Listen to rebel Black French youth, scholars told

Thomas L. Blair - Sociology Professor

It took rebellious Black youth in France to force national attention to their jobs, housing and health needs. But still simmering in their emerging Black consciousness, the cultural longings of France's African and Caribbean minorities were neglected. Distinguished academics can remedy this glaring oversight when they meet in Paris next week to pay tribute to Aimé Césaire, the legendary poet activist of "negritude" or Black consciousness who has died.

Negritude was the driving force in author Césaire's most widely acclaimed work, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (1939). Rooted in his childhood Martinique and Paris experiences, Césaire urged Black people to cast off the traumas of slavery, colonialism and bondage. Stand tall in unity. Refuse to give up your African and Antillean cultural heritage for dominant western cultural norms, said Césaire. Take on the robes of humanity, he thundered, and proudly affirm your place among the world's major cultures.

Youth, his cultural inheritors, are under pressure today. Three big changes have sharpened their mood of defiance. Twenty-first century France is less welcoming to Black people. Their numbers have swelled into the millions. Fears of immigration, inflamed in the popular press, prompted a public outbreak of negrophobia.

"Go back to where you came from" is a common, menacing and unpardonable insult. The young Danny's, Julien's, and Zobaly's of urban suburbs (banlieues) say they are not compliant colonials. As one youth complained indignantly: "We are French citizens, by birth or status of our parents, whether from Senegal and Mali, Congo Zaire or the French West Indies.

Black youth appreciate their  "Frenchness". Nevertheless, they also sense the power in Césaire's Black poetics. Many among them proclaim: "We're Black and Proud" ("Nous sommes Noir et Fier").

Youth confidently assert a new set of cultural aspirations from the barricades of their polyglot and poor districts. The influences are multi-cultural and transnational. The urgent, and political, Afro-beat of the Congo's soukous is strong. The prophetic chants of Senegal's griots (soul-singers) are inspiring. And, the nostalgic scents of mango trees in a Guadeloupe afternoon are enchanting. Match this with "slam", a heady mix of French pop, rock 'n' roll, hip-hop, rap and funk and a portion of Algerian raï. Then add the zest of pure youthful joy and re-mix in subtle and sophisticated ways.

With this richly seasoned recipe, young people say: "We'll create our new Black Urbanism in the mean streets of Paris and French cities, with our North African (Algerian and Moroccan), Antillean and working class white allies".

Academics at the Paris meeting of June 6 and 7, must explore and expand their conference title:  "France Noire - Black France: The Poetics and Politics of Blackness" and strengthen youth's resolve. Bearing the impeccable credentials of linguistics, arts, literature and social science, let them wrestle with the cultural issues of youth's advocacy. (The African American contingent should be no strangers to youth's yearnings for equal rights, artistic expression and Black pride).

Literary and history scholars must affirm youth's place in the making of 21st French and francophone (French speaking) African and Caribbean culture. Abiola Irele, a Harvard professor, can chart new directions in Black literature and intellectual history. Historian Prof Allison Blakeley, of Boston University, can explain what his studies on Black urban Europe mean to young people.

Invited government ministers have an important role. They should support youth's awakening sense of civic responsibility and political participation. This has national and foreign implications. Mme Christiane Taubira, Member of Parliament for French Guyana, can share pride she felt in 2001. Against all odds, Parliament passed her bill declaring slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity.

Professor Fred Constant, the Guyanese political analyst in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, can update Black youth about their kinfolk in the Overseas Departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe, the independent islands of Haiti and Dominica, and francophone Africa.

The crippling effects of political and popular prejudices on young people should be revealed by Peter Lozes, head of CRAN, the Association of Black Representative Councils, France's first umbrella organisation of Black advocacy groups.

Youth's cultural demands are not yet a full-blown storm but they are more than a squall of little significance. What should be done to equip them to face the uncertain future?

Let the scholars invite youth's advocates to speak. Schedule a Youth Advocacy session. Offer them some tips on cultural advocacy. Bring the results back to the closing assembly. Video-cast the whole proceedings for worldwide Internet distribution.

Celebrating youth's legacy from their ancestors is equally important as nourishing the modern trends that affect their lives. However, this takes time - and money.

Let the conference organisers and their sponsors, among them Harvard, Vanderbilt, Minnesota and Columbia universities and the Ford Foundation, commit to investing in an action plan.

They should generously fund heritage centres for education and research on Black life and history. These will attract local, as well as national and foreign visitors.

Cultural action like this requires direction by knowledgeable and experienced cultural guardians. In this regard, the heirs of Black French scholarship, Mme Y C Diop, subject of a recent documentary film, and her colleague Wole Soyinka, of the Community of African Culture, are particularly capable.

Their Paris offices at Auditions Présence Africaine, publishers of Césaire's most important works, are close to the Sorbonne. They provide a storehouse of literature for informative seminars, exhibitions, talks and readings. Moreover, they are a rich vein of resources of significance to French speaking Africa, the Caribbean and world regions.

Let specialists and students in Caribbean culture and Francophone literature take on a new mantle. Youth need to know that Creole is a significant extension of French standard language. They also need to appreciate that the inadequacies of negritude have been explored by the Creolite literary movement of the 1980s. The novels, elogies, and essays of the Martinican's Patrick Chamoiseau, Jean Bernabé and Raphaël Confiant, are the most innovative writings to hit the French Caribbean literary scene.

Youth will also benefit from fresh interpretations of the social and political influences on the writers of today. Scholars must help them appreciate how to use these literary treasures to enhance the rich fabric and lively colours of their modern urban styles.

The Paris meeting can reignite scholarly efforts to construct a platform of ideas and action to address youth's cultural longings. My own work, Pillars of Change, offers some clues. Let me explain.

Pillars of Change offers a trio of responses. Creating linkages of scholars, grassroots organisations and youth groups is a prime requirement. Confronting social and cultural ignorance with Afro-European Studies educational programmes is another. In addition, there must be collective action to change deprived terrestrial reality and mobilise the African Digital Diaspora in cyberspace. These three pillars provide a platform for launching Black achievement in European societies.

What better way to redress the neglect of youth's cultural longings and pay tribute to revered "Pa" Césaire, poet of negritude, scholar and political activist?


Resources for action

Pillars of Change by Thomas L Blair, "Provocative, intelligent and impassioned, Pillars of Change is a survival guide for Black scholars as alienated youth force the pace of urban change. Based on the Black experience in Afro-Europe, the analysis and solutions will be welcomed in all parts of the Black World." London, 2007, pamphlet 40pp. Version Française by Valerie Kanza

Présence d'esprits un film de Valerie Kanza "Au cœur du quartier latin A  Paris, voyage dans une petite librairie à l'esprit d'Alioune Diop, premier éditeur noir, et de ses illustres compagnons de Présence Africaine inspire une nouvelle generation…." Paris, avril 2008, DVD ou DV CAM, Durée: 35 min, Français.

* Thomas L Blair is a sociologist writing on creative renewal in Black Britain and Afro-Europe, see Chronicleworld web site;