Entangled Histories of African Decolonization

15 December 2022

**This is the fourth and final review in our forum on 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 – Elisabeth Fink

2. Imagining Europe from the Interstices – Jessica Pearson

3. Youth and the Contradictory Construction of Europe and Africa – Gregory Valdespino

Marker will respond tomorrow. **


Emily Marker’s Black France, White Europe represents the growth of important new scholarship on the entangled histories of African decolonization and postwar European integration. Marker asserts clearly that these histories “cannot be isolated from one another” (7) and uses the lens of French colonial and European youth initiatives to explore this entanglement. She makes a convincing case for the value of this lens, asserting that the destruction of World War II catalyzed a focus on youth and on creating a generational project of renewal in both the French African empire and in Europe. While youth initiatives in both realms drew inspiration from the idea of “Unity in Diversity”, Marker argues that the intertwining of colonial and European reform “produced new patterns of racial and religious exclusion” (7). Postwar French colonial reform produced new discourses about African difference, coupled with material inequities in education for Africans. European-focused youth initiatives meanwhile shaped new ideas about unity through a European identity of being “both white and raceless, Christian and secular.” Marker frames the limits and failures of France’s reforms to create equitable conditions for African youth as part and parcel of a simultaneous investment of France in this racialized vision of European youth.

I read Marker’s work from my perspective as a historian of decolonization in West Africa, having much greater engagement with scholarship on twentieth-century Africa and French Empire than on European integration. My discussion thus proceeds from that perspective, with a particular interest in how the foregrounding of European integration might offer fresh avenues for thinking about African decolonization.

In addition to representing an exciting new body of scholarship on the “entangled” histories of decolonization in transnational perspective, Marker’s work builds on scholarship that has insisted upon the late colonial period as a time in which creating individual independent African nation states was far from the only political possibility on the table. Marker points to the different approaches of historians Frederick Cooper and Gary Wilder on the late colonial French empire as representative of “the tension between historical contingency and impersonal structural forces” in interpreting this period (12). While engaging with this scholarship, Marker moves past the realm of “formal politics” to focus on the “social and cultural policies that accompanied them” (12). She frames her intervention as methodological as well as thematic, approaching her sources with interest in the interplay of “contingent and structural forces” (12). Put differently, Marker emphasizes that individual policy choices alone did not, and indeed could not, produce the inequalities of the postwar period. Racist power structures reproduced themselves through the postwar period, but the idea of generational transformation gave new impetus, logic and form to these arrangements of power. Marker argues that we can only fully understand these transformations by looking at European integration alongside attempts at Franco-African reform. This methodological framing highlights the importance of her intervention in the scholarship on African decolonization. Attention to both structure and contingency thus requires analyzing but also moving beyond, for example, the musings of a French colonial official on education in Africa at a particular moment in time to a full consideration of the social and political operations of education infrastructure across the French empire and Europe.

While works by Cooper and Wilder have illuminated political negotiations and intellectual production grappling with questions of what kind of political formations or politics could shape the postwar Africa future, Marker reframes these questions of the geographical scale of the future through education and youth movements. Questions about educational resources and structures across geography, about elite-focused versus mass education, among others, were also questions about what kind of schooling would build the future and what that desired future might entail.

The backdrop for thinking about these questions was a new French reckoning with racism during and after World War II, which propelled efforts to lessen some abuses of colonial rule such as forced labor. At the Brazzaville conference of 1944, Free French leaders began to lay out a vision for postwar colonial reform while ruling out the possibility of African independence. In chapter 1, Marker charts how the thinking emerging from this conference shifted ideas about the relationship between religion and French schooling and, despite a purportedly reformist spirit, reconstituted colonial ideas that African and European educational structures could not be the same. Marker is artful in her attention to how these terms of identification are themselves reconfigured in the postwar moment. She argues that French officials in this period used the term “European” as newly coded term for “French” and “white” to erect exclusionary educational policies for Africans (62).

