Facing France’s Ghosts: A Conversation with Mame-Fatou Niang




THIS IS THE third interview in the LARB series “Decolonize | Defund | Abolish,” which engages scholars, artists, and activists in dialogues about structures of colonialism persisting in the world today, and about creative and speculative practices of freedom in response to these structures. In this installment, Grégory Pierrot speaks to Mame-Fatou Niang, associate professor of French at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, author of Identités Françaises: Banlieues, féminités et universalisme (2019) and co-director, with Kaytie Nielsen, of the film Mariannes Noires: Une Mosaïque Afropéenne, a plural portrait of seven Black French women.

Although the COVID-19 vaccination campaign was already well underway when I spoke to Mame-Fatou Niang, we met virtually, with Mame on the West Coast of France, where she was staying. Mame divides her time between the United States, where she works, and France, where she grew up — physically, but also culturally and politically. Both countries have been shaken by a series of public controversies and scandals relating to anti-Black police violence, clashes over monuments celebrating enslavers, and the purported influence of decolonial thought on the university, that have put matters of Black history and politics at the heart of transatlantic, transnational relationships. In the past half-decade, Mame’s work, activism, and presence have made her one of the leading Black voices in the French public sphere.

I caught up with her in a rare moment of peace in this increasingly toxic context, before the oysterman’s daily visit.

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GREGORY PIERROT: It’s been an odd couple of years in France, between the gilets jaunes movement, the banalization of right-wing talking points. and President Macron’s shenanigans … So, what’s it like being in France right now?

MAME-FATOU NIANG: Oh my god. It’s rough, but at the same time I think it’s great. For the past two years, starting with the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement, thousands and thousands of people in the streets for a whole summer, trying to anchor this global movement for racial justice and against police violence, talking about the impact of the colonial past and white supremacy and trying to anchor it in French history. There’s been an acceleration, an unveiling of sorts of everything that wasn’t okay with the way we live, the narrative that we wrote and told about ourselves: this great fantasy that France is.

I’ll give you this anecdote. Two years ago, around November 28, people in the French media went absolutely crazy because they had French army tanks on the Champs Élysées and the memory they had of a vision of tanks during the Liberation of Paris in 1944. I remember interviews with Parisians, families coming out completely incredulous, watching this, thinking, “Where are we?” And for someone like me who grew up in the banlieue, a militarized place with police and army tanks, none of this is new. It’s just great that it’s coming out, that this rottenness is coming out to the surface. I think it’s great. We needed that.

Could you tell us a bit more about how you got to Pittsburgh and what it’s like living between the two countries? You grew up in Lyon, right?

Yes, in the Lyon banlieue, but I grew up between Dakar and Lyon.

I was working on a master’s thesis on Virginia Woolf when I landed in the US for a nine-month exchange program in August 2006. At the end of the very first class, a class on Africana lit with Dr. Tricia Rose of Brown University, she turned to the group of French students and said this sentence we all remember. She was happy we were there in class, and she would love to hear us when we reached the section of Caribbean thought on Frantz Fanon. So, we looked at the syllabus and we nodded. And then we left class and looked at each other and asked, “Who is Fanon?”

Over the course of that semester, I discovered Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, Maryse Condé, Édouard Glissant, names I had never heard of in France — French artists, writers, thinkers who are, like me, from this French colonial history and who were thinking about what it meant to be French but erased from the family photo album. I ended up staying in the US, and my thesis on Woolf became a thesis on the circulation of laughter in the Black Atlantic. And I remember when I got in touch with my advisor in Lyon to tell him about the change, he told me that there was no such thing as the Black Atlantic. I was told not to put that in my dissertation because it was not serious and it could burn bridges, that it would be really bad for me to waste intelligence on a non-topic.

When I told Tricia Rose, she said that if it’s a non-topic in France, it isn’t in the US, so hey, what about you staying? So, this is how I ended up staying in the US.

There’s a formative pattern here for an entire generation of Black thinkers from France who discovered Black Studies by way of the US. Many of the people who criticize race studies claim that it is a fad that forces a US frame of analysis on the French context. But Black Studies arguably revealed something to us about France — specifically, those French Black authors who make up part of the global canon while being ignored in their own country of origin.

I say this a lot in my research, especially now that this issue of importation of postcolonial studies, decolonial studies, or even the fact of wanting to bring the issue of race into the discussion is severely frowned upon, and everybody from President Macron to the concierge at the hotel will think that we’re importing American ideologies. What I owe to the US is discovering these names: Fanon, Glissant, Condé. But then my question was: How is it possible that French canonical literature and history left so many of these names, dates, and events behind? These are French people speaking in French about France! I trace this genealogy from the fathers and mothers down to current researchers and artists like Audrey Célestine, Maboula Soumahoro, Bintou Dembélé, etc., whose names might sound exotic but who are speaking from France to France.

