Black France, White Europe. Youth, Race, and Belonging in the Postwar Era

Marker, Emily
Anzahl Seiten
276 S.
$ 39,95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Andreas Guidi, Département Europe, Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales

In light of the “refugee crisis”, Brexit, and debates on supposed “failures of integration” targeting Muslim communities, the discourse on European identity and civilization has been both challenged and reinstated in recent years. In Black France, White Europe, Emily Marker reconsiders the anxieties related to these boundaries of belonging by taking mid-twentieth-century France as the object of analysis. Marker, Assistant Professor at Rutgers University-Camden, cogently situates her study through a double operation.

First, the book tackles the intersection of post-war reconstruction, decolonization, and European institutions in the making between 1940 and 1960. Black France, White Europe frames relationships between France, its West and Equatorial African colonies, and the other European states. The book dialogues with studies by Frederick Cooper and Richard Jobs, but also – implicitly – with works on African students in Europe or with class formation in non-French colonies, for which age, race, and religion are equally important categories.[1]Black France, White Europe is an original intervention in the historiographic trend that expands the notion of the “post-war” by adjusting chronological, thematic, and spatial categories.

Secondly, Marker compellingly discusses youth as a trope used by institutions to make sense of the uncertainty of those years. As the author argues, the prism of youth allows us to “approach Franco-African and European integration as overlapping and competing generational projects”. (p. 7) The book’s main contribution is to retrace the precise contours of those large-scale processes. Black France, White Europe analyzes entangled projects that searched for a synthesis and for a target: molding the future youth. This transformative dimension suggests comparative perspectives across area studies.[2] Invoking youth resulted from unresolved challenges: France could not combine integration of her African colonial citizens and being the cornerstone of a Europe that took a white, Christian civilization as its foundation. Other scholars have retraced how the possibility of integrating Europe effectively revitalized the Eurafrican project, including Megan Brown’s study of how Algeria became the “seven founding state” of the European community.[3] As Marker highlights, however, fostering commonality for the European youth meant for France to let down that part of African youth asking for an egalitarian decolonization without independence from the empire.

The book is based on primary sources from state archives in France and Senegal as well as European institutions and international organizations such as the UNESCO. Combined with material drawn from almost 30 periodicals, Black France, White Europe stands on solid ground to approach a polyphonic history of youth.

The introduction argues that youth histories have mostly been treated separately in studies on post-war metropolitan France, decolonization, or a European integration increasingly researched from the “bottom up”.[4] Marker connects the dots by linking youth to the concept of “postwar racial common sense” (p. 17). This insightful take illustrates how a new discourse on European “racelessness” after the end of Nazism fostered the idea of a common civilization that turned out to be exclusionary for non-white youth. This glissement from race toward civilization went hand in hand with a discourse on secularism that normalized Christianity as a pillar of Europeanness, again excluding the majority of young African Muslims.

Chapter 1 explores the context of World War II. Post-war France was envisioned before 1945 away from occupied Paris. Institutions of Free France dialogued between African colonies and the exile government in London. Discussions on educational reforms within the new Cathala Commission and at the Brazzaville Conference of 1944 urged to reinforce the imperial bond between France and Africa. Yet, they equally urged to reformulate France’s republican identity less divisively, by anchoring Christian values – including in education – in the practice of laïcité. This happened while the Conference of Allied Ministers of Education in London aimed to europeanize curricula. The result was the simultaneous need to integrate French education in a European frame and to innovate the education of Africans as “a crucial part of a nascent international public relations campaign to justify continued French rule on African soil” (p. 59).

As Chapter 2 elucidates, however, these projects proved irreconcilable. The discussions around the launching of the College of Europe in Bruges in 1949 show that imperialism could be “European” only by reinforcing colonial separation in civilizational terms and by “culturalizing” Christianity. At the same time, the educational and spiritual renewal in France relied on scout groups as a bulwark of Catholicism within a secular state. How, then, could scouts be fostered in colonial societies where Islam was widespread? Marker argues that Islamic education and associations were marginalized in Africa in the name of secularism while their Christian equivalents in Europe were considered an integrative force.

Next to religion, separation related to race. Chapter 3 highlights the ambivalence of “antiracism” in the post-Hitler Eurafrican space. While European politics abandoned the use of race within its “reeducation” (p. 113), African activists denounced the pervasive discrimination of white supremacy in French colonies. Debates about education and desegregation, like at the Lycée Vanvollenhoven in Dakar, show how a “newfound sense of European racelessness helped cast African antiracism and claim-making as the central driver of ongoing racial tensions” (p. 103). In Europe, racial divisions were often not condemned per se, but insofar as they existed among Europeans. The idea of a raceless European civilization did not erase anxieties concerning sexual encounters between African students and French women or condescending stereotypes about how Africans had to be educated: they were considered alien to classical culture and not apt for the prestigious humanities-centered diploma of bacheliers compared to the technicien profile, which would enable new cadres to implement Africa’s development. This is arguably the book’s most convincing chapter thanks to a nuanced analysis of discussions and categories.

