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Interview

Race, Rights, and Reform: An Interview with Sarah C. Dunstan

by editor Anne Schult

Sarah C. Dunstan is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Queen Mary University of London and will be taking up a position as Lecturer in the International History of Modern Human Rights at the University of Glasgow in early 2022. She has published on questions of French empire and race in the Journal of Contemporary History, and on race, gender, and international thought in Gender & History, and Modern Intellectual History. Further research exploring the relationship between decolonization and language in the French and British imperial contexts, and making the case for thinking through historical iterations of Black internationalism and Pan-Africanism in relation to space and place, is forthcoming shortly in the Journal of Modern History and the Journal of the History of Ideas respectively. She is also a co-editor of the anthology of Women’s International Thought: Towards a New Canon, forthcoming in early 2022 with Cambridge University Press. For her current fellowship, she is writing a monograph that maps out how philosophical and cultural understandings of what it meant to be human were deployed in the mid-twentieth century to craft legal frameworks at the level of the international and the national.

Editor Anne Schult spoke with her about her first scholarly monograph, Race, Rights and Reform: Black Activism in the French Empire and the United States from World War I to the Cold War (out now with Cambridge University Press), which explores how Black scholars and activists grappled with the connections between culture, race and citizenship and access to rights, mapping African American and Francophone black intellectual collaborations from the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 to the March on Washington in 1963.

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Anne Schult: Your book is titled Race, Rights and Reform, and you describe republican citizenship, which weaves together these three concerns listed explicitly in the title as the shared central concept for Black political thinkers across the United States and the French empire. Despite intellectual flirtations with interwar internationalist endeavors as symbolized by the League of Nations or the Comintern, you argue that the national frame ultimately proved decisive for mid-20th-century Black liberation thought and was indeed constitutive of the Franco-American intellectual relationship you trace. How did this concept of citizenship allow the protagonists in your book to negotiate between national and imperial concerns, between American and European experiences, and beyond the linguistic specificities of French and English to find common ground? And what role did the notion of diaspora play vis-á-vis this republican ideal?

Sarah C. Dunstan: These are big questions, and certainly ones that get at the heart of what I was trying to achieve with the book. I’ll try to briefly gesture towards how I understand them. I would like to begin by clarifying the argument about the decisiveness of the national frame in this period. For quite a few of the figures I study in the book—scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois, and activists such as George Padmore—there is a very genuine commitment to internationalist or transnational organizing. Often involvement in such organizing ran in tandem with their efforts to create change in local and national spheres. Retrospectively, they seem to have had the most tangible success on a national basis, but the internationalist nature of their thinking should nevertheless not be underestimated. This is especially true for those within the French empire, like Léopold Sédar Senghor, who believed in the possibility of crafting forms of republicanism and citizenship that would allow self-determination without state sovereignty until French reluctance to commit to the true federations of its empire ultimately forced him into a situation where national independence was the best route for decolonization. It is easy to look back now and think that this might always have been the natural ending, but it did not necessarily look that way for the thinkers at the time.

As in any context, there is a gap between how people experience citizenship and how they think it ought to be. In the case of many of the activists I look at, they sought to leverage the difference between the promises of republican citizenship embedded in the legal frameworks of their respective nations, and their reality of disenfranchisement. You can see this, for example, in the figure of René Maran. The preface to his Prix Goncourt-winning book, Batouala, is a damning critique of French colonial practices in French Equatorial Africa. Many within the French colonial administration saw this as an attempt to stir up revolution in the colonies. Maran, who had himself worked in the French colonial administration in the Ubangi-Shari, instead saw this as an act of civic republicanism. He saw himself as exercizing the duties of a French citizen, by bearing witness to those failing to adhere to the founding principles of the French Republic. As such, in writing the preface, he was affirming the value of a true French Republicanism. In many ways, there is a similar dynamic often at play for Black activists based in the United States. As James Baldwin put it some thirty or so years after Maran, the American democracy had the potential for equal citizenship built in if only African Americans could successfully “make the machinery work for our benefit.”[1]

