In this extended conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó regarding her new monograph Race, Rights and Reform, Sarah Dunstan maps the landscape of Black activist thought across the French Empire and the United States from World War One to the Cold War; shows how gender operated in tandem with the dynamics of race and class; underlines how the end of empire connected rights to national belonging; and reflects on how positionality continues to define the canon in ways that need to be critically examined.
Sarah Dunstan studies the history of the French, American and British empires in the twentieth century and their histories of global interactions with the intention to rethink the international orders of race, rights, and gender from the perspective of those who have traditionally been excluded from those histories. Sarah Dunstan received her PhD from the University of Sydney in 2018. She is currently a Lecturer in the International History of Modern Human Rights at the University of Glasgow and a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow. Race, Rights and Reform: Black Activism across the French Empire and the United States from World War 1 to Cold War is her first monograph. Sarah Dunstan is also the co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Women’s International Thought: Towards A New Canon.
Ferenc Laczó: In an earlier interview you gave, which is available at the website of the Journal of the History of Ideas, you stated that your book is “an exercise in mapping. It is about charting the many contours in the landscape of Black activist thought across the French and American empires in this first part of the twentieth century.” Let us perhaps start our conversation there with an introductory question of sorts. How would you sketch a map of this landscape of Black activist thought? What were some of the key issues that the various Black thinkers and activists you study jointly confronted, and what might have been some of the key points of contention or key dividing lines between them?
Sarah Dunstan: The very brief answer is that it’s a very complex map filled with lots of multidirectional arrows and landscapes. What interested me about the bulk of thought and the very diverse range of characters that I was studying is quite literally that diversity. It became very clear to me that although as historians we use loose unifying concepts to define the parameters of our books and our articles – in my case, with something like Black thought between the two Republics of the United States and France –, those were things that helped me narrow my subject down. However, within those parameters there was just such sheer diversity in terms of how individuals were thinking about the question of race, how they were thinking about the question of difference within democracy, and how those questions should be engaged with.
For example, you have someone like the Jamaican thinker Claude McKay who comes from Jamaica. He spent a lot of time in New York, but travels through Europe. He is in France for a long time, spent time down in Marseille, worked on a lot of the Atlantic crossing ships as a kitchen hand. Now McKay’s experience of race and belonging to the African diaspora was informed by his experiences of work, of his experiences of being racialized first in a British imperial context and then also in America and France, and it was also informed by his personal politics which lean very much to the left. He’s quite a different person to, for example, the African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois who is Harvard educated, has studied in Berlin, has a PhD, enjoys a particular kind of scholarly reputation and leadership, despite the fact that he too encountered obstacles as a result of his race and racialization, particularly in the context of the United States. I mentioned those two figures but there are obviously many more.
That difference of life experience, but also differences in how they might understand what it means to be Black, what it means to be part of the African diaspora very much informed my metaphor of the map.
I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t flattening out these differences, but really gesturing towards the sheer variety of ways that the individuals I was looking at were engaging with questions of rights and race.
Ferenc Laczó: Could I ask you a bit also about some of the key sites – such as cities, congresses, journals or otherwise – that are quite central to the history your book reconstructs? More concretely, how do you view the role of Paris in the transcontinental history of Black activism, a city whose role has often been highlighted in earlier works? Second, what are some of the key moments in the story you develop concerning the first part of the twentieth century? What do you see as major forms of continuity in the conversations between the interwar and the postwar years?
Sarah Dunstan: As an entry point to answering that question, I’d say the book starts at the end of World War I with the negotiations around the peace treaties that are taking place in Paris. As a result, Paris is very much a starting point for my book. It opens up a space for conversation between people throughout the African diaspora and throughout the world, between people who are there to negotiate what this new world is going to look like. Multiple different groups see this as a moment of opening, as a moment of change in which things are up for grabs; national belonging, access to citizenship and rights are up for grabs in that moment.
Paris matters very concretely as a physical space in that it’s literally where people are meeting. It is also a kind of mythical symbol, if you like, of the possibilities of a new world, of the possibilities of a peace that perhaps puts democracy front and forward.
