ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Theres a very strong historical and ideological confusion within
the left here. The issue around class and race dynamics is not clear.
Thats why you have a very lukewarm response from the left.
Tram Nguyen, We Are All Suspects Now: Untold Stories from Immigrant America After 9/11. Beacon Press, 2005
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Lessons from France
Tram Nguyen Interviews Brima Conteh
Brima Conteh, born in Sierra Leone and educated in the Ivory Coast and Morocco, emigrated to France in the early 1990s. I came over and the conditions here launched me, he says of his journey from translator to political activist and consultant on minority issues.
In 2000, he founded the Paris-based Diaspor Afrique, which works to promote political, economic, cultural and social exchanges among people of African descent. The organization is building a network to lobby for the African diaspora within the European Union. They also conduct campaigns to educate and create political consciousness around the legacy of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.
In the wake of a national crisis, Conteh discusses the role of race in French politics and why ethnic minorities need to create a space for us to speak for ourselves.”
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Tram Nguyen: What were the causes of the uprising?
Brima Conteh: There was a recent report from the intelligence agency that said this riot has nothing to do with religion, its a social crisis. It has to do with jobs, it has to do with recognition, with people feeling not part of this society. They have seen others who worked hard, had gone to school and never been given any chance to do what they want to do and its hard for them. So this was a revolt.
Its a very strong influence of things happening in the English-speaking world. Young people are very tuned to hip-hop culture. This is also a generational conflict also. The yearning by the young people to be accepted for what they are, to have access to jobs, better housing, better facilities. The movement in itself was never organized, it was more an outcry.
The riots were no surprise, it was written everywhere on the walls. The rap groups had already been rapping for years about set Paris on fire.
Tram Nguyen: What for you has been the most upsetting part of the government response to the uprising?
Brima Conteh: You need to understand the dynamics of the National Front (Frances right-wing party) to understand why the government responded that way to the riots. You have to go back to the last election. You have to understand the entrenchment of the National Front in the political landscape in France. Any changes to improve conditions of minorities in this country will run counter to this entrenchment. So they will resist it. Unless you have an upsurge of resistance and civic participation from the minorities themselves.
Theres a very strong historical and ideological confusion within the left here. The issue around class and race dynamics is not clear. Thats why you have a very lukewarm response from the left. Many of them supported the declaration of the state of emergency. There is a denial of the existence of racism. You have from the left people who are very strongly opposed to the idea that racial discrimination exists. They see these race-based models as not serious or useful models.
Tram Nguyen: Can you explain more about the role of the extreme right in French politics?
Brima Conteh: What [Jean-Marie] Le Pen (founder of the National Front) said when he started out was simple. He said it matters not whether his party makes two, three or 10 percent in the elections. What matters for now is to see that their ideas enter the mainstream political debate. And within the space of 10 years he has achieved that. Now he doesnt say much, it is the mainstream politicians who are talking about polygamy, Chirac when he was mayor of Paris was talking about the noise and odors of immigrants, even progressives were calling us little savages. Saying send people back. Saying France cannot take in all the wretched of the earth.
So with that Le Pen has built a paradigm that makes it extremely difficult within it to think of doing something in terms of improving conditions without looking to the extreme right. He has created a kind of net or trap in the political landscape.
Tram Nguyen: Who are your allies in fighting for racial justice in France?
Brima Conteh: I dont believe there are any serious allies. The alliances are built to drag minorities into mainstream partiesonce you are there, you dont exist. There was a very big political void during these riotspeople should ask themselves where were the political parties? It was a serious crisis, which they dont want to admit. The issues around minorities are not dealt with. The question is about recognition, and I think many in the French establishment have not come to terms with the idea of recognizing cultures, diversity, and so forth. And thats why some of the youth were very much on a rampage because they are not considered.
