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Race on Display in 20th- and 21st Century France$

Katelyn E. Knox

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781781383094

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781781383094.001.0001

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Looking Back, Moving Forward

Looking Back, Moving Forward

(p.154) Outro Looking Back, Moving Forward
Race on Display in 20th- and 21st Century France

Katelyn E. Knox

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Race on Display in 20th- and 21st-Century France’s Outro returns to the book’s central thread of the gaze by laying out the three principal ways of ‘looking back’ that unite the book’s chapters: ‘looking back’ on French colonial history; artists’ and authors’ moves to ‘look back’ at their audience; and finally ‘looking back’ not just at but with the audience at the larger ways of looking that have produced notions of racial and ethnic alterity (and normalcy) with respect to national identity in France. This final type of looking back—the call issued by the authors and artists—challenges the spectator to recognize that their previously unexamined gaze is but one of many possible gazes. Examining two recent events in France—the 2011 Jardin de l’Outre-Mer and the 2013 reopening and associated rebranding campaign of the former Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration as the Musée de l’immigration—the conclusion considers what place racial and ethnic minorities occupy in the contemporary French national imaginary, and its relationship to whiteness. Finally, the conclusion revisits the trajectory of racial and ethnic minority cultural production in France to anticipate what types of works might continue to emerge in the future.

Keywords:   Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration, Musée de l’immigration, Jardin de l’Outre-Mer, Human zoos, Gaze, Race, History, National identity, whiteness

My main concern in this book has been to consider how legacies of colonial displays—institutional spectacles—have cultivated more nebulous ways of looking that continue to inform how national identity, race, and ethnicity are understood in contemporary France. The musical and literary works I have studied in this book ‘look back’ in three interrelated ways to expose the relationships between power, privilege, the gaze, and display. First, they suggest that the present moment is shaped by the histories from which it is born; they therefore ‘look back’—just as this book has done—to trace a historical trajectory of display. This type of ‘looking back’ closely resembles the West African concept of Sankofa (meaning ‘reach back and get it’ in Akan), often represented by a bird that reaches back to grab an egg resting on its back.1 The symbolism is clear: far from becoming entrenched in old mentalities, turning to the past offers the possibility of rebirth and renewal (indicated by the egg). This is not to suggest, however, that doing so is easy or pain-free; however, the works remind their reader that the discomfort of returning to difficult histories is only temporary. Essomba’s Le Paradis du Nord figuratively looks back on how the relative absence of France’s colonial past shapes certain narratives about immigrants and their descendants in France today. The characters in Black Bazar espouse radically different visions of colonial, pan-African, and even Black Atlantic history, and disagree on the way to commemorate these histories in the present moment. Personal and collective histories merge in Blues pour Élise, and it is not until Shale discovers the violence of which she was born that she feels at home in her family once again. Devoir d’Insolence, too, positions the act of acknowledging the painful histories of racism and colonization as the catalyst for forward progress.

Second, and more literally, just as the performers in ‘Exhibit B’ (discussed in this book’s introduction) lock gazes with their spectators (p.155) in order to prompt the latter to raise questions about their own gaze and the power and privilege behind it, the works I have studied assert their own gaze, making their audience feel the weight of ‘seeing oneself in the third person’. Le Paradis du Nord ‘looks back’ at the French jury, just as Meiway stares back at the viewer in the ‘Je suis sans-papiers’ music video. Black Bazar’s protagonists look on each other, outlining who belongs to which communities (with or without these individuals’ consent), and Fessologue slyly ‘looks back’ at the reader through the novel’s literary form: literary sape. Blues pour Élise similarly ‘looks back’ at both the old French woman’s conservative views of French national identity, and on those individuals who would group Afropeans as part of a much larger ‘Black French’ community. In the video for ‘Nique la France’ Saïdou’s gazes (both on the white rappers and on the viewer) ‘look back’ at latent notions associating whiteness with Frenchness. Yet, in asserting their own ability to gaze, these authors and artists resist becoming locked in a binary oppositional exchange. Their ‘looks back’ encourage their audiences to reflect upon the larger forces of the system of gazes itself: what I have termed in this book ‘institutionalized spectacularism’.