I think I can name 40 French researchers working in the US. Many of us lived in France during the Sarkozy years, and almost all of us were in English departments in France. Maboula Soumahoro made this very clear in her book Le Triangle et l’Hexagone (2020): the current generation of Black French thinkers are either coming from departments of political sciences or English studies, because studying the state of Black America is basically the only way to marronage your way into studying race in France. This also speaks to the way of de-anchoring, not recognizing these as home issues.

You’ll find Black people everywhere in France, but you can’t speak about Blackness. And for us, working on these topics professionally, these matters are always more than just work, of course. How did you get to realize or think that this needed to be more than just scholarly work?

So, I’m French, and I call myself Afro-French. I come from a country that claims not to see color. But this was a country where I was routinely asked to go back to Africa: “Go back to Africa, go back to Senegal.” And by the way, my family left Senegal back in 1835. Growing up, I was told that I belonged, that I was French, but then I had many experiences that told me otherwise. You forget your ID, and you realize you’re the only person who’s not white, and the anxiety is entirely on you, because you know that, if the police were to check the group, everybody else would be fine but you. These little things show you very early on as a teenager that you might be doing everything you’re supposed to do, working very hard at school, etc., but these things were showing me that I’m not quite at home.

Then, when I decided to engage with research on the representation of the banlieue as a doctoral student, the reaction was so swift, starting with my prof in Lyon, just the rejection of the very need for me to ask these questions: “Why do you want to question Frenchness? Why do you feel like you have to hyphenate? Why do you feel the need to doubt, criticize, why do you feel the need to think from other horizons, the need to reshuffle these maps that we’ve offered?” You know: “The gift is already wrapped: why would you want to know how it was made?” It was something I just had to do; but at the same time, as a grad student, I felt very early that I was caught in a kind of epistemological straitjacket.

I realized early on that I was constantly running into barriers in language — or lack of language — to talk about my subject. Barriers in the definition of knowledge and conventional wisdom around who could be seen as legitimate in the production of knowledge, and barriers also in the form of institutional research methods that I felt were not fully covering my investigations. So, my interest for those dark hidden spots grew and I started to question the unspoken. I was in a department of French and Francophone studies at LSU, but things were very traditional there.

What was your dissertation about?

I wrote a dissertation that looks at three decades of media representations of the banlieue from the 1980s riots in Minguettes — where I was raised — to the Charlie Hebdo killings. In the ’80s, the banlieue problem was seen as something very localized, that had to do with the local ecosystem. For example, the Minguettes riots were never seen, at the time, as something that had to do with immigration, etc., though now they are. Looking at archives, you realize that the explanations given were mostly social: unemployment, social ills, deindustrialization, etc. The vocabulary was heavily one of social issues.

By contrast, during the fall 2005 riots, ethno-racial and religious background became a thing. Words related to religion — Muslims, veiled women — and words like youths, delinquents make this dashing entrance in the way we talk about the riots.

The third moment is the assassination of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo in 2015. In the three months that followed, words like residents, women, people completely disappeared from articles about the banlieue. Now it’s strictly about spaces rather than the people in them; it used to be about containment, and now it’s about amputation. We also see a vocabulary of war and disease, a hygienist vocabulary of cancer, disease describing the banlieue as a limb that is too corrupted, too sick to be saved, and that needs to be severed.

You mention these metaphors of disease, which traditionally have long been connected to the vocabulary of race and racism as well. But in France, we supposedly never speak about race: talking about race is what others do — Americans, for example; the vocabulary of race is always portrayed as brought in from the outside. So, French people talk about race by avoiding mention of the word, but the second you bring it up, it’s on you, even though they were talking about it the whole time.

Absolutely. In my book Identités Françaises: Banlieues, féminités et universalisme, I also look at urban laws as they pertain to the banlieues from the 1970s to 2010s. For the past 40 years, the French government has approached social exclusion through a disguised racialization of poverty and crime, and politique de la ville has centered, cemented the perception of banlieues as foreign, dangerous bodies whose control has to equalize and assimilate residents. A key example is the so-called liberation of women from male violence, which has been a dominant theme in urban management of France’s modular spaces. Somehow, in France, gender equality is managed by the ministry of urban policy! Debates over women’s bodies have been territorialized and racialized. Recent conversations (about certificates of virginity, or the 40-year-old debate on the veil, or the issue of public spaces traditionally dominated by men) have been encoded to target Black and Arab men without ever saying noir or arabe.