Indeed, one of Marker’s key approaches is underscoring racialization as a relational process in the postwar period. This framing brings additional significance to her joint analysis of African decolonization and European integration. Thus, if postwar French officials and youth programs produced new ideas about the intertwining of Blackness, Africanness and Islam, then these ideas were always simultaneously producing new framings of whiteness, Europeaness, and Christianity. The anti-Black racism faced by African students in the postwar period grew out of a reconstruction of whiteness. If one of the ways that whiteness has historically operated as a system of power is to render itself as the invisible norm, we see in Marker’s work how this “raceless” vision of whiteness is reconstructed in the wake of World War II. Marker calls this new configuration of European “racelessness” a kind of “postwar racial common sense” (103). One of the effects of a European—and also French—claim to a racelessness that was implicitly white was a labeling of demands by African calls for racial justice as divisive. Such demands, particularly in the realm of education, were considered “the central driver of ongoing racial tension” (103).

In this regard, I found Chapter 3 of the book to be particularly compelling and valuable for historians of West Africa. In Chapter 3, Marker highlights the emergence of an African postwar focus on education as central to decolonization, and on colonial education reform as a question of racial justice (111). In this section, Marker effectively weaves together commentary from prominent figures such as Léopold Senghor with memoirs by French-educated Africans such as Léopold Kaziendé and Abdourahmane Konaté to provide vivid detail about views of colonial schooling and hopes for reform in pursuit of education equality within the French Union. Using the debates leading up to and 1950 opening of the Institut des Hautes Études de Dakar (IHED), Marker shows how colonial “half measures failed to deliver” on postwar promises of equality (134). Most importantly, Marker uses this example of the IHED to underscore that while francophone Africans were pushing for equality through institutional reform and framing “race as a relation of power,” European elites “approached race as if it were a primarily discursive and conceptual problem rather than a social and political one” (137). Essentially, as European elites sought to erase discussions of race in the postwar period, they created new roadblocks for francophone Africans who were pushing for reform on the premise that material inequalities between metropole and colony were structures of racism.

One question I would be interested to hear more about is how centrally gender operated as either a spoken or unspoken parameter of these visions of postwar youth and education reform between France and Africa. In the introduction, Marker recognized youth as a “historically gendered, raced, and classed conceptual category” (7) and throughout the book there are significant glimpses of how gender shapes this category at different moments. In Chapter 3 for example, Marker highlights French concerns about educated Africans studying in France, with one official expressing particular alarm that an African male student had written home describing the seeming sexual availability of white French women, thus raising the “quintessential colonial nightmare” about relationships of Black men with white women. In Chapter 4, Marker again raises the “tenacity” of French stereotypes about the pursuit of French women by African men studying in France, even if such ideas had little grounding in reality (149). Additional points in the book offer snapshots of French-educated African women, such as Marie Louise Potin Gueye, one of the first Africans to attend the French high school, Lycée Van Vollenhoven, in Dakar (101). Thus, while Marker is certainly attentive to moments of intersecting conceptions of race and gender, and to the gendered experiences of African youth, it would be interesting to see how a more central place for gender in Marker’s analysis might open up additional avenues for understanding how ideas about race, place, and religion were intertwining in this postwar moment.

Overall, Black France, White Europe offers an outstanding contribution to scholarship on African decolonization, particularly in its connections drawn to European integration and focus on racialization as a dynamic, historically situated process of immense social and political consequence. Both the methodological and thematic scope of the book are impressive, and Marker achieves her aims with archival research in nine collections across France, Italy, Belgium and Senegal. Marker has written a book that pushes historians of Africa to engage much more closely with the politics of European integration while also effectively foregrounding concrete intellectual production, lived experiences, and political projects of African historical actors. Among its many valuable contributions, this book serves as an excellent model of writing an “entangled” history and will be generative for historians in a variety of sub-fields.


Sarah Runcie is Assistant Professor of history at Muhlenberg College. Her current book project focuses on decolonization and public health in Cameroon.


Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *