Youth and the Contradictory Construction of Europe and Africa

14 December 2022

**This is the third in a series of four reviews of Emily Marker’s Black France, White Europe” Youth, Race, and Belonging in the Postwar Era. Previous reviews include:

1.  The Colonial Roots of the Idea of a Colorblind France – Liz Fink

2. Imagining Europe from the Interstices – Jessica Pearson

Marker will respond on Friday. **


Where does Europe begin and end? This question has exploded in the past year. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led observers near and far (including Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky) to declare this former Soviet Republic the defender of Europe. While many of these debates focus on Ukraine’s future borders or the state’s potential relationship to the European Union, one story from the early days of Russia’s brutal invasion resonated with another debate about Europe’s borders. As millions of people fled Ukraine, reports documented Polish border guards denying passage to African students who had been studying in Ukraine. Furious calls from embassies and journalists across the world condemned this brutal treatment as a tragic reminder of the racial metrics that continue to dictate where people belong in modern Europe. Observers contrasted the laudable generosity shown to Ukrainian refugees with the cruel rejection meted out to non-white migrants during the recent so-called “migrant crisis.” These rejected asylum-seekers presence in Ukraine emerged in part out of Cold War-era exchanges between the Soviet Union and the so-called “Global South.” Their struggles today echo conflicts about whose knowledge, aspirations, and bodies belong in universities. Over the past few years, educational institutions have seen furious protests against the Macron government’s decision to massively raise university fees for “non-EU” students, the “Fees Must Fall” movement at universities across South Africa, and the seemingly endless debates about Muslim women’s choice to wear hijabs in European classrooms. Students have launched or inspired widespread debates about the racial, geographic and religious boundaries of knowledge and schooling in Europe and its former colonies. In this context, Emily Marker’s Black France White Europe explains the postwar histories that have made students so central to dictating Europe’s borders.

In this empirically and theoretically rich study, Marker traces the mutual and ultimately contradictory construction of Europe and Africa in the first decade and a half of the postwar era. Marker builds on a growing scholarly interest in the diverse futures imagined in the aftermath of World War II. Yet rather than simply explain these visions, Marker demonstrates why certain kinds of belonging became viable while others failed. This interest in actual efforts to make imagined futures real leads Marker to focus on youth and the “generational projects” they inspired across France, ex-French Africa, and Western Europe. Instead of providing a history of young people, Marker uses youth to examine “the shifting coordinates of postwar belonging” (13). By moving through wartime London and Brazzaville, desegregated high schools in 1946 Dakar, and youth conferences in 1950s Prague, Marker argues that efforts to create “European” youth took over and precluded simultaneous efforts to forge a new Franco-African or Eurafrican generation. Marker argues that constructing European and Franco-African youth informed one another, building the racial and religious criteria that allowed the former project to rise as the latter collapsed with unexpected speed. In particular, Marker argues that a new “postwar racial common sense” and a culturalized Christianity made a European future seem inevitable, or at least desirable, and an alternative or complementary Franco-African one appear impossible.

Marker begins her analysis by explaining how wartime debates about education and youth reforms set the stage for a postwar focus on youth. She does this by focusing on two of the administrative centers of the Free French Forces: London and Brazzaville. Like many other members of governments in exile, leaders of the Free French like René Cassin believed that a totally new geopolitical and social order needed to be built after the war. As French leaders pinned the fall of the Third Republic in part on the regime’s elitist and militantly anti-clerical education, they took inspiration from dialogues with European leaders across London and colonial leaders across Brazzaville about using education to promote political unity. In London, interwar internationalism gained new life in calls for European integration through intellectual and cultural exchanges. Ideas of a Christian basis for European unity began to emerge in these circles, a view that melded well with the eclectic mix of France’s exile society as anti-clerical Republicans and fervent Catholics came together to reimagine their fallen nation. This rapprochement with Christianity had corollaries in the temporary epicenter of the Free French Forces, the Equatorial African Federation (AEF). During the war, AEF Governor Félix Éboué broke with the regime’s anticlerical precedent and began providing support for mission schools, seeing Christian education as effectively a French education. However, these reforms did not extend to Islamic schools nor did they imagine bringing all of the new educational programs imagined for postwar Europe directly to African pupils. In these wartime capitals, new configurations around race and religion influenced ideas about “what it might mean to be French, African, and European in an unsettled and unsettling postwar world.” (44)