There have been a lot of conversations about Woodrow Wilson’s idea of self-determination. While the idea is not solely located in Wilson’s visions of the new world order, it’s something that he certainly does a lot to publicize. But I think it takes on a life of its own. It is a vocabulary that has many lives in 1919 and many afterlives as we go through the 20th century – and it is a concept that’s associated with Paris.
Some of the key sites of engagement that I look at are Du Bois’s Pan-African Association and Pan-African Congresses, the first of which was held in Paris in 1919. It is an attempt to petition the peace conference and the Woodrow Wilsons and Lloyd Georges of the world on behalf of not only the German territories in Africa that are now theoretically up for grabs, but also a way to position people of African descent in a legitimate political sphere as equal members of Western civilization, if you like.
Du Bois is very much of the opinion that the African territories that used to belong to Germany should be governed by members of the African diaspora – that’s, of course, not how things turn out, but it is an important moment. It’s also an important moment for meetings between many African American troops who have come to France and fought in World War I and had met a lot of French people, not just those of African descent but in general, and had felt that French attitudes towards race were much more palatable than those that they were engaging with at home or in the context of the US armed forces.
There’s this moment where ideas about France as a colorblind nation begin to emerge amongst African American communities. It’s also a moment of engagement that starts to spark future relationships.
Let me turn to your question of the continuities between the inter-war and postwar period next. Congresses like the Pan-African ones are crucial – Du Bois is personally involved in four of them in the period. The relationships formed in congresses can continue through into the postwar period where you may see differences in tone, certainly differences in political tone, but conferences like the Présence Africaine of 1956 and 1959 are to a certain extent the result and legacy of this earlier period. There’s continuity in the relationship between people of color coming from America and those from the French empire; they know each other from previous decades.
It is important for me to underline that my book is in many ways the history of a generation of activists. There’s a lot of scholarship that talks about the division between inter-war and the postwar, and I think that there is certainly truth to that claim, but in the case of the people that I’m looking at, their particular brand of engagement with questions of citizenship and race and rights does continue across these periods. You do see a new generation of people of African descent coming to Paris in the postwar who have a different kind of politics and a different kind of activism. I think that those narratives exist in parallel but also in engagement with the story that I tell in my book.
Ferenc Laczó: At one point you argue that quite many Black activists “sought to dismantle the racism embedded in the socio-political realities of France and America while simultaneously embracing the democratic potential of the two Republics.” Now your book studies the French Empire and the United States in one framework. You employ both comparative and transnational methods, highlighting the differences, including the perceived differences, between your two major cases while also devoting much attention to how Black intellectuals, activists, and politicians interacted across the two realms.
Could I ask you to briefly compare the two cases across the decades you study? Second and perhaps more importantly, what key insights does the reconstruction of their various forms of collaboration allow you to develop? In relation with those questions, would you care to comment on how the frequent privileging of a Republican frame and of national citizenship interacted with attempts to build transnational solidarity and international institutions?
Sarah Dunstan: One of the things that drew me to study the United States and the French empire in one frame were the archival materials that I was looking at. There were repeated references across a diverse political spectrum to ideas of republicanism, and what it meant to be part of a republican democracy that was common to both – even though people perhaps meant different things by what it meant to be a Republic and what it meant to be Black or to be African or to be of African descent. The starting point to answering this question would be that there’s a lot of reference to ideas around the Enlightenment and ideas about the French Revolution and that this is true both in France and in the United States, but they have quite different trajectories. In the context of the US, there’s a sense that America is the best present iteration, if you like, of Enlightenment principles and democracy, even though it has not quite got them right yet. In France, there’s a similar sense that the French Republic is the best possible version, but there’s much more of a dichotomy there in the way that subjects of the French empire understand the relationship between what they think of in many respects as the “true France” and the reality of France on the ground in the colonies.
Something that comes up again and again in a lot of the French periodicals that I look at – and this is across the political spectrum from things like the Communist Party’s Intercolonial Union’s own publication, Le Paria, right through to something that’s more conservative like Les Continents – is the idea that they’re bearing witness to the betrayals of the Republican principles in the colonies, but that’s not representative of “true France” and that if only they can make France and the Republican mechanisms work properly, everything will be fine. As I’ve mentioned, there’s an overlap there between the idea of the United States as a perfectible democracy.