These young people have multiple identitiesthey are French, their parents are from north Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, linked to the latest technology but also entrenched in their traditional African bearing. I remember pointing out young men on the street to a reporter. I said, check this young man outhes got Nike on his feet, jeans, over his body a Muslim gown and a baseball cap. And hes Black, his parents are from sub-Saharan Africa. This change in identity structuresthat has to change this country. I believe this country has to cope with diversity.
In France, there is an attitude that has to do with the old glory of France, where you have elegance, savoir faire, it goes beyond art of living, it goes to a culture enshrined. If anybody comes from outside, you are told to integrate, to try to be what the French areintegrate into the French model. So the production of these alternative cultures, lets call it that, its threatening to those who believe there is a distinct French culture and model of integration.
Tram Nguyen: What have been the limits of Frances colorblind policies?
Brima Conteh: Its not considered appropriate to classify people into races. Its meant to be colorblind, you are a human beingthats the theory. In practice, its completely different. Some people from the French left supported colonialism. I think there is a tradition there that most leftists are blind to issues of minorities. The construction of what is considered Frenchness, along with the strong opposition to things coming from the U.S. and the English-speaking world, is such that they cannot accommodate the idea of minorities constructing their own identities. The question of internationalism is not there.
Tram Nguyen: What do you hope to see happening next?
Brima Conteh: This situation with the cites has been going on for 30 years, so the question is, are they serious really about bringing about change in these areas. What Im hopeful about is that in the civic society there are many people out there who think this should not happen, and these young people will see that the only way out is a political solution.
Recently, when [Frances interior minister] Nicolas Sarkozy was planning to go to Martinique, the threat of demonstrations was so huge that and he had to cancel his trip. The people in Martinique said we are Arabs, sub-Saharan Africans, we are all together the wretched of the earthand they refused to receive him. Thats a big, big slap. So this gives us hope that resistance is possible to improve situations in time.
Tram Nguyen: What role do you see for your work and Diaspora Afrique?
Brima Conteh: We as African people are scattered all over in strategic areas, and I think there is a need to connect. In 2001, I was preparing to go to the World Conference Against Racism, and I used that experience to go out and see who was doing what. After the conference, I decided to go on a tour to meet brothers and sisters in Europe to see how communities lived, their aspirations and problems.
Today we are in 19 countries, and we are still going out there. We want people to understand each other first and what they want to achieve together. We copied in fact what the people of African descent in Latin America are trying to dothey started before us.
There is a very large youth population growing. I think we can safely say there are a couple of million people of African descent in Europe. Our work has been to map the African diaspora in Europe in its current state. We do a lot of information gathering. We try to see how we will connect the diaspora.
Tram Nguyen: What do you think of how Blacks were affected by Katrina?
Brima Conteh: Before the riots in France, there were a series of fires in places where you have Africans livingin dilapidated buildings in the heart of Paris. Up to 50 Africans died in these fires, in the heart of Paris. And in space of four days after, we heard about Katrina.
We had a couple of African Americans who wanted to come over to see us during the riots, and the first question we asked them was, We want to know what youre doing about Katrina.
Even in France, people say look the U.S. this and thatthe U.S. is seen on a different level despite the racism. But people started asking questions, if you have these big Black American stars, what the hell is happening over there?
Tram Nguyen: What can progressives in the U.S. learn from the situation in France?
Brima Conteh: What they can learn from this is that the struggle for emancipation, for the full recognition of our rights as people of color all around the world, that struggle is facing new challenges today in the sense that you have highly sophisticated conservative governments taking place around the world.
The other thing is that the leaders of these communities should keep in touch with the younger generation because part of what happened here can be partly analyzed as a generational gap.
Also, its important to have a rapid response. The powers-that-be are quick to point to Islamist terrorism or any other problems they perceive with our communities to discredit what is taking place. So we have to work toward having structures and organization, because one or two groups cant do everything.
Tram Nguyen is executive editor of ColorLines.
