It’s a literary device that he likes and that he has already used in The Enigma of the Return; short texts, like summaries of reflections, alternating with longer chapters.
The academic Dany Laferrière is back at it again in his latest essay ‘A Little Treatise on Racism’, set for release at the start of the year through Grasset. His wish: not to frighten off the young reader with a heavy, loaded investigation, whom he can no longer bear to see repeating the same historical clichés onracism.
Although reluctant to give a single definition, the author of How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired, Dans la splendeur de la nuit (In the Splendour of the Night) and The Almost Lost Art of Doing Nothing, would like to “put flesh and pain back into the tragedy of racism.”
Rife with themes highlighting the feelings, desires and sufferings that black people can experience, the book is also rich with emblematic figures such as the fiery Nina Simone and Miles Davis, the more renowned Toni Morrison and Spike Lee, or the unexpected appeareances of Cheikh Anta Diop and Frantz Fanon.
In this way, the themes of affliction, pride, acts of ordinary racism, and Ku Klux Klan-related lynchings are brought together, intertwined by Laferrière’s delicate demonstration of a potentially explosive topic, as he explains in this detailed interview with us.
We didn’t hear much from you during the George Floyd case in 2020. Why ‘A Little Treatise on Racism’ now?
Dany Laferrière: I had published an article in a French magazine entitled ‘Racism is a virus’. I like to stand back when a juicy topic comes up and journalists, politicians, artists and intellectuals get hold of it, and then come back to it when the dust settles, to write from the traces left behind.
I’m always a bit worried when everything suddenly ignites, as if it were something new. Despite the tragedy and the pain caused, you have to put this event into a continuum so that you don’t seem to be constantly getting upset, without trying to see where you should tackle the problem.
Does this mean that we’re done with racism?
Far from it. Racism is not just a question of being allergic to the other. It is also a business – which brings in a lot of money for associations, lobbies, sports brands (Nike, Adidas, and so on) that ruin ghetto families and artists – especially in the United States, where any statement on this subject is worth its weight in gold, depending on the media weight of the person who takes a stand. I am not suggesting that everyone who speaks out is doing so for personal gain. Nevertheless, there is a kind of “dynamism” around racism.
The racist is not just the person who calls you a dirty nigger, it can sometimes be a professional who gets in the way of your plans and makes your life miserable.
What makes the racism within the United States so unique?
Firstly, there is the weight of numbers: between 45 million and 48 million Blacks, which could mean that there are potentially that many instances of racism. The United States is also one of the few powers where slavery took place on national territory – its neighbour Canada also practised it on its soil, but on a lesser scale and was even considered the place to be to be free of it.
The United States is a laboratory for racism in the sense that it allows for some very interesting analyses. It has gone further than any other country in the abomination, yet higher than any other in the valorisation of Blacks: the country has elected a Black president, elevated Blacks to positions of power – heads of multinational companies, governors, mayors, senators, members of Congress, etc.
Moreover, no other colonising power has recorded a civil war between enslavers and abolitionists. After abolition, the formerly enslaved became workers. From the slave-owning South to the labouring North, the chain is invisible, but it remains.
Is the fabric of American society rooted in racism?
James Baldwin saw it clearly: it is a neurosis. Nobody escapes it, be they white or Black. Some were once owners; others were enslaved. Apart from the new migrants, three groups live together: the Anglo-Saxons, the natives, and the Blacks.
All of them – especially the last two groups – have a painful memory that remains present. In the public space, this memory can be revived at any moment by a simple encounter between a Black and a white person, or between a white person and a native.
For some, is racism is just a feeling that is difficult to prove?
The racist is not just the one who calls you a “dirty nigger,” it is more subtle than that. It can be a professional who gets in the way of your plans and makes your life miserable for a specific purpose. He feels that you cannot possibly be related to him, that you are an outsider.
Black Americans are not outsiders in the United States. They are part of the history and the wealth of their country is largely based on them. This does not prevent American racism from being well established and its evidence is tangible. Black neighbourhoods are different from white neighbourhoods: in the former, electricity pylons, in the latter, trees. On the one hand, there are ransacked parks, on the other, green lawns mowed to the millimetre…
So, in your opinion, is it impossible to eradicate this evil if not touched by its roots?