In terms of specific relationships, there’s a bit of a linguistic barrier – many of the people that I look at can speak both English and French, but many of them cannot. There are also instances of miscommunication and efforts towards translation. The literature around racial identity and belonging that comes out of Harlem specifically but also the African American community more broadly in cities like Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s are really picked up as inspiration by a lot of Francophone Black intellectuals from the Antilles, but also, for example, from Senegal, and translated into French. This is specifically true, for example, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Léon-Gontran Damas. When they talk about their political and cultural movement, they make explicit reference to being inspired by people like Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen.
A lot of these people are coming to Paris and are meeting with the many different activists who are living there in this moment. Paris is in many respects incredibly important to the story and not just as a metropolitan capital of empire, which is why it attracts a lot of students from the colonies, but also as the symbolic capital of art and literature, if you like, which has for many decades attracted artists and thinkers. I think these two things are working together to draw people from the African diaspora to Paris, but also then sending them back with these connections that then take on a life of their own in different places throughout the French Empire and the United States.
Ferenc Laczó: You intend to show how gender operated in tandem with the dynamics of race and class to shape the visions of citizenship and modernity. You consciously aim to bring to the fore the contributions of women thinkers who have often been marginalized in previous histories.
May I ask how you see the gendered dynamics of the stories you develop? What would you say about the specific roles women played and the major contributions they made, also in the light of your related work into women’s international through which shall soon result in a major new anthology? Even more generally, what can we say about the question of representativity when it comes to the various actors you study, male or female?
Sarah Dunstan: A key factor of the Black internationalisms that I’m exploring is the extent to which there’s an effort to make a claim to and try to establish rights and citizenship.
These claims are usually contingent upon ideas of fitness for this citizenship or belonging. So there is an effort towards demonstrating that they’re perfectly capable and, in fact, are contributing these amazing things to these democracies, and to Western civilization more broadly. And that is often very masculine, especially when you’re looking at people like W.E.B. Du Bois, Aimé Césaire, or Léopold Sédar Senghor. This is connected to the way that citizenship has been constructed for a very long time, which is to say that it’s primarily male.
Most women don’t necessarily have access to the same rights of citizenship. In the French case, they don’t gain the right to vote until 1944. In the United States in theory all women gain the right to vote in 1919, but the reality is that women of color face the same barriers to voting as their male counterparts. Beyond that there are many instances in which women lose their nationality in this period upon marriage to someone who’s a different nationality. It’s a very complex issue in which gender really cuts into your sense of belonging and your access to rights.
Ideas about race are very gendered too. There’s a sense that, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, there are kind of fetishized ideas about Black women. In Paris, you see someone like Josephine Baker taking advantage of this and kind of deploying these stereotypes to her own benefit and building a career out of this. The other side of that coin are people like the Antillean sisters Jane and Paulette Nardal who were really thinking quite carefully about what it means to be a woman of color. They make the argument that this makes them more radical because they’re excluded based on their birth, gender and race, and are therefore thinking much more carefully about what it means to be in the position that they’re in as Antillean women in Paris. They feel that perhaps their male counterparts can pass to a greater extent, particularly because Antillean men have not the same political rights as white Frenchmen but enough to be more comfortable. In contrast, with the exception of Senegal’s Quatre Communes, many French African men don’t have the right to vote either. There’s lots of messy intersecting ideas that define how people are thinking about race, how people are thinking about making claims to rights. I think that these ideas are really important as part of this messy mapping exercise because they really show how your positionality is related to your thinking and activism.
When writing intellectual history, you are very much bound by the archive of written and produced documents. In terms of the locations, the fact is that my book is really centered in many ways in mainland France and mainland US. Hopefully, in the latter part this focus shifts somewhat. That’s partly because the opportunities to create written texts and published periodicals come into play here: the circulation of printed periodicals, particularly the activist ones, particularly the critical ones, were very much controlled in the French Empire. There is also the question of funding: where you can get access to funds to create and disseminate your ideas and politics is very much centered in these urban spaces. It is important to take those factors into account.