This final type of ‘looking back’ moves from a potentially oppositional stance to a plural one; it offers the audience an invitation to ‘look back’ not just at but with the authors and artists on the ways of looking themselves. Le Paradis du Nord ‘looks back’ not just at the French jury but also at the larger courtroom dynamics in order to raise larger questions regarding how minorities can speak. Black Bazar’s literary sape invites its reader to consider how works’ packaging in cultural marketplaces (the shelf space they occupy in stores as well as critical discussions about them in scholarly realms) shapes expectations of black, francophone, and African authors. Blues pour Élise invites its reader to consider the multiplicity of gazes at the ‘Nouveaux Français’ exhibit, as well as the histories that inform them. And the interventions of the French listener in ‘La gueule du patrimoine’ grapple with the stereotypical expectations placed on minority artists.

When taken together, these three layers of ‘looking back’ reveal how the works resist falling prey to unproductive vicious circles that would leave us locked in a battle of gazes. Returning to Éric Fassin’s description of ‘Exhibit B’, which I discussed in this book’s introduction, provides a useful framework for understanding how these ways of ‘looking back’ offer a productive point of departure. Fassin describes how, after discovering themselves to be the object of the performers’ (p.156) gazes, the ‘Exhibit B’ spectators lower their eyes.2 This gesture clearly indicates that the spectators suddenly acknowledge their privilege and, more importantly, refuse to perpetuate it. Keeping their eyes lowered, in other words, breaks the cycle of objectification because the spectators cease to subject others to their gaze. But looking closer at this act reveals that it also carries the potential of regression and impasse. If the spectators never ‘look back’ at the scene with their new perspective, they can effectively return to their comfortable position, where their privilege remains conveniently out of sight. There can be no empathy and compassion in the diverted gaze.

The texts I have studied in preceding chapters posit the pain (like the ‘Exhibit B’ spectators’ sudden shame when they lower their eyes) of this collective ‘mirror stage’ as merely temporary. Accepting this invitation to ‘look back’ on the scene—this time with new eyes—catalyzes growth. This invitation—that of both ‘Exhibit B’ and the works studied in this book—asks the audience to develop a reflexive stance and gaze upon its own gaze. This paradigm-shifting moment reveals that the gaze which the audience had taken to be universal is instead a particularism in disguise. Ultimately, the works insist on a plurality of gazes—and invite their spectators to consider their own gaze, as well as those the works offer, as but a few among many.

Two cases I have already alluded to illustrate how the musical and literary works’ calls to ‘look back’ are as imperative as ever in France’s sociopolitical and historical spheres. The first—that of the 2011 Jardin de l’Outre-Mer scandal, discussed both in this book’s introduction and in Chapter 1—illustrates how a resistance to ‘look back’ stymies growth.3 Conceived of as an opportunity to celebrate the cultures of France’s overseas territories through public cultural performances, the Jardin de l’Outre-Mer sparked controversy when officials announced its venue: the Jardin d’Acclimatation—the same spot where, eighty years earlier, individuals from those very cultures had been exhibited as ‘savages’.4 Scholars, politicians, and activists alike decried the choice, and asked officials to reconsider the venue or, at the very least, to develop an exhibit to accompany the Jardin de l’Outre-Mer that would inform the public about the earlier ethnographic expositions held at the Jardin d’Acclimatation.5 For Nicolas Bancel, the 2011 Jardin de l’Outre-Mer organizers’ refusal to offer its spectators a ‘look back’ on the gaze which the Jardin d’Acclimatation previously invited its visitors to impose upon France’s colonized peoples risked allowing it to remain unchallenged.6

Bancel’s call to situate the Jardin de l’Outre-Mer within a larger (p.157) historical framework also self-reflexively and preemptively responds to some of the critiques leveled against these calls to ‘look back’ at French colonial history: namely, that doing so does not offer rebirth and renewal (Sankofa), but rather fuels unproductive cycles of repentance and guilt. Bancel writes:

il ne doit s’agir nullement de repentance, mais bien d’affirmer que la valorisation de la diversité culturelle issue des Outre-mer ne peut faire l’impasse sur les pages sombres et ambigües de notre histoire.7

(it’s not at all about repentance, but rather about affirming that valorizing the cultural diversity of France’s overseas territories cannot be glossed over on the dark and ambiguous pages of our history.)

Where conservative politicians and scholars such as those discussed in Chapter 4 contend that figuratively ‘looking back’ on the history’s ‘dark and ambiguous pages’ opens a vicious cycle from which there is no escape, Bancel contends that France is already caught up in this vicious cycle, and that ‘looking back’ is the only escape.

