Published November 3, 2021
UB visiting French professor Mame-Fatou Niang has lived through the challenges of racism her entire life. For years, she never saw anyone who looked like her in the media, much less celebrated in French culture. Her attempts to fight racism have landed her on a list titled “363 Islamo-leftists that need to be targeted” in France.
Now with recent Black Lives Matter movements in both the U.S. and France, Niang is beginning to see glimmers of a post-racist society. A scholar studying Blackness in contemporary France, she brings her familiarity with French racial issues to UB as the fall 2021 Visiting Melodia E. Jones Endowed Chair in French studies.
Her seminar, FR 482: Rethinking Universalism in 21st Century France, examines how French identity was born, how Frenchness became restrictive and how this influenced the way France continues to pay homage to the French identity through memorialization of statues and names.
“When you look at all of this, you realize that French history is almost exclusively white and metropolitan,” Niang says.
To uncover this whitewashed history of France, she and her UB students are developing an inventory of Parisian streets named after French historical figures with hidden racist pasts.
In collaboration with the Foundation for the Memory of Slavery in Paris, they’ve “found over 200 streets in Paris named after slaveholders and colonial missionaries who hid behind titles like artists and politicians,” Niang says.
“We are building a website with an inventory of French ‘heroes’ that had an unknown role in colonial and slave conquest. For example, there is a street named after Jean-Baptiste Colbert who was the most famous finance minister in the history of France, but not many people know he was also the architect of France’s slave code,” she explains.
Sophie May, a senior who is enrolled in FR 482, says she finds value in being a small part of the anti-racist movement in France.
“Each of us are given a few street names to research, and we write up a short paper highlighting the racist past of the person it was named after,” says May. “I had no idea how outdated the views and monuments were in France. I’m grateful to have even a small role in pushing back against racism in France.”
Although UB students are working toward uncovering hidden Black French history, mainstream French culture has traditionally blocked any of its history that does not align with the classic “French” identity.
“France decided that race is a social construct that created one of the world’s greatest catastrophes: slavery. So, we decided to remove the word ‘race’ from our language, but this does not erase the events that happened in the past,” Niang says.
The rejection of the words “race” and “blackness” in France has had detrimental effects on many Afro-French people, including Niang herself.
“When I first started going to university, I identified myself as ‘Afro-French’” she says. “This was never done before. It distinguished myself from the typical ‘French’ identity and acknowledged my race. People did not like this in France.”
Her experiences as a young adult in France provided motivation for her future works. In addition to her research on Blackness in contemporary France at Carnegie Mellon University, where she holds a faculty position, she wrote the novel “Identités Françaises” and directed the film “Mariannes Noires: Blackness in French,” both centered around racial issues in France. These works have sparked the conversation about racism in France.
The beginning of this conversation gives Niang hope for the future.
“For me, the fact that we are coming out of this silence is a victory,” she says. “The fact that the president of France had to stand in front of the nation and acknowledge the word ‘race’ multiple times is a victory. It does not matter what he said it about; it’s that this conversation is finally happening.”
In addition to de-silencing the past, Niang hopes someday to live in a world where race is not a factor at all.
“My dream is to live in a post-racist society — a society where race is not a factor anymore,” she says. “We are told that we live in this world, but this is not true. While my work is about race, I want my nephews or nieces to make a movie about science fiction or comedy — not to have to make fighting racism their life mission like I do.
“I think keeping in mind ‘la finalité,’ or the purpose of life, helps us realize we have bigger challenges that face us as human beings. We need to come together to fight these, rather than let race divide us.”