HL90 EL: France and Its “Others”

Thinking about classes? We asked lecturers to tell us more about their fall HL90s. John Boonstra talks about his class, “France and Its ‘Others’: Race, Nation, and Identity in (Post)Imperial Society” French film, and his feelings about the best way to eat French fries.

What inspired you to teach this class?

I was trained as an historian of France and French colonialism, and my interests have increasingly gravitated around the Mediterranean region, specifically the encounters and exchanges between Europe (France especially), the Middle East, and North Africa. After teaching a seminar on “Gender and Empire in the Modern Mediterranean” last semester, this course was a way for me to approach twentieth-century French history—and the centrality of race and nation to this history—in a way that foregrounded imperial and colonial dynamics that have continued beyond the era of decolonization and into the very present.

What about the present does your class help us understand?

I was listening to a French radio broadcast this summer, featuring some supposed expert on American culture; discussing the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing—which were occurring not only in the United States, but also in France and around the world—he confidently professed that racism and racialized police brutality were specifically American problems. When the mayor of Paris attempted to take the bare minimum step of banning police chokeholds last month, she was rebuffed by similar reasoning. Given the depth of France’s colonial history—not to mention its role in the slave trade—and the continuities of racial, ethnic, and religious inequalities in contemporary French society, in employment and educational structures, in migration patterns and politics, in popular culture and historical memory, this kind of statement is as striking for its myopia as for its hypocrisy. Perhaps even more interestingly, the insistence that race is an American phenomenon obscures how crucially racial knowledge and identity formation have shaped France’s own history and, more intriguingly still, its mythologized self-conception as the color-blind birthplace of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

What kind of texts are you excited to share with students?

In addition to classic theoretical texts—Sartre, de Beauvoir, Aimé Césaire and Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon—on racial, gender, and colonial difference, we’ll be reading some really excellent and provocative recent novels and films. Michel de Houellebecq’s Submission—envisioning a France taken over from within by Muslim extremists—is what actually inspired the course, enacting as it does a deep-seated yet paradoxical right-wing fear of internal colonization. But we’ll also be using the perspective of the “outsider” to critique white-dominant French society and culture, such as through Fatou Diome’s The Belly of the Atlantic and Alain Mabanckou’s Blue White Red—the former about a Senegalese immigrant writer and feminist and her soccer-obsessed brother, and the latter the tale of a French-Congolese dandy, or sapeur (a member of the Society of Ambienceurs and Peoples of Elegance)—as well as classics of the 1980s like Azouz Begag’s Shantytown Kid and Mehdi Charef’s Tea in the Harem (we’ll be watching the film version). I’m also excited to watch popular contemporary films like The Class [Entre les murs], which won the 2008 Palme d’Or at Cannes, and Samba, which I actually first saw on a plane coming back to the U.S. from France, but which had me at various points laughing, crying, and cursing at the injustice of systems meant to maintain hierarchies of inequality and exclusion.

French fries or French toast?

I make a mean banana bread French toast. The French douse their frites with ketchup and mayonnaise. I would cringe, but I tend to dip my fries in whatever is closest at hand: hot sauce, hummus, beer, wine (kidding—sort of).

To learn more, you can see the syllabus on Canvas, drop by during shopping period (Monday and Wednesday, 12-1:15), or email John to set up an appointment!

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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