Wednesday 31 May 2017


“The garden is a space which is omnipresent in the work of Caribbean women writers.”

This comment by a scholar came at a colloquium in Paris earlier this month, highlighting the many complex forms that “gardening” can take in Caribbean writing, especially in the work of Antigua-born writer Jamaica Kincaid.

The two-day colloquium, titled “The Art and Craft of Grafting in Jamaica Kincaid’s work”, focused not only on Kincaid’s acclaimed range of books, but it also compared her work with that of Michelle Cliff, Olive Senior and others. (Senior’s most known collection of poetry is probably Gardening in the Tropics.)

Prof. Carole Boyce Davies, a keynote presenter.
But why is the theme of gardening or grafting so significant?

According to the organizers of the conference: “When transposed into the botanical world cherished by writer Jamaica Kincaid, the creolization that has long characterized Caribbean cultures can be reread as the art of grafting - an act of defiance in the face of a traumatic colonial history fraught with obsessive monocultures of cotton and (later and above all) sugar cane.”

Plant grafting can thus be read as “the subversion of unicity and as a practice of recycling, irregularity, re-composition and survival: the art of the survival of writing and of living forms”, they added.

Readers may find “medicinal herbs known to the slaves who survived the Middle Passage” as well as Wordsworth’s daffodils growing in Kincaid’s “largely imaginary garden - a space between and beyond the Caribbean and New England”, for instance.

The organizers also pointed out that gardening paradoxically “encapsulates the experience of uprootedness and drifting” - so common to Caribbean history.

One of the scholarly panels at the colloquium.
About 20 scholars from Europe, the Caribbean and the United States presented papers at the colloquium, examining themes of creolization, resistance and survival - as portrayed through literary gardening. Carole Boyce Davies of Cornell University, and Daryl Dance, Professor Emerita at Richmond University, gave the keynote lectures.

The event's organizing committee included representatives from Toulouse University, Paris 8 University and the Sorbonne: Corinne Bigot, Andrée-Anne Kekeh-Dika, Nadia Setti and Kerry-Jane Wallart.

Saturday 13 May 2017


By Claire Oberon Garcia

Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s award-winning documentary I Am Not Your Negro opened in Paris this month to a sold-out and diverse audience at L’Arlequin Cinema on the city’s Left Bank.

The powerful film takes an innovative approach to presenting James Baldwin’s life and ideas, avoiding “talking heads” and using only words from his own writing along with archival film footage and clips from the Hollywood movies that Baldwin discussed as exemplifying certain enduring pathologies of American culture.

The filmmaker was in attendance, along with James Baldwin’s nephew and members of the film crew, and the silence of the packed hall was remarkable, almost as if everyone were all in a collective trance.

As Baldwin would pause, for example, in an interview with Dick Cavett to search for just the right entrance point into a response to a question, the audience collectively held its breath.

Save for a few moments of quiet, bitter laughter at points later in the film, the audience was quietly absorbed by Baldwin’s words and the powerful and often violent visual images. Samuel L. Jackson’s voice - almost unrecognizable - respectfully brought Baldwin’s characteristic very personal but formal rhetoric to life.

Images from the present constantly infiltrated Baldwin’s words and archival visuals: footage of
civil rights protestors being beaten in the streets cut to the National Guard in Ferguson treating protestors with an almost mechanical contempt; black and white photos of lynched people juxtaposed with recent family photos of black children who have been killed by police; a litany of aural apologies by various officials and statesmen, including President Donald Trump, overlaid scenes of past and present indifference to humanity.

Writer James Baldwin, in the film.
Despite the film’s emphasis on broader social forces and problems, it also conveyed a sense of Baldwin’s individuality and vision: his development from a bright, curious Harlem boy with bad teeth to a celebrated intellectual who nevertheless always felt himself to be an outsider, a self-described witness to social change rather than a participant in it, who seemed startled to receive a standing ovation by hundreds of Cambridge undergraduates after winning a debate against the aristocratic American right-wing critic William F. Buckley.

The audience gave the film a standing ovation that lasted until the end of the credits, after which Peck spent nearly an hour answering questions from the audience.

Interest in Baldwin’s work has only recently been revived. Peck described the impact that reading Baldwin at age 17 or 18 had on him, and declared that the motivation for making this film was to help make sure that Baldwin’s ideas were not lost to future generations.

When asked by a young woman in the audience whether or not the film had any message for France, Peck declared that Baldwin’s critique isn’t just of the United States, but addresses any society that does not respect various aspects of human difference, including immigration status, gender, and sexual orientation.

Raoul Peck
The film made clear that Baldwin’s incisive analysis of the pathology of U.S. racism is still relevant today, and that today’s increasingly polarized West is badly in need of his brand of intelligent, righteous humanism.

Claire Oberon Garcia is an author and a professor of literature, race and migration studies at Colorado College in the United States. She is co-editor of the book From Uncle Tom's Cabin to The Help.

Monday 8 May 2017


On a day when the independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron beat his far-right opponent to win the French presidential elections, a museum in the Trocadéro area of Paris was packed with young visitors - a symbol of the results.