This is also where gender plays a role. You have exceptional people like the Nardal sisters who have degrees from higher degree granting institutions and are incredibly literate, but they are very unusual, even for women of their class, in terms of their access to education. Obviously, it’s testament to their hard work and intellect, but at the same time, they have a rare opportunity that they grasp and really try to run with. Many women of a different class don’t necessarily have that. Even those women who are occupying those kinds of spaces tend to be more involved in translation work or in editorial work. You can see this in the figure of someone like Christiane Yandé Diop, who is the wife of Alioune Diop, the African journalist who founded Présence Africaine in 1947. She does a lot of the organizing at the congresses, she organizes the translation work. This is no mean task when you think about the fact that this is a bilingual conference and that many of the attendees do not speak both languages.
Christiane Yandé Diop is circulating translated copies and transcripts of the speeches. That’s clearly intellectual work, although it’s very difficult to parse that out in terms of her own ideas. At the same time, it shows her commitment to the spirit of discussion and the ethos of Présence Africaine that is remarkable. But it’s also silent work that is really important for us to acknowledge.
Even in the case of those women who aren’t silent, like the Nardals, it’s only been relatively recently with the work of people like T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting that really there’s been an acknowledgement that they’re the precursors to Négritude, that they put in space some of the networks and connections that allowed thinkers like Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor to talk to people from the Harlem Renaissance whom I mentioned earlier. There is a kind of self-creation of intellectual genealogies going on there – as I mentioned in an earlier answer that Senghor and Césaire makes reference to the Harlem Renaissance writers as their inspiration. But they also met those people and became familiar with a lot of those texts in the salons that the Nardal sisters organized. Paulette Nardal was in fact very resentful in a letter to her sister many decades later where she says we had the ideas and then they took them and ran with them, and they didn’t give us credit.
There’s lots of different things going on there in terms of access to opportunity.
Even when people did have opportunity, the way that things are remembered is very gendered in terms of which things are considered important. It’s not to say that there weren’t also a lot of very talented male translators working in that space, but I think it’s a very important task for historians to map out what counts as intellectual work and who gets silenced.
Ferenc Laczó: I wished to ask you a bit about your sources and methods. At one point, you state that the “tools that these intellectuals employed to disseminate their counter-culture form a large portion of my archive” and add soon after that “The breadth of ‘police text’ available on these men and women that this monograph reveals indicates the extent to which they were considered threatening to established imperial and racial norms.”
Would you care to comment on the relationship between the primary sources left behind by the actors you study and those produced by the states that were often trying to stop them and suppress them? What methods did you use to study the various kinds of sources at your disposal?
Sarah Dunstan: One of the issues is that there is a rich array of periodicals and other publications that you want to look at as an intellectual historian, but if you want to include the voices and the perspectives of a much broader range of people, then you have to start thinking about where you can look and what spaces you can look at to try and recover voices that are less likely to be found in traditional intellectual histories. I’m obviously not the first to do this and historians have been doing this for many decades.
A good example would be someone like Lamine Senghor, who was one of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais conscripts during World War One and who’d suffered gravely as a result of the fighting. He didn’t have enough money to go back to Senegal. He initially started working for Le service de contrôle et d’assistance en France des indigènes des colonies françaises (CAI) of the French government, which was a kind of surveillance network that was set up to, in theory, aid, but in many ways also to surveil colonial subjects. To earn his living, he was working for them, spying on colonial radicals in Paris.
Lamine Senghor very quickly turns and finds radical colonial politics much more appealing than working for a government that has in many ways betrayed him and not allowed him to get home to Senegal. He’s a really interesting figure who becomes very important in trade union organizing, on colonial subjects. He goes on to speak at the League Against Imperialism in 1927. However, we have very few records of his writings – there are a couple of articles that he wrote. You get a much richer sense of his trajectory and political thinking by mapping out his activities through the reports of the surveillance material that is now available on him.