The Sevran affair, when a major TV channel wrongly claimed that women were banned on religious grounds from entering a Muslim-owned bar, happened around the same time that Catherine Deneuve and some of her friends were writing this absolutely insane open letter denouncing the #MeToo movement and calling for a return to French values. In substance, the letter stated that one of those essential values is catcalling, and that by refusing to be catcalled women were losing something fundamental to the French way of life. This is where you see that control over women’s bodies is territorialized and racialized: in normal French streets — Paris, la Défense, Champs Élysées — catcalling is art de vivre. But when it happens in the banlieue, women need to be protected from savage hordes of barbarians. The glaring difference in the way things are treated depends on who is talked about.

The place of Black women in particular in France is at the heart of your film, Mariannes Noires. Can you tell us about the genesis of the project?

Mariannes Noires happened because I was sick of not seeing myself or people who looked like me. I was sick of not seeing Blackness in its everyday situations on French TV, growing up not seeing yourself, your parents … I’ll give you an example: for a whole year in sixth or seventh grade, I lied to my mom about when parent/teacher meetings were taking place. My mom is this super-tall, six-foot-two black woman, always wearing flashy African clothes, a headpiece; she always smells like incense. And for me a mom had to be a TV mom: blonde, blue eyes, the kitchen nice and not smelling of all these African spices. The people we saw at family gatherings, who worked in car factories or in the Metro, we didn’t know how to be proud of them. There wasn’t anything likable about this quality of Blackness in France. You could either be completely invisible and/or highly visible: the illegal immigrant, the polygamist family, the welfare recipient, etc.

Then, in 2014, we saw the trailer for Bande de filles, the first film made by a major French studio with an all-Black cast. The trailer was really beautiful. I really like the director, Céline Sciamma: she knows how to talk about sexual difference, what it is like to be trans, a kid, and poor; she knows how to handle this language of difference. Everybody was waiting for this movie, like the entire Black world waiting for Black Panther. People went in groups; my entire family went to watch, it was a family thing, multigenerational. And oh boy, when they told me about it … Beyond my disappointment with the film, I was mad at myself that I could even have thought that this movie could do good or be the beginning of a new era. I was hurt for my teenage cousins, whom I didn’t want to grow up with the same frustration and invisibility I grew up with. That very same hour, I got in touch with Maboula with the idea for Mariannes Noires, and within an hour we had my cast. They all said yes within 23 hours. I filmed in June 2015, and the movie came out in May 2016.

An important dimension of your public-facing work is that you’ve been on mainstream French media quite a lot lately, and sometimes in very hostile environments. And your last point reminds me of something you said recently about speaking in hostile media environments: “I don’t talk to interlocutors so much as to the sister, the parent, the cousin who might be out there watching or listening.” Could you elaborate on that?

I remember a professor in classe préparatoire saying that the best dissertation you can write is one you write for your biggest detractor, or people who hate you. I think it’s so sad! I’ve come to a point where I don’t want to write for people who hate me.

It’s about finding our people even when they’re not visibly there. Before I can go forward, I first need to find where I am on the map, and to do this I have to go to the past. These two, simultaneous, opposite movements completely disturb the way we were taught to think of time and space as linear, this idea of progress. In this regard, reading Maryse Condé and her notion of disorder brought by Black women’s voices, was absolutely illuminating. You don’t have to follow the choir: you are the choir, so set the tone and everything else will follow.

Condé and Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) was absolutely crucial to me because it brought two ideas that have been very dear to my heart: the notion of companionship, and the notion of pleasure. Companionship is seeing the people I’m working on, and for, as also being me and close to me. To be Black within the European modernist project is to live on the fringes of the narrative, to exist in the dead angles, in the silence. But it also means that we are never alone. This could have been an extremely discouraging discovery: to realize that I was 21 and only then finding out about Saint-Domingue, Toussaint Louverture, Louis Delgrès, Solitude, Jeanne Nardal, Jane Léro — it could have been extremely discouraging. I was constantly surrounded by the silences of history, but behind those veils, behind those silences, there’s no void. There’s something hidden, and I made it my mission to unsilence those silences.