Source: Colorlines vol.9, no. 1
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Tram Nguyen, Executive Editor of ColorLines Magazine, is an award-winning writer and editor with a particular interest in race, immigration and organizing. Her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the anthology Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment, Amerasia Journal, AlterNet, New California Media, the Boston Globe, the anthology The New Faces of Asian Pacific America: Numbers, Diversity and Change in the 21st Century, and the anthology New Horizon: 25 Vietnamese Americans in 25 Years. She received her B.A. in 1996 from UCLA in English with a minor in Asian American Studies.
Tram has extensive experience as both a journalist and editor. She began her career as editor of the student magazine Pacific Ties, UCLA’s Asian American bimonthly publication. From there she moved on to work as trainer and editor at LA Youth. She covered the education beat as a reporter at the San Diego Union-Tribune, and edited Gidra, a non-profit magazine serving the Los Angeles Asian-American community. Tram’s extensive coverage of civil liberties earned her a New California Media Award in 2003.
Tram Nguyen, We Are All Suspects Now: Untold Stories from Immigrant America After 9/11. Beacon Press, 2005 http://www.arc.org/Pages/staff/tnguyenl
Mother Jones Interview of Tram / posted 3 March 2006
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By Isabel Wilkerson
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man’s turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners’ plans to give him a “necktie party” (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by “the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn’t operate in his own home town.” Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist Wilkerson’s magnificent, extensively researched study of the “great migration,” the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an “uncertain existence” in the North and Midwest.
Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.
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By Gerald Horne
Dr. Gerald Horne, professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, said, the American revolt of 1776 against British rule was basically a successful revolt of racist settlers. It was akin to Rhodesia, in 1965, assuming that Ian Smith and his cabal had triumphed. It was akin to the revolt of the French settlers in Algeria, in the 1950s and 1960s, assuming those French settlers had triumphed. Dr. Horne explores the racist roots on the American Revolution in his new book, Negroes of the Crown. It was very difficult to construct a progressive republic in North America after what was basically a racist revolt, said Horne. The revolt was motivated in no small part by the fact that abolitionism was growing in London . This is one of the many reasons more Africans by an order of magnitude fought against the rebels in 1776, than fought alongside them.In this path-breaking book, Horne rewrites the history of slave resistance by placing it for the first time in the context of military and diplomatic wrangling between Britain and the United States.
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By Peter Edelman
If the nations gross national incomeover $14 trillionwere divided evenly across the entire U.S. population, every household could call itself middle class. Yet the income-level disparity in this country is now wider than at any point since the Great Depression. In 2010 the average salary for CEOs on the S&P 500 was over $1 millionclimbing to over $11 million when all forms of compensation are accounted forwhile the current median household income for African Americans is just over $32,000. How can some be so rich, while others are so poor? In this provocative book, Peter Edelman, a former top aide to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and a lifelong antipoverty advocate, offers an informed analysis of how this country can be so wealthy yet have a steadily growing number of unemployed and working poor. According to Edelman, we have taken important positive steps without which 25 to 30 million more people would be poor, but poverty fluctuates with the business cycle.
The structure of todays economy has stultified wage growth for half of Americas workerswith even worse results at the bottom and for people of colorwhile bestowing billions on those at the top. So Rich, So Poor delves into what is happening to the people behind the statistics and takes a particular look at the continuing crisis of young people of color, whose possibility of a productive life too often is lost on their way to adulthood.
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By John Lewis
The Civil Rights Movement gave rise to the protest culture we know today, and the experiences of leaders like Congressman Lewis have never been more relevant. Now, more than ever, this nation needs a strong and moral voice to guide an engaged population through visionary change. Congressman John Lewis was a leader in the American Civil Rights Movement. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and played a key role in the struggle to end segregation. Despite more than forty arrests, physical attacks, and serious injuries, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. He is the author of his autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of a Movement, and is the recipient of numerous awards from national and international institutions, including the Lincoln Medal; the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Lifetime Achievement Award (the only one of its kind ever awarded); the NAACP Spingarn Medal; and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, among many others.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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updated 29 May 2010