That gives you a sense of the dynamics of some of the meetings in Paris and the dynamics of how that organizing worked. Lamine Senghor was literate but many colonial subjects at that time weren’t necessarily. You can get a little bit of a sense of what they were talking about through police files, even if obviously you can’t fully reconstruct that. It’s also interesting in terms of how you can understand the relationship between some of the activism that’s going on and the authorities, the French government. An example that always makes me laugh is how what we might call the CAI for short (an acronym for Le service de contrôle et d’assistance en France des indigènes des colonies françaises – FL) conflated the activism of Du Bois and his Pan-African Association with the very different kind of politics of Marcus Garvey. Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which was an organization oriented around multiple different kinds of politics, but perhaps most famously known for its Back to Africa refrain – Marcus Garvey wanted to reclaim Africa for African peoples. He had a very different kind of politics that was very much not palatable to the French government, whereas Du Bois’s Pan-Africanism was, in theory, much more in line with the French assimilationism of the period. But those who were trying to surveil them thought that those two things were the same. They even thought that Du Bois’s Pan-Africanism was German Bolshevism – a complete misinterpretation of Du Bois’s thought and what the Pan-African Association was trying to do.
This perception then has an effect on the fragmentation of the relationship between Du Bois and the Senegalese politician Blaise Diagne who is initially involved with the Pan-African Organization. The clashing personalities had a lot to do with the breakdown of their relationship, but it also had to do with Diagne’s efforts to try and distance himself from anything that seemed too radical. It’s all based in many ways on miscommunication. In other words, it is really interesting to look at police reports also to see whether people were actually talking to each other or past each other when they were trying to engage in political dialogue.
Ferenc Laczó: I wished us to talk a bit more about two more specific subjects you cover in the book, not least to engage with questions of Central and Eastern European history in their global contexts. You discuss the attraction of as well as the disenchantment with Marxist thinking and institutional Communism. What attracted some of the Black thinkers and activists you study to Marxism and the communist movement? How and why did they grow disenchanted?
Sarah Dunstan: The starting point for me is always that the French Communist Party, formed in 1920, is co-founded by French colonial subjects. There’s a huge involvement of people from the Antillies, from Malagasy, Vietnamese, and they’re part of that story from the very beginning. They’re attracted to the Marxist principles of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and they’re very interested in thinking through what they might mean for reshaping the French Empire. Now this may not have looked like what Lenin had in mind.
At the same time, in the 1920s the French Communist Party periodical L’Humanité wasn’t really engaged with the question of the colonies.
As a result of that dissatisfaction, what we might call the colonial platform within the French Communist Party launches the Intercolonial Union and then Le Paria, their journal for discussing these issues. Their version of communism comes back to the question of bearing witness to the atrocities of the French Empire and how this isn’t a true manifestation of republicanism. They see a compatibility between a Marxist approach and the enactment of true republicanism, equality of citizenship, etc.
It’s a bit different in the United States where initially the Communist Party and the Socialist Party of America are primarily white. At the same time, there’s a huge interest specifically within Harlem but also in other Black communities in the United States in Marxist thinking and in the Communist International more broadly. You have groups like the African Blood Brotherhood, which is initially primarily West Indian in composition, but that’s not uniformly true, and then the Harlem branch of the Communist Party, which very much more involved Harlem community members who hailed from throughout the African diaspora.
It is very important to make a distinction between Marxist thinkers and Marxist radicals of color and those who are engaged with institutional communism – that’s the kind of catchphrase I use for things like the American Communist Party. The latter has its moments, such as the Scottsboro Trials in the 1930s, when it really gains a lot of Black membership because they are willing to stand up for poor, working class Black people in a way that other political parties at the time certainly were not. But then when they prioritize questions other than race as you move into the 1940s and World War II, there’s a disenchantment with the American Communist Party.
