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  • Black Skins, French Voices: Caribbean Ethnicity and Activism in Urban France
  • Jaime Hanneken
David Beriss. Black Skins, French Voices: Caribbean Ethnicity and Activism in Urban France. Westview Case Studies in Anthropology. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2004. 156 pp.

Beriss offers in Black Skins, French Voices an intriguing portrait of Antillean struggle for recognition and acceptance in France, a portrait which, in addition to providing detailed information about the particular condition of Antillean migrants, prepares the reader for debate on much broader current themes, such as the parameters of postcolonialism, or the role of race and nationalism in a contemporary metropolis where both categories ostensibly have become obsolete. Indeed, as part of a series of anthropological case studies, Beriss's work rightly can be expected to raise more questions than it answers: his very thorough explanations of recent conditions of Antilleans working and living in France and their strategies to effect social change, contextualized by helpful historical, anthropological, and economic information, therefore would serve as an excellent supplement to interdisciplinary or comparative studies on postcoloniality or migration, as the author himself notes in the introduction.

Written mostly in a firsthand journalistic style, the book alternates between formal discussions of Antillean history and culture and more properly ethnographic accounts of his encounters and interviews with specific groups or individuals. The first three chapters cover a trajectory of discussion loosely organized around the role of race in France's national imaginary; chapters 4 through 7 address the author's fieldwork more specifically, describing Antillean organization and activism through performance in theater groups (ch. 4), the practice of magic (ch. 5), and religious worship (ch. 6).

Perhaps of most interest to the non-specialist reader is the author's underlying engagement of cultural racism as it manifests itself in the Antillean case: borrowing more than he admits from Etienne Balibar's theory of neoracism, Beriss effectively makes Antillean alienation the paradigm of French cultural racism. He repeatedly posits (as does Balibar) the supplanting of former racial boundaries with cultural boundaries as the prominent marginalizing tool of current French nationalism: rather than actively discriminate, metropolitan French culture shuns immigrants and migrants by erecting an unattainable ideal of assimilation as requisite for acceptance into its society, thereby refusing to concede [End Page 150] the diversification of its own national body. Beriss demonstrates the effects of cultural racism poignantly in the first two chapters. In chapter 1, "Finding Creole Identities in Martinique and Paris," he lays out the essential paradox of Antillean identity: namely, that of enjoying the rights of full citizenship in the nation of the former colonizer, on the one hand, and inhabiting the metropolis as yet another unwanted element of the French "immigration problem," on the other. In chapter 2, "What Is the Price of Frenchness?" he analyzes the dynamics of French nationalism in the dichotomy between two recent spectacles of cultural heritage: the 1989 bicentennial of the French Revolution, and the 1998 victory of France in the World Cup championship. Beriss explains how metropolitan representations of "Frenchness" in the events of the bicentennial dismissed the alternative perspective that Antilleans, as descendants of a history of slavery and colonialism, maintain of the iconic foundations of republicanism, thereby disregarding their very presence as a national constituency. He then describes how the victory of a multicultural team in the 1998 World Cup inspired a brief acceptance and celebration of France's diverse population. Somewhere between these opposing national visions, Beriss suggests, lies a way for Antilleans to assert their own version of Frenchness without uncritically adopting the dominant culture.

Although the author succeeds in placing questions of Antillean activism provocatively at the intersection of several current topics of study, certain inconsistencies in his critical approach limit his book's theoretical scope. First, his inherent questioning of metropolitan cultural unity in the face of its ignored Antillean elements is undermined by the sometimes indiscriminate use of the qualifier "French," as in the sentence "Isolated among the French, [Antilleans] are overwhelmed by metropolitan values and rapidly lose any sense of identity" (85). Participating in the unproblematic circulation of a semantic division between traditional "French" and "Antillean" referents begs the very question that Beriss means to ask. Similarly...


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pp. 150-152
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