural, and gendered separations.” (89) This “failed foundational fiction,” as Garrigus calls the novel, represents not only the road not taken by the new nation, but also that transforming representations of the mixed-race woman from “tropical temptress” to “republican companion” (81), lay at the heart of legitimating mulatto power, claims that Saint Domingue was culturally in line with post-revolutionary gender divisions in France, and suggestions that the island could find stability and even independence. Dubois explores how the juridical and political meanings of race in Guadeloupe shifted during the Revolution. His examination of birth and death records shows that, despite the 1794...