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  • The French Imperial Nation-State. Negritude and Colonial Humanism between the Two World Wars by Gary Wilder
  • Owen White
The French Imperial Nation-State. Negritude and Colonial Humanism between the Two World Wars. By Gary Wilder. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

“The colonial fact,” wrote Léopold Sédar Senghor after French colonialism had officially ceased in his Senegalese homeland, entailed “dependence in interdependence.”1 Though it is unclear how many Senegalese would have agreed with this assertion at the time it was made, Gary Wilder’s stimulating book The French Imperial Nation-State seems to support the idea that it accurately captures the colonial-era relationship of Negritude thinkers like Senghor to the French with whose lives theirs were entwined. Even more compellingly, perhaps it also captures the nature of Franco-African relations since independence.

The French Imperial Nation-State, while setting out to challenge the well-worn dualisms that characterized French colonial discourse (and until recently tended to structure its historiography), is itself built around two discrete yet interrelated halves. In the first, Wilder charts the emergence in French West Africa after World War One of “a new logic of administration” (4) that was strongly marked by a reformist tendency he labels “colonial humanism,” a term borrowed from the historian Raoul Girardet. Exemplified by administrators like Maurice Delafosse, Henri Labouret, and (most crucially here) Robert Delavignette, this movement, with its welfarist, development-oriented mindset, allows Wilder to articulate one of his key arguments, that “emancipatory and oppressive dimensions” (6) coexisted in both republicanism and colonialism. In positing such a coexistence, Wilder criticizes those historians who would portray colonial oppression as a violation of universalist republican principles, yet who, in the process, perhaps unwittingly, leave colonialism itself unchallenged (in other words, by implying that if only colonialism had been more “republican” it would have been acceptable). This is an idea on which all historians of the French Empire may usefully reflect, though I do not think that Alice Conklin’s A Mission to Civilizeóa book that has proved very helpful to historians’ understanding of the ways republican ideologies shaped specific colonial policiesódeserved to bear the brunt of Wilder’s critique, as it does here.2

Bracing though Wilder’s argument is, my primary concern with this first section is that he accords “colonial humanism” a hegemonic influence over policy in West Africa that I find difficult to square with my understanding of the longer-term trajectory of colonial governance in the region. The putatively “new” administrative logic that Wilder identifies, combining, among other things, both economic developmentalism and an increased attention to social welfare, was certainly in place before World War One. Looking at West Africa, the break seems to me to arrive with the end of major “pacification” operationsóit was difficult to pose as any kind of humanist while these continuedórather than the war in Europe. Moreover, the governing logic articulated by men like Gabriel Angoulvant in Côte d’Ivoire was shaped in explicit opposition to the early generation of “colonial humanists” like Delafosse, who were often dismissed as négrophiles, and whose “sentimental” humanism was liable to be seen as inimical to effective government. While “humanist” strands may later have been grafted on to this administrative model, they did not, in my view, fundamentally alter its basic rationale. Though this argument does not negate Wilder’s claims regarding the coexistence of emancipatory and oppressive dimensions in republicanism and colonialismóif anything, it reinforces themóit does raise doubts about the heuristic value of the concept of “colonial humanism” to our understanding of colonial rule in French West Africa.

With this said, reform-minded administrators with a more than peripheral interest in the ethnography of African cultures did gain a measurable degree of influence in the 1920s and 30s, and nowhere is this more sharply demonstrated than in the second, in my view more persuasive, half of Wilder’s book. Here, the author highlights the imprint of “colonial humanism” on the thinking of the group of African and Antillean expatriates in France who developed the Negritude movement, and analyzes the attempts of these “products of assimilation” to...

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