At this year’s Paris edition of Nuit des idees (the Night of Ideas), Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made two remarks that caused a stir. The more widely publicised one was her gentle rebuke of interviewer Caroline Broue’s question as to whether there are bookstores in Nigeria. Adichie replied, “I think it reflects very poorly on French people that you have to ask me that question.”
The second statement provoked discussion among African academics. Asked by a member of the audience what she thought of postcolonial theory, Adichie answered: “Postcolonial theory? I don’t know what it means. I think it is something that professors made up because they needed to get jobs.”
African academics interpreted Adichie’s comment on postcolonial theory as a dismissal of the theory as an important analytical tool or of the theoretical work of “Third World” scholars.
However, this interpretation misses the overall context in which these remarks were made – that of France wrestling with its Anglo-Saxon nemesis for cultural power on the global stage on the backs of people of colour.
Anglo-Saxons are racists, the French are not
France has always imagined itself as a country that is free of discrimination against black people. In the view of the French majority, that status of “racist” is reserved for the Anglo-Saxons. The French contrast themselves with Americans who, they say, are racist because of the violent segregation in their society. The French, on the other hand, are supposed to be “colour-blind”.
Towards the end of the interview, Adichie actually referred to this popular idea in France. She pointed out that a French government official insisted in front of her that there is no racism in France, something many “Anglophone” Africans get told in France.
Postcolonial theory confined colonialism's impact to the past and most of all, diluted nationalist struggles...
But French racism is no less disorienting than the American one. French racism constantly swings between universality and particularity, making Africans seem like they can never be rooted in one place.
Exemplified by Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous work “Black Orpheus”, the French intellectual tradition requires Africans to claim a universal human identity. But when the Africans do so, it demands that they reclaim their African culture. The African never wins in what Sartre called a “temporary dialectic”, because once the African affirms an African identity, the African is told that that affirmation alienates them from human freedom.
Similarly, the Paris interview began with Broue’s questions that required Adichie to express reservations about her work being considered “African literature” because often that tag reduces African literature from artistic to anthropological work.
But once Adichie talked about wanting to be seen as just a writer and a human being, the next set of questions swung her to the other extreme of particularity. Broue talked of Adichie growing up in Nigeria, speaking Igbo but writing in English, not being the “typical” Nigerian child, writing on the theme of military coups in her novels – all of which crystallised into the controversial question about whether there are bookstores in Nigeria or not. In other words, Adichie is both Nigerian and American, but at the same time neither Nigerian, nor American.
This confusing pendulum is a central theme of postcolonial theory.
Postcolonial theory vs pan-African thought
Postcolonial theory became popular in Western academia which glorified hybrid identities and multiculturalism. From their positions in prestigious American universities, migrant scholars from countries that suffered under imperialism could criticise an empire for its past, while avoiding materialist critiques of the continuing, exploitative relationship between the empire and the Global South.
Postcolonial theory confined colonialism’s impact to the past and most of all, diluted nationalist struggles by claiming that the primary project of nationalists, such as anti-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon, was a cultural one: to reject essentialism and embrace a universal humanity.
The other benefit of postcolonial theory for the empire was that it alienated African-born scholars in the US from African American scholarship, given that African American scholars (unlike their migrant peers) were unwilling to play down the critique of material conditions of black peoples.
Despite these weaknesses, the popularity of postcolonial theory in the American academy spread to African universities. The theory gave African scholars in Africa a temporary reprieve in the continued American dominance of knowledge production, because scholars were excited to read rigorous critiques of empire by scholars of African and Asian origin. The scholars, therefore, missed the nuanced, but important distinction between the postcolonial thought and nationalist pan-African thought.
It is this aspect that makes postcolonial theory resonate in France. Both postcolonial theory and the French universal-particular pendulum entrench a feeling of rootlessness in African intellectuals, by endorsing the criticism of empire that is cathartic for the West, but not strong enough to inspire a pan-African intellectual tradition that supports both cultural and material liberation.
France’s intellectual anxiety
One must also bear in mind that the Nuit des idees event with Adichie was held at the French foreign affairs office located at Quai d’Orsay in Paris. France has always targeted African intellectuals as part of their goal to assert French dominance in the world of ideas.
Successive French governments have been worried about the star status Francophone African intellectuals and their writings have gained in the United States. For instance, Frantz Fanon and Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop are more widely read in American academia, largely thanks to African American scholars. Several American universities host professors and writers from the Francophone world such as Manthia Diawara at New York University, Maryse Conde at Columbia University and Alain Mabanckou at University of California, Los Angeles.
In fact, in 2007, then presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy warned that France was losing its cultural influence because there were hardly any chairs for Francophone studies in France to “retain” the literary talent of people like Diawara, Conde, and Mabanckou. Sarkozy lamented: “The soul and the future of la Francophonie are less and less French, and paradoxically, more and more Anglo-Saxon. Francophonie saved by America? That caps it all!”
And so France still has a reason to worry. While on his African tour, newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron faced an increasingly hostile African youth and had to field questions from African students about the French treasury guaranteeing the CFA currency, and about justice for the pan-Africanist revolutionary Thomas Sankara.
In other words, Broue’s interview of Adichie was a clear political project. Adichie’s comment on postcolonial theory was on point, and the reaction to it exposed how the sibling rivalry between France and the Anglo-Saxons continues to fragment intellectual production by people of African origin and descent.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.