Civil Rights and World War II in a
SHAPE-SHIFTING RACIAL FORMATIONS AND
THE U.S. ENCOUNTER WITH EUROPEAN AND
Penny Von Eschen
In Ousmane Sembéne’s 1987 film Camp de Thiaroye,1 Senegalese SergeantMajor Diatta, who has fought with the 1st Free French Army against the Italians and Germans, first in the Libyan desert into Tripoli, and then in the liberation of Paris, sits in his room at Camp de Thiaroye, playing recordings of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. The camp, located in Senegal, is a staging ground for the demobilization of African colonial troops who have disembarked in Dakar at the conclusion of their service with French forces. Many are arriving from recently liberated German prisoner of war camps. But Camp Thiaroye itself is little better than a POW camp, and it fuels Diatta’s growing disillusionment with French colonial racism. The solace that he finds in jazz, and the audaciously inventive horn of Parker, heard through recordings acquired during the war, suggests the new knowledge presented through contact with black American soldiers. The film also suggests that new black diasporic sensibilities had emerged from such wartime contacts. Jazz, as well as the American-accented English that Diatta learned during the war, symbolizes the alternative black subjectivities that inform his rebellion against French colonial authority. As Diatta grapples with the recalcitrant French empire, he learns of a 1942 massacre in his village carried out by French authorities, but now disavowed by his superior officer as having occurred under the Vichy regime.
This chapter considers Sembéne’s film as a point of departure to offer a cautionary tale about the importance of World War II as a catalyst for U.S. civil rights struggles and global challenges to racial hierarchies. At first glance, there is much in the film to support conventional views that the war was a catalyst for the expansion of American civil rights and global anti-colonial movements. After all, as dramatized in Camp de Thiaroye, Allied claims to support democracy while denying civil and political rights to people of African descent sharpened colonial