Ultimately, the Jardin de l’Outre-Mer organizers neither changed the venue nor situated the event within a larger discussion of France’s colonial display culture.8 The controversy, however, did prompt Marie-Luce Penchard, then Minister of France’s Overseas Territories, to ask Françoise Vergès, President of the CNMHE, to investigate the history of France’s human zoos and to propose ways the nation could make these histories more visible.9 The diction Penchard uses in outlining the mission illustrates that Bancel had correctly anticipated the concerns that commemorating human zoos ultimately faced:

La République a pour devoir de reconnaître ces mémoires et cette histoire, de leur donner leur juste place dans l’Histoire de la France, sans aucunement occulter le passé et instruire de procès

(The Republic has a duty to recognize these memories and this history, to give them their proper place in the history of France, without in any way obscuring the past or teaching by putting history on trial).10

In her diction and tone, one hears anxieties about revisionism that echo the discussion about the exhibit ‘Les Nouveaux Français’ between the old woman and Carmen in Blues pour Élise, discussed in Chapter 4. Where the old woman associates returning to France’s multicultural past with modifying a presumed homogeneous entity (‘France’) that has remained unchanged for centuries, Carmen maintains that doing so does not fundamentally change history, but rather exposes the lens (p.158) through which it has been viewed. To create a more inclusive vision of contemporary France requires returning to and pluralizing the past, exposing what has passed as official historical discourse as but one filter among many through which to tell the nation’s story.

In her report, Vergès reprises Penchard’s diction (‘proper place’) to disagree with the latter’s insinuation that there exist predetermined, parceled-out spaces within larger national histories for what could be labeled ‘minority’ histories. In fact, Vergès even draws connections between the places occupied by ‘minority’ histories and those inhabited by the populations born of them:

Ils sont en quête de leur ‘juste place’ dans la conscience collective de la France, dans un récit partagé de son histoire, et plus largement dans l’histoire du monde.11

(They are in search of their ‘proper place’ in the collective consciousness of France, in a shared account of its history, and more broadly in the history of the world.)

‘Looking back’ to French colonial history and how its legacies continue to inform the present moment is not just a matter of filling in a few gaps to give all of France’s citizens a sense of presence in national history. Instead, it is a matter of ‘looking back’ on the very notion that there exists one single, unified perspective that can capture France’s (or any nation’s) history.

A second case of ‘looking back’ surfaces in the French commemorative landscape in the early 2000s: if the history of France’s display culture (and its associated ‘human zoos’) has yet to find its ‘proper place’, immigration to France has been attributed a very conspicuous, yet nevertheless highly controversial (and therefore perhaps not quite ‘proper’) ‘place’. Government officials had already proposed a national center devoted to immigration in the early 2000s, but it was not until 2007 that what is now France’s Musée de l’histoire de l’immigration (Museum of Immigration; known as the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration until the summer of 2013) opened its doors.12 As for the Jardin de l’Outre-Mer, scholars decried the venue selected: the Porte Dorée museum, which had served as the museum of the colonies at the 1931 Exposition coloniale and as the Musée national des arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie from 1960 to 2003.13 Alfred Janniot’s iconic bas-reliefs depicting the contributions of the colonies to France (primarily in terms of raw materials and labor) still dominate the building’s exterior, potentially inviting the museum’s present-day visitor to gaze upon the (p.159) subject of immigration in the same way the 1931 Exposition’s visitors gazed upon France’s colonies and their inhabitants.

Rather than allow this history to pass unacknowledged (like the history of ‘human zoos’ did at the Jardin de l’Outre-Mer), however, the museum contains a permanent exhibit that makes it a focal point for its visitors.14 The museum’s ‘look back’ on itself and on the history of colonial display at the Porte Dorée site responds to the call issued by the cultural works I have studied in preceding chapters. Doing so interrogates not just restrictive ideas of what constitutes Frenchness, but also the ways of looking on which they depend.

