- An Interview with Sylviane A. Diouf
Sylviane A. Diouf is an award-winning historian of the African Diaspora. A native of France, she has lived and travelled extensively in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. She has been a New Yorker since 1989. In addition to publishing pioneering scholarly works on African Diasporan themes, she has written black history children’s books, curated gallery and online exhibitions, lectured widely on the global black experience, and appeared as an expert in documentary films. Dr. Diouf has served as a curator at the world-renowned Schomburg Center since 2001. She is also the Director of the Schomburg Center’s Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery. In this interview with Howard Dodson, Director Emeritus of the Schomburg, Dr. Diouf discusses her unique journey into the field of African Diasporan studies. This interview was conducted October 26, 2016, in New York City.
I want to thank you for agreeing to participate in this interview for Callaloo. I noticed from your resume that you have established yourself as one of the leading scholars on slavery and on the African Diaspora itself. When did you choose this focus for your scholarship and why?
I know it definitely matured before college. But to go further, I think it all started when I was growing up in the 1960s. I saw the Civil Rights demonstrations on TV and the dogs particularly horrified me. The idea of sending dogs after people was unconscionable. It was so far from my own experience, growing up in a quiet Parisian suburb. I think this is where my interest in trying to understand other worlds came from. I grew up in a mixed family. My father, who was Senegalese, was the only black person in Noisy-le-Sec; and after we children were born there were four. My world was totally dissimilar to what I was seeing on TV. I frankly didn’t know what racism was and I didn’t have any kind of “race consciousness.” I did not feel different from anyone in school and I was not made to feel different. By the same token, I did not feel a personal connection to the black people I saw mauled by dogs; it was more about the inhumanity of it. Like my parents I was an avid history reader and, logically, as I grew older I wanted to understand why this could have happened and I discovered slavery. It was literally a discovery because this history was not taught in school. I researched and learned entirely on my own.
So your interest in slavery and the diaspora was inspired in part by the Civil Rights movement in the United States as opposed to something that was going on in France or the decolonization movement in Africa itself. [End Page 878]
I was too young to even be aware of the independence movement in Africa. Except for the war in Algeria, which was very close to us because our next door neighbor was a right-wing member of parliament and my parents were worried that the Algerian nationalists could bomb his house—we were very close to him and his family—or, by mistake, bomb ours.
You mentioned your father and your mother. Say a little bit about them and your family background.
My father came from a very long line of Muslim scholars. One of our ancestors, Khaly Amar Fall, founded the Islamic school of higher learning, Pir, in 1611. It trained many of the elite Islamic scholars in the sub-region, including the Almamy of Futa Toro Abdel Kader Kane, who mounted a vigorous opposition to the slave trade in the late-eighteenth century. My father studied in Qur’anic schools for several years before going to the French school and then attending the most prestigious school in French West Africa, the Ecole Normale William Ponty, which educated the West African elite, including some of the first presidents. He was then conscripted during World War II and after Algeria and Germany, arrived in France where he continued his studies and got married. He was a physicist and my...