They had come to see “Nous et les Autres: Des Préjugés aux Racisme” (Us and Them: From Prejudice to Racism), a daring exhibition - for France - that has been prompting dialogue about the origins and nature of racism, both in Europe and elsewhere.

From the exhibition: how do we categorize others?
Launched in the run-up to the vote, and under the patronage of UNESCO, the exhibition’s aim has been clear from the outset: to have visitors emerge with a changed perspective - especially in a climate of divisive politics.

“We hope that visitors will leave different from how they entered,” said Bruno David, president of France’s National Museum of Natural History and of its anthropology branch the Musée de l’Homme, which is hosting the exhibition.

“That’s the objective. What we’re doing is in the tradition of the museum, a humanist tradition, asking questions of society,” he told journalists during the opening at the end of March.

Many observers have been wondering how France reached the stage of having an extreme-right candidate again making it to the second round of presidential elections, as happened in 2002.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front party (she temporarily stepped down from leading the party during the elections), won 34.3 percent of the votes in the final round on May 7, against Macron's 65.7 percent. She had campaigned on a blistering anti-immigration and anti-globalization platform.

Views similar to hers, seen as promoting division and fear of the “other”, have especially caused concern among institutions with a commitment to human rights and equality, as the museum says it is.

“The first network of the Resistance [during World War II] was born here,” David said in an interview at the museum, which opened in 1937 and is located in the landmark buildings of the Palais de Chaillot, overlooking the Eiffel Tower.

“The exhibition is in line with our principles. It is not militant, because we’re a museum and our approach is scientific, but it is fairly courageous, especially during this time,” he continued.

Using photos, film, sculptures and installations in an interactive manner, the exhibition highlights how “differences” have been used throughout history to “imprison individuals in ready-made representations and to divide them into categories”.

Museum workers set up the exhibits.
It stresses that “as soon as these ‘differences’ are organized into a hierarchy and essentialized, racism is alive and thrives”. 

The curators have arranged the display into three parts, focusing on what they call the processes of "categorization", as well as on the historical development of institutional racism and on the current political and intellectual environment.

“It is natural to categorize,” says Evelyne Heyer, co-curator of the exhibition and a professor of genetic anthropology. “But it’s the moral value that we give to differences that determine if we’re racist or not. It makes no scientific sense to attribute a moral value to differences among people.”

Heyer says that based on genetic study, humans have fewer differences among them than breeds of dogs, for example, and that the “categorization of race is inappropriate to describe diversity”.

A panel at "Nous et les Autres".
The exhibition attempts to give scientific answers to questions such as “if there are no races, why does human skin colour vary” and it presents information tracing the origins of humankind to the African continent.

Apart from the scientific aspect, the curators have put much emphasis on the historical and international facets of “racialization”, focusing for instance on Nazi Germany and the “exaltation of racial purity”; the treatment of the indigenous Ainu people in Japan; the divisions between Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda; and segregation in South Africa and the United States.

As on election day, the exhibits have sparked sober discussion. During the opening night, for instance, as people crowded in front of a screen showing footage of civil rights struggles in the United States, a Paris-based African American artist commented, “I remember that so well.”

When a French spectator responded, “But you don’t look that old”, the artist stated firmly: “I am. I was there,” and so a conversation began.

The entrance to the exhibition.
The curators are hoping that the exhibition will prompt long-term dialogue across political divides, but in the end the conversation might only continue among the already converted, say some skeptics, who also wonder about the display's target audience: who exactly is "us" or "them"?

Still, for anyone wanting to learn more about the consequences of racism and discrimination, the exhibition presents a range of statistics.

It provides information, for instance, about the lack of access to employment for certain “groups” in France (job applicants with “North-African-sounding” names often don’t receive responses to letters), as well as figures showing that the population most subjected to racism in the country are the Roma.

“Racism is difficult to measure, but many studies have been done on access to employment and on people’s views of those they consider different,” says historian and co-curator Carole Reynard-Paligot. “We want people to see these statistics and to ask questions.”

She said that she and her colleagues also wished to show the move from individuals’ racism to state racism, to examine how this developed and the part that colonization and slavery have played.

 A view from the exhibition: how to live together?
Throughout the exhibition, which runs until Jan. 8, 2018, the museum is organizing lectures, film screenings and other events. 

From May 10 to July 10, it is presenting works by a group of photographers from French territories, Brazil, Africa and the United States in a show titled “Impressions Mémorielles”. This is in observance of the French national day (May 10) of remembrance of slavery, the transatlantic slave trade and abolition.

Meanwhile, other museums are also taking steps to counter the anti-immigration mindset. The Paris-based Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration (National Museum of the History of Immigration) invited the population to visit its “Ciao Italia!” exhibition, either “before or after” they voted.

This museum, which like the Musée de l’Homme has been controversial in the past because of its “colonialist” displays, said that the Sunday free access would be an opportunity to learn about the story of Italian immigration to France from 1860 to 1960.

It was also a chance to “discover ... the numerous contributions of immigrants to French society”, the museum added. - A.M.

For an earlier version of this article, please see the Inter Press Service (IPS) site: