Black women living in the French empire played a key role in the decolonial movements of the mid-twentieth century. Thinkers and activists, these women lived lives of commitment and risk that landed them in war zones and concentration camps and saw them declared enemies of the state. Annette K. Joseph-Gabriel mines published writings and untapped archives to reveal the anticolonialist endeavors of seven women. Though often overlooked today, Suzanne Césaire, Paulette Nardal, Eugénie Éboué-Tell, Jane Vialle, Andrée Blouin, Aoua Kéita, and Eslanda Robeson took part in a forceful transnational movement. Their activism and thought challenged France’s imperial system by shaping forms of citizenship that encouraged multiple cultural and racial identities. Expanding the possibilities of belonging beyond national and even Francophone borders, these women imagined new pan-African and pan-Caribbean identities informed by black feminist intellectual frameworks and practices. The visions they articulated also shifted the idea of citizenship itself, replacing a single form of collective identity and political participation with an expansive plurality of forms of belonging.
In late Spring 2014, the nonprofit organization Creative Time commissioned artist Kara Walker to create her first large-scale public installation. Hosted in the industrial relics of the leg- endary Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby was as controversial as it was revered. The powerful presence of the installation, coupled with its immersion in historical consciousness, makes A Subtlety rich in educational value. This article engages in a comparative reading of A Subtlety in the light of female writers and thinkers from the Caribbean, but also incorporates some of the generative questions Walker’s installation has pro- voked my students to ask. I especially engage questions on how to unravel the mixed metaphors that make A Subtlety the artistic embodiment of the textured experience of the African diaspora, with its complex history, cultural hybridity and transnational ramifications. While Walker’s instal- lation seems to sustain its many layers of meanings through both form and content, the (mostly white, US-born) students in my class have responded to it in a range of critical ways that pointed especially to their emotional and critical response toward female Blackness, and reflections about the artist’s responsibility toward her intention. The article reflects on the inherent possibilities for teaching A Subtlety and other forms of what I consider “vulnerable art,” which at its best helps to channel our collective and personal discomfort in effective, healing ways.
Suzanne Césaire’s essays in Tropiques make an important intervention in imagining a new Martinican and ultimately Pan-Caribbean identity during World War II. This study examines Césaire’s joint politics and poetics of liberation in the context of dissidence in Martinique. A close reading of her essays alongside previously uncited personal correspondence reveals Haiti to be central to her vision for a Caribbean cultural renaissance after the death and destruction of the war.