I see my work as an archaeology of sound and silence, both in writing and in our environment. I investigate the means we’ve developed to domesticate, harness those silences. That brings me to the politics of pleasure: who am I writing for, and with? Even when I write from a place of rage, of despair, from a place of mourning, I try as much as possible to root that in pleasure, and that contrasts so much with what I see from my detractors in the right-wing media in France: Valeurs Actuelles, CNews, etc. I used to think that what they were oozing was power. But now, as James Baldwin said, I realize it’s just sheer fear. Fear is on their side. And once you realize that, I think the balance of power internally shifts in your head. At the global level, systemic racism is stifling our communities, it’s taking our brothers’ lives, it’s crushing hopes and lives; but this politics of pleasure really is an affirmation of life refusing to be erased.

You mentioned earlier having to work simultaneously in the past and in the present: this year has been especially illustrative of this necessity in France; this was the year of the bicentennial of Napoleon’s death, which saw a lot of unsilencing — and pushback against that. You’ve been part and parcel of this movement to shed more light on French history, notably through the petition you and Julien Suaudeau started two years ago about the Assemblée Nationale fresco. Could you say something about this, and tell us where things stand now in 2021?

This is a fresco in the basement of the Assemblée Nationale that commemorates the 1794 abolition of slavery. It was created in 1991 by a French artist named Hervé Di Rosa, and it is one of the most racist pieces that I’ve had the pleasure to see in my life.

I have zero expectations for France, but I thought we might start a conversation when in April 2019 we wrote the first op-ed asking the Assemblée Nationale whether this fresco was the best representation they could find to collectively commemorate the first abolition of slavery. We meant to open a debate on the subject; beyond the object, what does this say about the memory of slavery in France? But the debate was impossible. In the aftermath, close to 300 articles were published on the topic, and of those maybe two tried to understand the debate we were trying to raise.

I have to say, every time I mention this piece to anyone, I’ll say a few things then stop and go: let me just show it to you. And people’s jaws just drop. The fact that it’s supposed to commemorate the abolition of slavery …

It’s a piece I discovered when I was invited to screen Mariannes Noires at the Assemblée Nationale. It’s huge; it hangs right by the door. I remember going out to get water and I stopped dead in my tracks to look at it.

I remember when you first tweeted about it. Your shock was palpable.

I could not believe it. And then you know what happened: people told us it could not possibly be racist because it commemorated the abolition of slavery; because race does not exist in France. We were the racists, because we were trying to import race into France from abroad — and when they say abroad, they mean the US — and arbitrarily project it onto French realities. You know that racism was defeated by universalism in France: liberté, égalité, fraternité! Anyone who says otherwise is said to be distorting reality or in bed with the far right or radical Islamism, out to overthrow the republican order, etc. We were told we were ignorant, incapable of seeing the piece for what it was, a piece of satire, a fun attempt at caricature, that we were ayatollahs.

I remember famous art critic Catherine Millet in a bonkers interview about this, invoking the right to satire. Satire?

Recently, Napoleon specialist Jean Tulard said in an interview that when slavery was reestablished, nobody complained; we had to reinstate slavery because the economy needed to be revived. You revive something that is on the brink of death; vital bodily functions are at risk of being lost: you have to find a new motor, a new pump. So how can Black people be an engine of history, central to this whole organization, and end up as nobody in national memory? To go back to the idea of having to accept this piece because it’s satire, irony: For what other group in this nation would this be acceptable as a piece commemorating a sacrifice? For whom would it be acceptable to use irony in these circumstances? No one would accept a monument like this. It doesn’t matter because it’s slavery, and we’ve made it a non-place of memory.

The conversation around the fresco is very indicative of the degradation of the quality of public debate in France. The entire political establishment and media joined against us in defense of the work and the artist, their being quintessentially French, and telling us that we don’t understand humor, irony, freedom of speech.

And it was not just conservatives and fascists: I got responses along those lines from friends who are traditionally left-wing French people. I had no illusions either, but the bad faith did make me gasp.

At first it was puzzling to me, this kind of apathy, how people were either unwilling or unable to see the painting as offensive and blatantly racist, but then I realized it spoke volumes about not just the flaws but also the success of our republican ecosystem in erasing these signs from our collective memory. Now, two years later, I see a country that is losing it in front of our eyes. We’ve suppressed so many secrets. Our national underwear stinks, so to speak, and we’re bothered by our own stench. We’re going to have to deal with it, but we’re not ready to deal with it, so we see this weird tension around words, we see words taken, distorted, carved out of their meaning, reinvested with new meanings. I can watch debates on French TV and have no idea what the debate is about, because I don’t recognize what they mean by any of the terms they use: cancel culture, woke, free speech, Islamo-leftism. It suggests that some of us are living on parallel tracks and, at some point, we’re going to have a way to bring these tracks together.

