- Le Sanglot de l'Homme Noir
Alain Mabanckou, who has written poetry, stories, an essay on James Baldwin, and eight novels (several of which have won literary prizes), is perhaps the best-known African writer in French today. He now teaches at the University of California, and defines himself as born in the Congo, holding a French passport and an American green card. He arrived in France as a student before the laws on naturalization were hardened, and could claim French citizenship because his parents were born in the French Congo before independence, had not claimed Congolese citizenship, and were therefore considered French. Now, of course, obtaining citizenship is more difficult, even for those born in France of African parents. Mabanckou attacks the current UMP government's restrictive policy of "national identity." For him identity is not a question of territory or blood, but of culture.
Le Sanglot de l'Homme Noir is initially a response to Pascal Bruckner's Sanglot de L'Homme Blanc (1983), in which Bruckner says that Europeans, feeling guilty for colonialism, adopt a reductive Manichean vision of the world, refusing to see any good in their past. Africans, for Mabanckou, similarly tend to see the world in terms of black and white, and explain problems in Africa as the fault of the Europeans. They forget the present for a mythic past. He cites with approval Fanon's verdict on Blacks who still talk of a "supposed glorious ancestry," rather than working on the real problems of Africans and West Indians today. Europe is not responsible for Idi Amin, Bokassa, or Mobutu. "Ethnic conflicts, political assassinations, permanent coups d'état, are now typically African" (172).
Mabanckou frequently contrasts the situation of Blacks in the United States and in France. In the United States, Blacks share a common history of slavery. In France, Senegalese, Congolese, immigrants from La Réunion are "strangers one from another, and speak French, not a common African language" (47). When an African American is treated unjustly, he cannot say, "I'll go back to my country." Blacks living in France should not think of returning to a country many do not know. Commenting on how literary texts reflect the situation of people of African origin in Europe, Mabanckou cites with approval Sami Tchak's Place des fêtes, where the narrator cannot accept the African traditions his father wishes to impose on him. He is particularly critical of some, such as Boubacar Boris Diop, who want to write in African languages. When he arrived in France, Mabanckou [End Page 134] and his fellow African students often had a better knowledge of French grammar than most of their French colleagues.
Mabanckou describes with humor his encounters with black people in France and in the United States (as well as with a white Frenchman who thinks Mabanckou must have been adopted by a white family to have a French passport). He meets an African American who hates him as he has taken a job that should have been given to an American. He also, however, meets a white French family with whom he is immediately in rapport as they comment happily on how obese Americans are. The incident reinforces his belief that culture and language are essential ingredients in his identity.