Chapter 4 addresses the experiences of African students in France, who grew from a few dozens in the wake of the war to several thousand at the end of the 1950s. Marker illustrates the notion of brassage as an inegalitarian tool to manage, instead of erasing, colonial difference: “for the French, commitment to brassage was offered up as a proof of France’s goodwill toward its African citizens and an unequivocal rejection of racism. For Africans, brassage justified more financial and material support for young Africans to study and train in France” (p. 143). As a consequence, African students were not considered as part of the sociocultural “youth question” that French society discovered in those years. While “Eurafrica” came to reinforce alterity instead of a synthesis, and while the Loi Defferre of 1956 accelerated the steps toward independence of African republics, many students in France felt excluded from French and European belonging as they denounced enduring exploitation and racism. Marker retraces this criticism quoting the leader of an African student association for whom the “balkanization” of Africa in “13 républiquettes” meant that France made “African unity impossible by cementing artificially imposed divisions” (p. 171) both between French and African society and within the latter. This is another fascinating chapter, although the context of imperial disintegration including repression in Madagascar and Algeria might have offered an additional key to explore reverberations in Western Africa and expand the discussion about decolonization and youth.

Still, beyond the empire’s boundaries, the world changed rapidly in the 1950s. Chapter 5 investigates the “youth race” (p. 182) between the Western and the Eastern blocs in the Cold War. Marker demonstrates that the internationalization of youth festivals and scholarship brought Africa into the spotlight of rivaling powers. This created interstices that black students used as a way out of marginalization and discrimination. Increasing cooperation in a European framework for white, secular associations paralleled connections between African students and the United States but also socialist countries. Moreover, the non-aligned movement was more open toward Islamic institutions for youth, notably through initiatives in Indonesia and Nasser’s Egypt. It was thus in a global context that Europe’s and Africa’s youth trajectories diverged after an effervescent twenty-year span in which other scenarios had seemed possible.

As the Epilogue concludes, this separation has important consequences for today’s Europe. Not anymore (simply) a question of continental divide, civilizational debates are still morphing: the specter of communism, without disappearing, has ceded the mainstage to the specter of Europe’s “islamization”, while references to “Eurafrica” are coded as neo-colonialism based on the perception of failure of cooperation between France and its former colonies aimed at social emancipation.

Black France, White Europe is a stimulating, well-written, and careful study. Some readers primarily interested in youth history might be left asking for a more nuanced approach to the term itself, since the book focuses on male, (to be) educated youth. Moreover, while Marker provides a detailed analysis of discussions on youth by elders and institutions, the voices of young actors, except for Chapter 4, remain secondary. In the same vein, sources like those related to the surveillance of black youth in France are only occasionally used, despite their potential for sharpening the picture of youth’s experiences. On another level, Marker often structures the chapters’ sections by treating the question of European integration, French metropolitan society, and the colonies separately, before a synthesis is offered in each chapter’s conclusion. At times the question might arise as to how far those contexts are interrelated in the sources, or whether it is mostly the historian’s etic look that reconstructs their connections with a doubtlessly fine argumentation. Still, thanks to its ability to read large-scale transformations through specific institutions and an accurate discursive focus, Black France, White Europe is a highly recommended work for readers interested in French, colonial, European, and youth history. Refreshing a dialogue between such diverse fields is in itself a much welcomed and impressive accomplishment.

[1] Frederick Cooper, Citizenship between Empire and Nation, Princeton 2014; Richard Ivan Jobs, Riding the New Wave. Youth and the Rejuvenation after the Second World War, Stanford 2009; Sara Pugach, African Students in East Germany, 1949–1975, Ann Arbor 2022; Daniel Tödt, The Lumumba Generation. African Bourgeoisie and Colonial Distinction in the Belgian Congo, Berlin 2021.
[2] As a reader working on youth history, I was fascinated by Marker’s analysis of representations of youth and generational projects, that I tackled in the early-twentieth-century imperial context of Rhodes. See: Andreas Guidi, Generations of Empire. Youth from Ottoman to Italian Rule in the Mediterranean, Toronto 2022.
[3] Peo Hansen / Stefan Jonsson, Eurafrica. The Untold History of European Integration and Colonialism, London 2014; Megan Brown, The Seventh Member State. Algeria, France, and the European Community, Cambridge 2022.
[4] Marker’s approach to “European integration” after 1945 points to the convergence of lifestyles through the identification with “Europe”. The author draws from studies like Richard Ivan Jobs, Backpack Ambassadors. How Youth Travel Integrated Europe, Chicago 2017.