The policeman who shoots a Black man is just the armed wing of a system, just like the racist worker. Black workers and white workers are used as cannon fodder in this war. Placed side by side, they must fight under the contemptuous gaze of decision-makers in the towers of Manhattan who feed the racism. Yet these decision-makers cannot be accused of being racists: they never see Black people, never say anything against them…
The issue of racism will not be solved until we address the people who, far from the front, pull the strings and slyly stir up hatred. Only the police are more likely to target Black people, who are also often on the edge of their seats because they are crushed, underpaid and living in difficult conditions. Neither the police officer nor the racist white worker, nor the completely confused Black man are aware that they are part of a game that is beyond them. They are manipulated on the spot.
Does this explain why Black people are registered from a young age even if they have not committed any crime?
Every young Black person must have a criminal record by the time they turn 18 years old. All the police have to do is meet the young person alone on the street at night. Even if he is just a stone’s throw from his home, if he has no identification, he is taken to the police station and a record is opened in his name. The next time this happens, he will be a repeat offender. Conversely, when a young white person finds himself in the same situation, he is taken back to his parents.
Is the difficulty in overcoming racism not also due to the fact that the middle class, i.e., the majority, does not feel concerned? Either because they are convinced that they are not racist, or because they have never experienced it?
The middle class is America’s mystery person. They are courted for their votes in elections and are responsible for setting certain trends. It is the foundation of the economy, politics, even the American dream. Preoccupied with real problems like making money, these middle-class Americans leave the victims of racism to their fate, yet it is a scourge that cannot be addressed in a vacuum. There is no point in pretending to ignore it: it always catches up with those who turn away from it, because it is as present in the public arena as oxygen, the oxygen that George Floyd was denied.
To accept that an adjective such as afro, Black, etc. is attached is to give up the fight by ceding American status to the other.
How can it be overcome? What could be the role of literature in such a fight?
There was a time when Black authors in the United States wrote their works in prison, if they had not been heavily convicted. Many of them tell in their memoirs how prison gave them intellectual structure and allowed them to escape the steamroller of the street, but also the crushing machine of racism, which is based on humiliation and contempt. Every time you write, you distance yourself from racism, even if you don’t eradicate it. It’s rare to feel inferior when you write. There is a kind of dignity in writing.
James Baldwin demonstrated this in The Next Time, Fire, and Nobody Knows My Name.
Yes, to the surprise of the white establishment, who wondered how this young Black man, who had not gone to Harvard, could analyse his condition so lucidly. Baldwin goes beyond the question of racism. In Nobody Knows My Name, he explores the life of a sophisticated French intellectual, André Gide, and examines his relationship to homosexuality, a great taboo in 1950s America.
Through the power of his thinking, Baldwin demonstrates that he cannot let the first man come along and humiliate him because of his skin colour. He has given many young Americans, Black and white, food for thought, reminding them that they cannot do it alone.
As long as the Black man is crushed, the white man will be one of the executioners, even if his best friends are Black. The only solution? To become full-fledged Americans, both of them.
Does Baldwin reach this conclusion because he rejects radicalism in the fight against racism?
It favours the power of persuasion and nuance. This nuance sends the message to the other person that he or she is not irredeemably racist. Every human being needs this nuance, including members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Could you have been able to deal with such an explosive subject like racism without these nuances?
Nuance is subversive. My aim is not to make a frontal opposition between Black and white. And when I write the word Black, it does not include all Black people, nor does white include all white people.
To introduce nuance is to remind ourselves of some truths: thousands of young whites died in the Civil War for a cause they had no idea about. In the late 1930s, risking her husband’s re-election to the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the powerful Daughters of the American Revolution in response to the banning of Black singer Marian Anderson from performing in the auditorium of Constitution Hall.
Even more, the First Lady won the favour of the Black community by inviting the contralto to sing at the foot of the Lincoln statue, in front of more than 75,000 spectators of all origins. And how can we forget that it was Janis Joplin who had these words engraved on Bessie Smith’s anonymous grave: “The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing – Bessie Smith 1894-1937.”
There are many more examples of Blacks and whites being on the same side.
You also seek to rehabilitate Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that was unjustly reviled even though it helped motivate young people in the working-class North to fight against the slave-owning South.
Praised by the youth of the 1850s and 1860s, the book was shot down a century later by the Black youth of the 1960s. Uncle Tom, the main hero, is a good man, loved by everyone on the plantation, who responds to evil with good. A feminist, humanist and abolitionist, Beecher Stowe appealed to the Christian morality that runs through American society at the time to answer essential questions: can such a good man be kept in slavery? How many Uncle Toms are there in America? Is an evil slaveholder better than an Uncle Tom?