On the other side of the coin, the French Communist Party and the Communist International always offers a lot of opportunities for travel, for political organizing to many activists of color in the United States, which it doesn’t necessarily offer to colonial subjects in France. You see this a lot in the 1930s where you have people like the African American writer Richard Wright engaging with Louis Aragon and the Communist International in a way that you see Francophone colonial subjects also engaging, but not getting the same kind of monetary support. A lot of the groups that emerge in the 1920s around colonial activism do get funding from the French Communist Party or the Comintern. This starts to evaporate in the 1930s because there’s a refusal of a lot of these groups to tow the party line when it comes to the question of race.
There is a constant tension in Marxist thinking amongst the activists that I look at. The question is do you prioritize the class analysis or the race analysis? Many of the activists that I look at think about these things as being closely intertwined. For some dyed in the wool white communist thinkers, it amounts to heresy to think like that. This tension carries through this period, and it perhaps could be considered to exist to this day.
When you read Aimé Césaire’s repudiation of the French Communist Party in his “Lettre à Maurice Thorez” published in 1956, he’s not disavowing Marxist thought, he’s disavowing the Communist Party which hasn’t given space to race in the way that he thinks that it should, and which has continued to be racist in terms of its internal politics. Similar kinds of conversations are going on, for example, in the British Communist Party, but also the Communist Party in the US.
In theory, race should not be factored into Marxist thinking. In actual reality, these communist institutions are plagued by the same problems that are plaguing society more broadly. However, they claim that racism doesn’t exist. The resulting refusal to tackle it head on becomes a source of real disenchantment for many Marxist thinkers of color.
Ferenc Laczó: You end your book around the time of major breakthroughs: of African American civil rights activism and of Francophone anti-imperialism leading to what we tend to label ‘de-colonization’ or ‘the end of empire.’ How would you assess these postwar developments in the light of earlier developments? Would you say your book aims to reinterpret these well-known ‘end points’ of sorts and show that they were much more contingent than we tend to assume?
Sarah Dunstan: They indeed need to be understood in tandem. What I was trying to bring together here is a couple of different major historiographical interventions. Mary Dudziak and Carol Anderson have done a lot of work mapping out how in the postwar period we see a certain narrowing of the domestic activism in many parts of the movement against racism from thinking in terms of human rights to thinking in terms of civic rights. It is a question discussed throughout my book whether we think about these rights as human rights or as civic rights, in terms of citizenship, or are the two things inextricable? This is something that is also happening in the context of the breakdown of the French Empire, specifically for the generation and the cohort of activists that I’m looking at.
Many of them weren’t actually hoping for the fragmentation of empire and the establishment of independent nation states. They were hoping – and this is Frederick Cooper’s argument – that they could have true citizenship within a federated form of the French Empire and were considering alternatives that would have still allowed them to remain within that kind of Euro-African space. That didn’t happen, and so the end of empire is also a kind of breakdown moment for them. In many ways, it’s the moment that really underlines that your rights are connected to your national belonging, are really connected to where you have citizenship.
In other words, your rights are guaranteed by a state rather than by an international government or international institution. It is a story of the narrowing from human rights to citizenship rights, which is also a story of disenchantment. The negotiation of the period, after all, concerns whether the League of Nations and then the United Nations would be able to guarantee rights for people regardless of their national belonging. The answer tends to be negative at this point.
I talked about the idea of bearing witness to atrocities committed in the colonies earlier. I think this is the moment in which there’s a decision to say that “you can bear witness, but nothing ever came of that in the way that we wanted it to. Perhaps if we are governing ourselves, then we can guarantee those rights in a different way.”
One of the reasons that it seemed wise to me to end my book there is because there are new issues and new conversations that arise out of this new political organization; many of the relationships that sustain the book continue beyond its timeframe, but the questions are slightly different. You’re still having conversations about citizenship rights and how you can have a democratic state that operates with difference and allows for difference, and those questions are in fact still with us today and they’re still as important. However, the parameters of those conversations have changed in the meantime, and they change after this moment.
I worry sometimes that I was perhaps too determinative in saying there is the civil rights movement and the fragmentation of French Empire. For me, it’s not so much about a specific date but rather about a moment in which things shift and the parameters of the conversation change. You’re starting to see new generations with different ideas coming to the fore which I think deserves a different book.