The advertising campaign the museum deployed in the summer of 2013 when it became the Musée de l’histoire de l’immigration also illustrates how it continues to ‘look back’ not just on immigration or on itself as an institution, but also on the relationship between ‘immigration’ and national identity in France. Each of its four ads features an image from the museum’s permanent collection coupled with a statement about immigration in France: ‘L’immigration, ça fait toujours des histoires’ (Immigration always causes a stir), ‘Ton grand-père dans un musée’ (Your grandfather in a museum), ‘Nos ancêtres n’étaient pas tous des Gaulois’ (Not all our ancestors were Gauls), and ‘Un Français sur quatre est issu de l’immigration’ (One French person in four is of immigrant background). When they first appeared, these images were met with criticism and public vandalism; individuals defaced some to read, ‘Malheureusement, nos ancêtres n’étaient pas tous des Gaulois’ (Unfortunately, not all our ancestors were all Gauls), while vandals struck out ‘sur quatre’ (in four) on others, which consequently read ‘Un Français est issu de l’immigration’ ([Only] one French person is of immigrant background). Elsewhere, people scrawled racist and xenophobic statements on the posters. These instances of defacement indicate that discussions of race, ethnicity, immigration, and national identity still remain contentious in contemporary France; however, the poster campaign itself marks a continued effort to generate dialog.

These slogans all ‘look back’ on French national myths. For instance, ‘L’immigration, ça fait toujours des histoires’ deploys the idiomatic expression ‘faire des histoires’, which signifies ‘to cause a stir’. In so doing, the slogan suggests that the movement of peoples at the heart of shaping any nation’s history often leads to uncomfortable encounters, friction, and discord. ‘Nos ancêtres n’étaient pas tous des Gaulois’ similarly returns to national myths—here the refrain (‘Nos ancêtres les Gaulois’ [Our ancestors the Gauls]) put forth in French history textbooks (p.160) and taught to French (and often colonized) elementary school students in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The Musée de l’Immigration’s 2013 slogan, like the phrase from which it borrows (which was initially advanced at a time when French governmental officials sought to unify the nation by deploying a revised common past), suggests that it is time to revisit these national myths, as well as their implications today. The ads go a long way both to break the equation between racial and ethnic minorities and ‘foreigners’ in France, and to remind their viewer that ‘Frenchness’ is not necessarily (nor was it ever, really) a stable or ‘pure’ entity. Moreover, they deploy the vocabulary of family (‘grandfather’) and ethnicity (‘Gaul’)—the very rhetoric which, as I suggested in Chapter 5, is often used to implicitly race Frenchness white. Yet they nevertheless also demonstrate their own blind spots: notably the ways in which ‘immigration’, as I have shown, functions as a proxy for discussions of race and ethnicity in France’s colorblind universalist context.

A book on the gaze and display cannot conclude without recognizing the limitations of its own figurative ‘gaze’. The works I have studied—put on display, as it were—in the preceding chapters represent but a select few French and francophone cultural productions that grapple with the gaze. In selecting my corpus, I consciously privileged works that exhibited two qualities: intermediality and self-reflexivity. As I have shown, the works’ increasing intermediality (Black Bazar unites literature, theatre, music, and dance; Blues pour Élise marries literature, television, and music; Devoir d’Insolence bridges academic studies and popular music) invites the multidisciplinary cultural studies methodology I employ throughout the book. I suspect that the publication of such intermedial texts, as well as texts straddling the analog/digital divide, will only increase in the coming years, which will, in turn, offer fertile avenues for further theorizing intercultural borrowing and new modes of authorship and reading. Second, the works turn a critical eye to their own role as cultural products sold within larger marketplaces in perpetuating and, in fact, profiting from, institutionalized spectacularism. Their self-reflexivity positions their own perspective as but one among many and models the type of pluralism they seek ultimately to cultivate in France today.

Just as the works turn their own gaze back around on themselves, I, too, would like to turn my own gaze back around on this book in order to propose avenues for further inquiry. Any scholarly study must necessarily limit its scope, and though I have reflected at key moments on the role gender plays with respect to the gaze, there remains much (p.161) work to be done to extending those conversations whose surface I have only scratched here. I have insisted on the need to pluralize the gaze, and in keeping with this spirit I hope that future work will return to the conversations I open in this book by applying additional—and especially intersectional—lenses to reveal the ways in which gender, sexuality, religion, age, and ability (to name but five factors) might nuance the analyses I have offered here.