Rumour has it that the latter is a servant-like individual who can love his tormentor. While Beecher Stowe has been vilified, most major Black writers have always considered her novel to be a major book.
I find it absurd to question the contribution of Black Americans to American culture, since they are at the origin of it, as much as whites are.
Your portrait gallery includes several Black women, including Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison.
One year links the two women: 1993. The former was chosen by Bill Clinton to read a poem at his inauguration; the second won the Nobel Prize for Literature. A great year for two powerful Black women, raised to the highest level in [literary] society.
Brilliant, sassy, sensual, and attacked by both the Ku Klux Klan and Blacks, Maya Angelou never wanted to be considered a victim. She is one of the Americans who spent time in Africa, particularly in Ghana, after independence.
Africa was seen by Black Americans as a bulwark against racism. Why didn’t it work?
Because Africa is not America. As Baldwin said so well: “Black Americans will not return to Africa and white Americans will not resettle in Europe. We will not solve the problem of racism outside of America, where we were born and died, by ignoring the history that took place there, which was three centuries of slavery. Africa is a reverie.”
In any case, Black Americans abroad are first and foremost Americans. We would so much like them to be Americans at home too.
Should they then stop being Black Americans?
To accept that an adjective like Afro, African, Black, etc., or a hyphen should be added to one’s identity is to give up the fight by ceding the status of American to the other, by placing oneself on the fringe.
I find it absurd that we question the contribution of Black Americans to American culture, since they are as much the originators of this culture as whites. Whether they are rappers, athletes or scientists, the results of their work remain American contributions; they are neither contributions nor additions.
As Montaigne said, political questions are often questions of grammar. We must start by cleaning up the vocabulary. Society accepts certain terms because they have a consensus. For example, saying that I am Black. Everyone knows that my skin colour has nothing to do with Black. To reject this consensus is to reject a distinctive sign.
You also mention emblematic personalities such as Nina Simone and Miles Davis.
They are two dark-skinned, wounded people who had the world at their feet, but whose spirit remained on the plantation, explaining why they are so abrasive. You can’t touch them, they refuse to negotiate, and they don’t understand that another human being can imagine being superior to them. You put them back in the plantations, where they regain their reflexes and understand that they have to flee to the mountains, hide, and poison the wells.
Why is Cheikh Anta Diop in this portrait gallery?
Racism is not just a problem for American-born Black Americans. In the 1960s, as these Americans sought to reconstruct their history, Cheikh Anta Diop offered them the history of Pharaonic Egypt.
Anta Diop’s work is more studied in the United States than in his homeland of Senegal.
While you denounce racism, how do you feel about those that seem to pull out the race card so often that one might think it a business card?
Those who hold up the race card in all circumstances are victims. You say hello to them, they think they detect racist overtones in your tone. It is identity manipulation, because they benefit from it. Every outcast who pulls out the race card in every circumstance ends up trading on it. In general, victimizers do not confront outspoken racists.
Your book opens with a word that you love, but which is not widely used: negro.
I find it beautiful. It’s a rich and troubled word, with many meanings depending on who uses it.
On the cover of a book, it is immediately striking. It has nothing to do with the more violent English word nigger, which rappers have de-fanged through their music, to remove its explosive charge.
In Haiti, it simply means man.
If it can be used so easily, it is because Haiti emerged from colonial neurosis through a very strange process: the arrival of the Black dictator. A Black man using other Blacks, the Tonton Macoutes, to crush other Blacks, who deduced that the white man was not the problem. Black settlers replacing white settlers, it was a question of power rather than race.
Some suggest that the word should be abolished.
This is ridiculous. Not saying it doesn’t mean you think less of it. Should we also delete the words slaves, holocaust, Nazi, and concentration camp? They should be kept in order to know who said them, in what context, with what consequences and what violence. We want to know how history has evolved.
Is there a time in US history when it seems as if racism is receding?
The Ku Klux Kan went through a period of slackness, when the Black Panthers arrived, very well dressed, wearing Black jackets, boots and hats in style. Blacks thus took the burden of aesthetics on their shoulders. The photos of the time do not give away their status as workers.
This may seem trivial, but it was very political: they rejected their condition. Aesthetics became a force, a powerful weapon. From then on, the whites ruled the day; they ruled the night, fantasy, the imagination. Aesthetics slowed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, as its young recruits no longer wished to wear the legendary pillowcase with two holes in it.
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