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Book Review


Lorelle Semley, To Be Free and French: Citizenship in France's Atlantic Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xxi + 362. $32.99 (paper).


     25 years ago, British sociologist Paul Gilroy coined the term, "The Black Atlantic." This intellectual innovation created a way to theorize the black diaspora as drawing from multiple cultural sources and constantly in motion. Using the recurring image of the ship at sea, Gilroy encouraged us to link roots to routes in our understanding of the historical formation of blackness around the Atlantic. Lorelle Semley's To Be Free and French further expands the ways in which we must think about blackness in the Atlantic world. A historian of Africa and gender studies at the College of the Holy Cross, Semley develops her model of a black Atlantic world within the complex and contradictory world of France's empire. At several points in the three centuries she discusses, her subjects articulate and fight for simultaneous multiple identities. They want to be several things at once. Importantly, Semley's research underscores how many of these figures did not necessary want independence from France, but rather the freedom and equality guaranteed by French citizenship within the empire.

     This beautifully written book is divided into three sections: "Revolutionary Foundations," "Colonial Constructions," and "Planning After Empire." While the book focuses on the potentially dry subjects of legal history and the evolution of concepts of citizenship, Semley successfully humanizes her subject by introducing the reader to a fascinating number of individuals. Each of the six chapters and the epilogue are set in a different site in the French Atlantic empire. With engaging prose the author does an outstanding job at describing Caribbean slave colonies, west African port cities, and inter-war Paris. By combining fascinating portraits of diasporic women and men of African descent with evocative descriptions of various locales, Semley turns these three hundred pages of legal history into a fun and lively read (indeed, there are sections in this book that rival some of the better travel writing). Throughout, she shows how various women and men of color claimed their status as both French and "something else."

     Semley starts her analysis with a thick description of a portrait of two women of color from Saint Louis, Senegal. In this section called, "Citizens of the World," she uses the painting to establish the wide varieties of historical experiences that she considers. In chapter one she follows a mixed raced woman from Senegal who immigrated to colonial Haiti, only to flee to the United States of America as a refuge from the Haitian Revolution. If the chapter charts familiar ground when it problematizes France's revolutionary legacy in the context of the Atlantic slave system, her emphasis on the desire of black revolutionaries such as Toussaint Louverture to achieve citizenship yet remain within the French empire might surprise some readers. He wanted to be free, but also French (thus inspiring the book's title). Chapter two focuses on Île Gorée's "signares," mixed-race, property-owning women who played an essential role in this slave port's history. Here, as in so many places in this lively book, Semley illustrates the numerous ways in which individuals so often silenced by history could exercise agency. The history of these women challenge conventional teleological genealogies of gender and race.

     The next stop on the tour is the "Little Paris of the Antilles," Saint-Pierre, Martinique. Using Carnival as a prism, Semley considers the ways in which Afro-Caribbean women and men were seen as legally French but second-class citizens. Once again, her descriptive prose shines. Semley brings the carnival alive as she reads the political and racial meaning of its rituals. Her engaging writing style is one full display when she records the city's sudden volcanic destruction in the 1902 eruption of Mt Pelée. Chapter four returns to Africa. Here the subject is Porto-Novo, a port town with a significant population people of African descent whose families had once lived in Brazil but were now "returned." In addition to their racial mixings, they blended aspects of Brazilian culture with indigenous traditions and Islamic influences. Chapter five considers elite Africans, many of them students, in early twentieth century Paris. In each of these sites, Semley profiles individuals who challenged colonial era racial categorization that would deny them access to Frenchness.

     The final section contains a chapter that profiles several female and male politicians who played important leadership roles in the French Fourth Republic (1946–1958) and a brief epilogue on the First World Festival of Negro Art held in Dakar in 1966. This last section stresses that many of the black political figures in late colonial Africa did not necessarily want immediate independence. Rather, they sought a situation where individuals could be African and French at the same time. Semley notes that contemporary France seems to have forgotten Africans and Antilleans politicians such as Gaston Monerville of Guiana who led the Council of the Republic (the Senate) for the entire Fourth Republic and into the Fifth. In the final scene she describes an optimistic multi-genre celebration of black creativity in a newly independent Senegal. Here artists, intellectuals, and activists freely articulated their own identities.

     Semley combines outstanding archival research from three continents with insightful analysis and engaging prose. She consistently shows her ability to tell a good a story in an intriguing location. To Be Free and French is full of surprises and fascinating individuals who actively sought to define themselves within the context of French imperialism. Like her subjects, Semley refuses to fall into the simplistic dualities of colonizer and colonized, French or not-French, and white or black. Rather, the book demonstrates how people could imagine themselves as multiple things at the same time. Finally, Semley is to be commended for overcoming one of Gilroy's shortcomings. Gilroy's study of the black diaspora had little on Africa. Semley corrects this lacuna and even offers a new conceptual model for Atlantic blackness. Rather than "pan-Africanism", with its emphasis on black women and men elsewhere in the world, To Be Free and French suggests "trans-Africanism" to describe how these individuals saw themselves in connection with Africa but also Brazil, Martinique, and Paris. In this manner, Semley constructs a world history of Atlantic blackness.

Michael G. Vann, Professor of History at Sacramento State University and former President of the French Colonial Historical Society, has published dozens of articles on the French colonial empire, the teaching of world history, and Southeast Asian history. His newest book, The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empire, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam, is part of Oxford University Press' Graphic History series.


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