Yet, for its own potential blind spots, the main work I see this book doing is, like the works it studies, the cultivation of a double vision in the book’s reader. Each chapter self-consciously participates in, while simultaneously ‘looking back’ at, the discipline of French cultural studies. I have sought to interrogate what it takes as its objects—particularly in this book’s fifth chapter—in order to expose the latent assumptions underlying its own disciplinary gaze. In so doing, I have figuratively put not just ‘race’ (including whiteness) and ‘national identity’ on display, but also display itself on display—considering not just what the works say, but also how the ways they are displayed (including critical discussions) constitute sites through which notions of Frenchness and ‘otherness’ are constructed in France. I have identified one latent boundary within the discipline of French cultural studies: that of segregating whiteness from larger discussions of race and ethnicity in contemporary France. It is my hope that doing so will open up new disciplinary terrain where we can examine the increasingly complex grid on which are mapped the identities I have studied in this book.


(1) I thank Anne Donadey for drawing my attention to these parallels.

(2) Éric Fassin, ‘La race, ça nous regarde’, Libération (25 July 2013), accessed 22 February 2015, http://www.liberation.fr/culture/2013/07/25/la-race-ca-nous-regarde_920834.

(3) I also situate discussions of the Jardin de l’Outre-Mer within larger moves to commemorate France’s colonial history—particularly the massacre on October 17, 1961, in ‘Rapping Postmemory, Sampling the Archive: Reimagining 17 October 1961’, Modern & Contemporary France 22, no. 3 (2014).

(4) As Bancel points out, individuals from a variety of national backgrounds were exhibited at the Jardin d’Acclimatation in 1882, 1892, 1929, and 1931 (‘Nous n’irons pas au Jardin d’Acclimatation’, Respect Magazine [30 March 2011], 3).

(5) Notable protests came from Guyana’s deputies Chantal Berthelot and Christiane Taubira, who both wrote letters to France’s then Ministre de l’Outre-Mer (which became the Ministre des Outre-Mer in 2012), Marie-Luce Penchard, contesting the chosen venue. Over fifty different views expressed (through interviews or in written statements) by historians, writers, filmmakers, and government officials can be read in the appendices to the Mission Report at http://www.ladocumentationfrancaise.fr/var/storage/rapports-publics/114000663/0000.pdf.

(6) Bancel, ‘Nous n’irons pas au Jardin d’Acclimatation’, 3. It is also worth pointing out that the title of his critique (We Will not Go to the Jardin (p.196) d’Acclimatation) evokes that of the manifesto the Surrealists published in conjunction with their 1931 counter-exhibition (‘Ne visitez pas l’Exposition’ [Don’t visit the (Colonial) Exhibition])

(8) Two private organizations (the ACHAC research group and the Thuram Foundation) held an exhibit entitled ‘L’invention du sauvage: acclimatations/Exhibitions’ in the Jardin d’Acclimatation children’s museum one year later.

(9) See Penchard’s letter, reproduced in the CPMHE’s final mission report entitled Rapport d la mission sur la mémoire des expositions ethnographiques et coloniales, available at http://www.ladocumentationfrancaise.fr/var/storage/rapports-publics/114000663/0000.pdf.

(12) On March 10, 2003, France’s Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin charged former Minister of Culture Jacques Toubon with exploring the ways in which the nation could better recognize the contributions of foreigners to France and respond to historians’ calls to create a museum of immigration. Raffarin concurred with a 2001 report drafted by Driss El Yazami, Vice President of the Ligue des droits de l’homme and Rémy Schwartz, the state’s Master of Requests, to create a ‘resource center’ rather than a ‘museum’. See his ‘Lettre de la mission de préfiguration’ available at http://www.histoire-immigration.fr/sites/default/files/musee-numerique/documents/ext_media_fichier_83_Lettre_mission.pdf.

(13) Prior to 1990, the museum’s name had been the Musée des arts africains et océaniens. In 2003, the collections were transferred to the Musée du Quai Branly, another space that has been the center of much critical attention. For particularly astute readings of the Quai Branly Museum, see Herman Lebovics, ‘The Musée du Quai Branly: Art? Artifact? Spectacle!’, French Politics, Culture & Society 24, no. 3 (2006); Dominic Thomas, ‘The Quai Branly Museum: Political Transition, Memory and Globalisation in Contemporary France’, French Cultural Studies 19, no. 2 (2008).

(14) This exhibit is also matched on the museum’s website, which houses governmental documents regarding the museum’s creation and evolution on two principal webpages: ‘Le projet de la cité’ (The Museum’s Project) (http://www.histoire-immigration.fr/la-cite/le-projet-de-la-cite) and ‘Historique du projet’ (The Project’s History) (http://www.histoire-immigration.fr/la-cite/historique-du-projet).