Ferenc Laczó: Your book is centrally concerned with questions of democracy and citizenship. You discuss what you and others call an “asymmetrical” form of modernity which has yielded various intellectual attempts to underline and prove civilizational parity. The thinkers and activists you study employed culture as one of their methods of demonstrating their contributions to Western modernity.
In this context, you claim that the thinking of Black activists had a distinct genealogy but was clearly very much part of Western political thought. The African diaspora in fact played a fundamental and still underacknowledged role in creating Western civilization and modernity, you argue. The study of anti-colonial thinkers, or of race and decolonization, should therefore be more closely connected to political histories of sovereignty, republicanism, and citizenship. You show how they responded to the crisis of modernity in important and often intriguing ways and developed sophisticated critiques of the structures of liberal modernity.
As two final questions, could I ask you to discuss some of the major contributions members of the African diaspora made to Western political thought that we should all be aware of and concerned with? And could you perhaps also talk a bit about how you see your own role as a historian, as a historian whose project aims to include under-acknowledged thinkers and activists in what we might call the “Western canon”?
Sarah Dunstan: I would start by saying that the argument of my book is that you cannot understand the histories of republicanism in the context of French Empire and the context of the United States without thinking about the actors that I look at.
I say that not just because their thought is brilliant in and of itself, but because it is from the beginning engaged with and engaged by the people that they’re talking about. It’s at the heart of the functioning of these states rather than the non-functioning of these states. They are contesting the principles of democracy constantly in a way that is central to the experience of these democracies.
I close the book with an extract from Aimé Césaire’s amazing poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal(Notebook of a Return to The Native Land) where he says, ‘‘and I tell myself Bordeaux, and Nantes and Liverpool and New York and San Francisco, not an inch of this world devoid of my fingerprint.” That’s true of a longer history than I cover in my book in the sense that the cities of France and the French Empire and of the United States are literally built by the labor and the blood and the sweat of enslaved African peoples. They’ve been there from the beginning of what we would understand as these modern nation states and are part of them. Even as it’s a clearly asymmetrical power relationship that has defined their belonging to these states or exclusion from these states in the last few centuries, their history is central to the way these states have functioned.
The definition of what it means to be French, even if it’s ultimately been excluding these people, it’s been defined through excluding the people, what it means to be civilized is relative to what it means to be uncivilized which has usually been constituted in a racialized way. When you think about the police archives in tandem with Gramsci’s idea of hegemony – i.e. how with hegemonic structures you always have counter-hegemonic structures developed by people who aren’t part of those structures –, those police texts really show how there’s a constant effort by the state and its hegemonic structures to suppress those that don’t fit within and upon whose oppression the continued existence of the state depends. I think those power dynamics, sometimes rendered invisible, are absolutely crucial to understanding how it all works.
It’s a trap for intellectual historians to look for the text and to think about the ideas of the text without realizing what’s going on outside. You have to look beyond a specific text and think about the way that other people are engaging with the text. One of the things that is really striking if we look at what’s considered canonical Marxism, for example, we can all list canonical European thinkers, but we are still less likely, although I think increasingly likely, to name someone like George Padmore or W.E.B. Du Bois.
But they’re reading the same people and they’re engaging with the same text and engaging with the same events in the same periods and so the only thing that excludes them from that canon is their positionality within society. It is therefore really important to understand why they were excluded at the time and think really critically about that.
The obvious example for me is someone like Richard Wright who is not traditionally considered within the canon of European existentialist thought. Yet Jean-Paul Sartre, someone who is certainly considered a canonical author, makes references to Wright’s novels and other works from the beginning and is sort of saying this is where he’s getting his inspiration from. However, Wright’s novel The Outsider is universally panned. In many ways that happens within the African American community because there’s a feeling that Wright has abandoned it, that he’s gone to Paris and is not living the Black experience anymore. Whatever you think about the merits of that novel I think it’s incredibly important to understand it as part of that canon of existentialist thought while being written from a different positionality than that of Jean-Paul Sartre’s. It enriches that intellectual tradition to see both of those things as part of that canon as opposed to saying he doesn’t quite fit so will exclude him.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
In collaboration with Karen Culver.