When the war ended, intense debates arose about how youth education could create new generations that would socially anchor the pluralist polities imagined across Europe and the newly formed French Union. Marker argues that these discussions ultimately produced two concepts as the bedrocks of postwar Europe’s boundaries: culturalized Christianity and racelessness. Marker argues that new ideas about Christianity’s place in France’s past and future stemmed from Republicans wartime rapprochement with Catholic education, the rise of European Christian Democratic parties after 1945, and educational reformers’ desire to find a unifying narrative of European history. As a result, secularism and its apparent capacity to promote religious pluralism became part not only of Europe’s historical tradition, but also Christianity’s. To be European meant to be Christian on some deep cultural level, even for Jews or atheists. This echoed similar support for mission education in France’s Africa colonies, seeing these schools as agents spreading European civilization. This approach justified continued hostility to the Islamic education so often demanded by Muslims across France’s African colonies, but which authorities saw as antithetical to assimilating Africans into the new French Union. If the culturalization of Christianity produced a new vision of what Europe was, a new “postwar racial common sense” defined what Europe was not. As racial ideology became increasingly delegitimized after the Holocaust, leaders in France and across Europe suppressed race talk in favor of discussions of “civilization.” Invoking a unifying “European civilization” downplayed older discussions of racial differences between Europeans while reinscribing racial differences between Europeans and Africans. This ideology “effectively produced a new boundary between Europeans and non-Europeans: race itself.” (117) Ideas about racelessness and culturalized Christianity informed how French authorities constructed and interpreted the generational projects of Europe and Franco-Africa alike.

Marker’s final two chapters examine how these postwar racial and religious ideologies influenced African students’ experiences and French authorities’ perspectives of those experiences in ways that ultimately doomed the French Union’s pluralistic promise. In a richly documented chapter on African students’ experience in European France, Marker argues that French bureaucrats and African students fundamentally disagreed on what education looked like in a non-racist society. French officials touted brassage or “mixing” of African students in French universities as proof of the Empire’s reform. However, African students saw access as a first step that was only necessary because of criminally low investments in schools across French Africa. Instead, daily acts of racism and inequities in housing and education convinced many African students that postwar reforms had not addressed the social inequities at the base of imperial racism. However, the sprawling French surveillance apparatus focusing on these students read these critiques through the new lens of European racelessness, presenting these students and their increasingly militant critiques as the real producers of racial antagonism, a so-called “anti-white racism.” This misunderstanding only entrenched the distance between African students’ desires and French officials’ plans. Marker’s final chapter shows how these frames took on a global scope as African students participated in youth exchanges across Cold War borders during the 1950s. While French and European officials touted this kind of movement as key to creating pluralist polities, French authorities came to see African travelers as dangerous agitators. French observers increasingly worried about the anti-imperial rhetoric at youth summits supported by the USSR, the US or the Non-Aligned Movement. Similar paranoia informed French official attitudes towards transnational Islamic education. Officials scrutinized African Muslim students who travelled to Al-Azhar University in Cairo or those who tried to make new Franco-Islamic schools in African France. Presenting anti-imperial critiques as the product of outside agitators made it easier to ignore critiques from African teachers, and students and their pleas for greater educational investments. These transnational educational experiences increasingly led African students and leaders to lose faith in the pluralistic promise of the French Union, facilitating its startlingly fast collapse. By 1960, Marker argues these misunderstandings helped explain why the “incompatibility of a Franco-African polity and united Europe became so naturalized—at the very moment when there was an apparent global renunciation of racism and religious discrimination.” (218)

As this review makes clear, Marker covers a great deal in her sweeping study of the promise and pitfalls of the postwar moment. By weaving together archives from across Europe and Africa, Marker shows how a new discursive construction of Europe provided the means by which “decolonization without independence” became impossible in French Africa. Far from being the inevitable product of insurmountable contradictions within French colonial ideology or the purely contingent product of political negotiations, Marker shows how efforts to produce postwar unity in one domain fostered division in another. Marker thus pushes historians of postwar Europe to recognize how Africa, including Africans themselves, helped build the continents’ borders.