It’s fascinating to me how much France’s current madness has coincided with the increasing presence, visibility, and activity of Black French women across the board: in the arts, in politics, in mainstream culture, everywhere. I see what happened to the Afro-feminist collective Mwasi in 2016 and 2017 as one of the first big scandals related to this reactionary movement against Black culture, people, and politics. [Mwasi organized Nyansapo, a weeklong Afro-feminist festival whose activities included workshops reserved for Black women. They were targeted by far-right groups whose attacks, in a now familiar process, were then repeated by major French media and political figures, notably Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris.]

The response to our petition was insane, but go back to Mwasi for insanity: Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, unleashing a legal tsunami against these women, many of whom were very young. And this touches on the question of the autonomy of Black women; what happened in the summer of 2017 highlighted negrophobia and anti-Blackness coming from institutions of power, but also especially hostility at the fact that these women sat and decided to just say: “Black women do not live every day the way that men do.” They decided that non-mixed meetings would be the tool, the means for us Black women to get on a program or struggle that will be as close as possible to our needs.

But Mwasi were not really attacked because the event was non-mixed. If you know anything about the Paris city hall, you know that many institutions they support — such as LGBTQ and feminist groups they regularly give public subventions to — have non-mixed meetings absolutely forbidden to men or straight people. It’s no secret. The hysteria around this festival revealed a kind of panic not just about a political project centered around Black people but also about Black women taking this map and their destiny into their own hands. It was the fact that they had dared to think alone about the tools, elements, the ways, detours, mistakes, of their liberation out of this heteropatriarchal, capitalist system; that they would openly designate whites as outsiders. Naming whiteness in France is a big deal: once named, whites are taken out of this central role, overtly designated as interlopers. For people who always think of themselves at the center not only of their own existence but of other people’s, this is shocking. This goes back to my research on how to use immigrant women or minorities as a show, victims you’re trying to protect. Many Black and women of color in their current engagement understand that the government is trying to use them. Mwasi was stigmatized for their project that absolutely rejected republican paternalism and the way the traditional feminist struggle or movement has historically instrumentalized minority women to designate Black, Arab, Muslim men as the dangerous other.

This feels like a historic moment. The mobilization of Black French women doesn’t just show the cracks, it blasts them open. In spite of how sad the situation is, it’s also a real source of hope.

But now’s the time for our special questionnaire!

What would you Decolonize?

The word decolonization. To see how the word has become this fashionable, this fad, synonymous with light, very liberal changes, reform or futile reform; that, far from chipping away at empire, it’s become this kind of band-aid. Thinking that decolonization in the essence of the term cannot be synonymous with making universities, curricula, or museums a little bit better or more open. If you cannot think that at the same time as Indigenous rights, repatriation of indigenous lands, stolen land, and all the consequences of extractivism, then you’re not decolonizing anything. So, let’s decolonize decolonization!

What would you defund?

As someone who lives in the US and is from France, I would definitely defund the army in both countries. Defunding the army would provide a much-needed boost to the economy. We could funnel those funds into education, clean energy, health, and create real jobs.

What would you abolish?

The police and the prison system. Many people — especially in France where the movement is not as advanced as in the US — think it absolutely unimaginable that you could live in a society without police or policing, without prison. I think we really need to hammer whose perspective is being highlighted. When you say the police are here to protect and serve, who is being protected? Who are the police serving? When you start experiencing policing and the prison system from the perspective of marginalized people, if you’re able to shift the discourse of abolition and root it in the experience of people who are incarcerated and really suffering from this criminalization, then it makes sense and really rationalizes why we have to bring this system to an end in the way it has developed in the past 100 years.

What is the soundtrack of your struggle?

I don’t know if it’s the soundtrack of my struggle … The soundtrack of my life is the many silences and hums that accompany me, that I want to knock out, what I call the noisy silences. I was recently talking about how, for me, to get off at métro Charonne, to walk Avenue Gambetta, etc., is never a neutral experience. I’m always walking and experiencing the physical environment, but also having a memory of what this environment means in the context of France’s colonial past. I’m constantly surrounded by these silences and the way they materialize for me. So, my interlocutor sarcastically recommended that I needed psychoanalysis or an exorcism in order to get rid of these ghosts. I answered I would gladly tackle this examination of my personality if the exercise was collective, national: if we face these ghosts who haunt the pages of our roman national together as a country.

As to music, I’d name the following songs:

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Grégory Pierrot is a writer, translator, and professor of English.

 

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