Black in France: The Language and Politics of Race in the Late Third Republic

Article excerpt

This article uses notes generated by France's surveillance of African and Afro-Caribbean migrants during the interwar years to analyze the use black men made of racial terms such as negre and mulatre. Although developed before the twentieth century, such racial language was infused with new political, social and cultural meaning after World War I. Workers and intellectuals, often at odds with each other, developed a race consciousness that was both a means of uniting in response to colonialism and a reaction against those within their communities who did not appear anti-imperial enough in their politics. Arguing that racial language expressed the nuances and range of black men's political and ideological stances with respect to the French Empire, this article traces the meanings granted to race and the important role in cultivating their significance played by members of organizations such as the Union des Travailleurs Negres.

Keywords: Blacks, race identity, anti-imperialism, masculinity, Paris, France


When the metropolitan-based, anti-imperialist organization known as the Comite de defense de la race negre (Committee for the Defense of the Negro Race, hereafter CDRN) shifted from African to Afro-Caribbean leadership in 1927, it also changed its title to the Comite de defense de la race noire. Replacing negre with noir made an explicit political statement. Although black intellectuals did not begin formulating the cultural and political declaration of black pride known as Negritude until 1935, anti-imperialist and nationalist members of the African diaspora--predominantly workers--had previously announced their desire to reclaim the word negre. (2) In a 1927 article in La Voix des negres, a short-lived organ of the CDRN presided over by a Senegalese anti-imperialist leader and former tirailleur named Lamine Senghor, the CDRN explained that there existed levels of racial categorization. (3) These included noir and negre, classifications created by those in power (Europeans) to divide blacks among themselves, encouraging some groups to believe that they were superior to others. The editors encouraged all those oppressed because of their pigmentation to unite under the banner of the term negre, stating: "the youth of the CDRN make it their duty to pick this word up out of the mud through which you're dragging it, in order to make it a symbol." (4)

What did it mean to be black in the French working-class circles of the interwar years? French fascination with otherness, resulting in popular cultural phenomena such as negrophilia, allowed black performers to find work during these years, but there were also self-definitions of race that revealed agency amid the black colonial community. (5) Race was used in multiple ways by the colonial subjects and citizens who lived and worked in the metropole. Their understanding of race helped them to explain their perceptions of, and relations to, other colonial migrants from Africa, Madagascar, and the Caribbean, and shaped their politics and community. (6) How they spoke of race illuminates the extraordinary diversity, subtlety, and complexity of interactions among black colonial migrants in an overwhelmingly white metropole.

In 1988 Gerard Noiriel altered the study of France's history when he pointed out that immigration studies remained all too consistently on its margins, rather than being considered an intrinsic component of the historical narrative. (7) His work crystallized for future scholars the notion that the study of France's history would benefit from having its boundaries redrawn to include concepts and people who had either been overlooked, or whose place within the French state had not been systematically delineated, because they related to immigration. Since his work first emerged, scholars have expanded upon it to encompass the study of the French Empire as a whole, and not merely that of immigrants within metropolitan France. …