Black France White Europe also pushes scholars of postwar history to recognize the central relationship the idea of “civilization” has to youth and education. Marker’s emphasis on the postwar “generational” project provides an extremely useful framework to understand why the postwar moment was so unique as well as the means by which leaders at the time tried to make it unique. As Marker explains, conceptual divisions between Europe and Africa that invoked “civilization” were not novel postwar creations. However, education and youth did play a particular role in creating new notions of raceless and cultural Christianity that came to define “civilization.” This builds on Paul Betts’ argument that new ideas about the concept of “civilization” played a distinct role in structuring intra-European dynamics and Europeans’ relationship with the rest of the world after 1945. Marker shows how youth and the projects aimed at them became key to trying to turn this abstract concept into a social reality. By teasing out relationship between youth, race and religion as policy and as lived experiences, and as postwar concepts of “civilization,” Marker helps us understand how debates over schools created boundaries that Europeans and Africans continue to navigate.

A work this rich cannot help but raise new questions. I want to bring up two points less as critiques than provocations to think about complementary forces that may have informed the rise and fall of the pluralist projects Marker analyzes. First off, what role does the economic nature of education and postwar pluralism play in the fate of the federal projects Marker examines? Marker points out that youth policy in Europe and the French Union sought to create “unity in diversity” by reworking affective bonds and social connections. However, European unification and imperial reform were also largely motivated by desires to create new kinds of economic integration across borders. Many of the notable changes produced by European unification in the 1950s was the sharing of resources and removal of trade barriers, just as imperial reform in Africa often took the form of rapid industrialization to bolster European metropoles battered by war and allay critiques of economic inequality across African colonies. As Frederick Cooper argues, the extractive logics of imperial capitalism in Africa were at direct odds with the redistributive logics of postwar European welfare programs. Did these tensions ever play out in the kinds of education imagined for Africans in a united yet plural Europe or French Union? On a deeper level, how might economic interests and ambitions complement or complicate Marker’s argument about why imperial reform failed when compared to European integration? Marker does acknowledge the centrality of professional training to colonial education, thus pointing to the economic limitation to the kind of integration many African students and reformers demanded in the postwar era. Furthermore, I do not ask this question to propose that economics trumped all other considerations. Rather, I wonder if teasing out the tension between colonial and European economic integration would help explain the success or failures of certain postwar youth projects and the pluralist dreams those projects anchored.

Second, I want to ask about a pluralist political vision that seemed to haunt Marker’s book: pan-Africanism. Could the attraction of pan-Africanism provide an explanation for young Africans’ increasing disengagement with imperial reform? I do not ask this question to demand Marker integrate yet another pluralistic project into an already grandiose study. Rather, I do it to point to the global dimensions of the pluralist and federalist moment Marker analyzes. As Adom Getachew argues, many African and Afro-Caribbean leaders in the postwar era saw federalism as key to new forms of worldmaking after empire. Furthermore, as Jean Allman shows in the case of  Nkrumah’s Ghana, many postwar pan-African leaders tried to reconceptualize how African students learned as well as the knowledge African scholars produced. Marker periodically points to the alternative pole of attraction provided by these kind of pan-Africanist movements, in particular with African students’ rejection of Eurafrica. However, pan-Africanism seems to play a far less powerful role in causing African students’ disengagement with the French Union than their disappointments with educational failures in France and Africa. Does the absence of pan-Africanism reflect its absence in the archive, its lack of causal power in the story, or a choice by Marker to limit the number of postwar pluralist projects she would focus on in this already rich study? I do not necessarily think that including pan-Africanism as an alternative pluralist pole would have changed Marker’s story. However, placing scholarship on pan-Africanism in dialogue with Black France White Europe can help reveal just how many pluralist projects competed for the attention of young people in the decades after World War II.

My questions attest to the richness of Black France White Europe. Marker provides a compelling argument about the connections between Europe and Africa’s postwar history and the centrality of youth to this period’s historic transformations. By analyzing the expectations and disappointments put onto the shoulders of young people moving across and between continents, Marker shows how race and religion took on new roles dictating membership in French, African and European societies. These lessons will prove crucial not only for historians seeking to understand the production of social and political barriers in modern Europe and Africa, but also any observer trying to understand why certain young people have so often been denied the right to live, learn or pray in Europe’s changing borders.


Gregory Valdespino is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities at Princeton University. He works on the history of West Africa and France and is currently completing a manuscript on the history of housing and domestic assistance in 20th century Senegal and amongst West African communities in France.


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