African Studies Quarterly
Volume 9, Issue 1 & 2
Fall 2006


The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude and Colonial Humanism between the Two World Wars. Gary Wilder.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 386 pp.

Here's a fresh exploration of colonial overrule through the prism of social theory and literature: how did fervent minds, exercising their insightfulness and their hopes within the artifices of imperial political reason, ponder their world, in France, in West Africa, and in the French Caribbean space, in the 1930s? And what conclusions can we draw from their exertions, most notably in Africa? These are among the key questions which drive Gary Wilder's penetrating and meticulous account of colonial humanism and Negritude through the interwar period in the French West African empire.

Wilder studies two different but related "cohorts" of colonial intellectuals: French social and political theorists striving to infuse colonial political rationality with paternalist humanism, and Black writers proposing transformative projects of the French colonial empire which would be grounded in egalitarian humanism. Wilder demonstrates that although the two currents were inextricably interrelated at various levels, conceptual as well as personal, and were both contingent on the specific context of the colonial empire, their projects were distinct and converged only in the imagination of an ultimately unrealized political construct-the French imperial nation-state.

The French colonial humanists, most prominent among them such administrators-ethnographers as Maurice Delafosse, Jules Brvi, Robert Delavignette, Henri Labouret and Georges Hardy, articulated an epistemic formation derived from ethnological research and their administrative work to a vision of Greater France in which the cohabitation between metropolitan citizens and African national subjects would bolster France's international stature, serve its economic interests, and improve the economic conditions of the Africans while preserving their culture. In the context of the postliberal, Welfarist orientations of the 1930s, the colonial humanists associated France's greatness (economic and political) to the welfare of its colonial subjects, in ways, however, which revealed the inherent contradictions of the colonial project. A liberal democracy founded on republican values of active civism, liberty and equality, France developed in its colonial empire laws and policies predicated on political quiescence, subordination and racial/cultural hierarchy. Rather than asserting, as does much of the historiography on the subject, that these two aspects of the imperial French polity were distinct and mutually exclusive, Wilder posits that they were in fact two faces of the same coin, and mutually reinforcing in the making of a racialized imperial nation-state. At the same time that the equal human worth of Africans is proclaimed by republican universalism, their apparently obdurate cultural particularism is highlighted and denigrated by the associated notions of French cultural modernity or civilization. Colonial subjects are thus captured in a double bind which justifies their subservience through the task of their intrinsically delayed emancipation. As French nationals, they are dispossessed of a nationality that would be articulated to their own cultures, and as colonial subjects, they are deprived of the political rights associated with French citizenship.

While colonial humanism was being deployed within the instrumentalities of imperial government, Black students from Africa, the Antilles and Guiana confronted the ambiguity of republican racism in metropolitan France. Wilder traces the itinerary of a number of young Black students from their tropical homes to Paris where both the dynamism and the oppressions of an exclusive cosmopolitan culture creates the climate of crisis that would lead to the birth of the Negritude movement. Lon Gontran Damas from Guiana, Aim Csaire from Martinique and Lopold Sdar Senghor (Wilder calls him Leopold Senghor) from Senegal are the focus of Wilder's analysis. He shows how their intellectual evolution was shaped by the consciousness of the colonized, the contact with African American writing and radical outlook, and a tutelary dialogue with colonial humanists. By studying Negritude at its living sources, as it were, Wilder offers a fresh approach to a stale and, as he says, "calcified" idea. He conveys to us the sense of urgency which led these young Black intellectuals to invent the poetic forms and the theoretical dmarches of a radical critique of colonization in an effort to break the double bind which defined their condition. Nonetheless, the aspiration to an egalitarian humanism and the celebration of African and Black particularity, which are emblematic of the Negritude movement, were overdetermined by the idiom of colonial humanism and French republicanism. The Negritude authors effectively recreated colonial humanism's discourse of incompatibilities between African and French cultures, while however asserting that modernity and French citizenship could transcend such deep-seated incompatibilities. On another level, Wilder's complex commentary on Damas, Csaire and Senghor's poetic oeuvre shows how these literary expressions worked both as corrosives revealing the bare, oppressive structures of colonial rationality and as the portent of an "alternative universalism, African humanism" which would have renovated Greater France. Yet Wilder leaves us also with the impression that Negritude's radicalism was indeed literary and that, politically and socially, it was ultimately an accommodation to colonial overrule. In that sense and although he rejects using the word "failure" regarding such projects and ideas, latter day, "calcified" Negritude at least can be considered a failure, as it ends up propping French neo-colonialist policies and its authoritarian African clients, as exemplified by the case of Togo's Eyadma, which is discussed at the end of the volume. While not completely unwarranted, this assessment somewhat undervalues the key differences between the Negritude writers, and by insisting on the imminence of the movement to the French colonial enterprise, it underplays its alternative sense of African autonomy. For instance, it is clear that the appeal of Negritude writings has outlasted the French colonial empire (which cannot be said of the works of the colonial humanists) and it is poised to survive the declining French neo-colonial power as well.

Wilder's study is a serious and successful attempt at combining a macro level analysis of historical evolutions with political theory. He succeeds in this endeavor by adapting to his research the set of concepts and theoretical/methodological approaches derived from Foucault's work on political reason and governmentality. Wilder displays indeed the very Foucauldian suspicions against references to ideologies and pronouncements about success and failure based on the material achievements of programs and agendas. The liberating French imperial republic dreamed in different but related ways by colonial humanists and the Negritude authors failed to materialize, but the ways in which it was fought for, and in a sense, fought against, make for an enlightening tale. A substantial gain from reading this book is well summarized by Wilder when he writes that "inquiry into what might have been based on what actually existed may open possibilities for pursuing what might be beyond what is."

Wilder's writing style is crisply attuned to the complexity of the historical situations and the textual artifacts in which he weaves his argument. It can be occasionally dense, especially since his analytical narrative lacks colors and is deprived of impressions of the concrete and of the living context. Texts and theories dominate over facts and people. The reference to Marxist analysis invoked in introductory theorizations did not yield an exploration of the material basis of the world in which those texts and theories were produced. The important point however is that Wilder renews the historiography on the French colonial empire by compellingly arguing the identity between republican politics and colonial overrule, and by bringing to bear on his analysis a fertile and promising conceptual framework. We should look forward to new works from this historian.

Abdourahmane Idrissa
University of Florida