Insofar as diasporic solidarity is concerned, this is a term that could be said to encompass both the radical Pan-Africanism of the British West Indian activist George Padmore and the more conservative cosmopolitanism of the first African American Rhodes Scholar Alain Locke, the imperial loyalties of the Senegalese politician Blaise Diagne and the reflective humanism of the Martinican sisters Paulette and Jane Nardal. For some, organizing along diasporic lines was about the opportunity to pool resources and share ideas. Du Bois’ Pan-African Congresses, for example, were about the assertion of a Black fitness for Western civilization, and of their worthiness for citizenship within their respective countries. Internationalist and diasporic organizing, in that case, went hand in hand with pushing for nationally-framed justice. Specifically, African American activists tended to invoke the so-called “colorblindness” of France in an effort to put pressure on the United States to act similarly. Leveraging such political myths could also be detrimental for activists of color operating within the French empire who were all too aware of the racism of the French imperial project, even as it operated in different ways. For others, forging bonds of diasporic solidarity was about a genuine commitment to overturning the world order as it then existed. Someone like George Padmore was less willing than Baldwin to believe that the ‘machinery’ built into existing nations was ever going to work for people of color, or for the working classes.

AS: In tracing intersections and interlocutions between African American and Francophone Black intellectuals, activists, and politicians, your work proceeds in a largely chronological fashion from the direct aftermath of the First World War up until the era of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s. One advantage of this periodization across the two world wars, you posit in the book, is that it conjoins usually disparate historiographical threads that tended to focus on postwar Black thought in the shadow of either the Cold War (in the American case) or decolonization (in the French case) by revealing their common origin. Yet beyond the obvious reference point of the Wilsonian Moment, why do the 1920s constitute the starting point for your analysis? What changed for Black thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic at this particular moment in time, and does your analysis reveal any echoes of or continuities with an earlier Franco-American dialogue?

SCD: I do think that the First World War was a moment of great change for European empire and for world order. This is true not just in terms of the literal re-drawing of the world map at the Paris Peace treaties, but also in terms of the sweeping cultural change that came in the aftermath of the trauma of the War. These are, of course, interconnected phenomena. Specifically for Franco-American dialogue, the experience of African American soldiers in France during the War kickstarted a particular dialogue about the “colorblindness” of the French relative to the United States. As I show in the first chapter of the book, this was both a grassroots phenomenon and something that US military personnel and government officials were painfully aware of as a potential “problem” for the US image as representative of democratic virtues. This was, of course, not necessarily reflective of the reality of the experiences of people of color residing in the French empire, and in mainland France more specifically, but it did cement Black American interest in France as a working republican state. This interest was certainly not unreciprocated, as my book shows, and a large number of Black internationalist organizations emerged in this period. In part, this is connected by the upswell of Black and colonial populations passing through France in the interwar era, a considerably larger number than had lived there prior to the War. So, whilst African Americans had been coming to France since at least the end of the 19th century, and, indeed, anti-racist organizing along African diasporic lines certainly predated the War, this post- First World War moment was quite distinct from what came before.  

AS: From the Paris Peace Conference and the Pan-African Congresses to the Congresses of Black Writers and Artists: part of the intellectual corpus you examine resulted from organized meetings in which African American and Francophone Black thinkers encountered one another face-to-face, even if only temporarily, in a metropolitan setting. Focusing on interwar Paris, Michael Goebel emphasized this kind of urban co-mingling as crucial for the development of a transnational sense of anti-colonial ideology in his 2015 book Anti-Imperial Metropolis. In a recent talk at Queen Mary, you similarly suggested the importance of such urban encounters and shared experiences for the development of 20th-century Black internationalism. How crucial would you say intellectuals’ direct confrontation with urban city sites—in the US and Europe, but also in West Africa and the Antilles—was for the intellectual developments you trace in the book? Beyond evoking similar experiences of urbanity, might specific local conditions have also accounted for idiosyncrasies in thought and held the potential for disagreement?

SCD: Absolutely crucial. These urban sites of encounters were so key to shaping Black internationalism, and were in turn certainly shaped by it. Although this is not an analysis I lean heavily into with this book, the research I did has turned this question into a preoccupation of mine since. Indeed, the talk you reference is now an article coming out with the Journal of the History of Ideas (82.4). Perhaps self-evidently key sites of Black internationalism—like Harlem, Paris, London, Algiers, Dakar and Fort-de-France—were sites of residence, crossroads where peoples of different cultures pushed up against each other and shared ideas. They were also locations in which notions of Black group consciousness came to be physically and psychologically enacted in different ways, often through experiences of discrimination and segregation. Race had multiple and co-existing definitions in all of these locations that are significant to reconstructing the dynamics of Black internationalisms. As such, these 20th-century cityscapes became both symbolic vehicles for constructing visions of Blackness and African belonging, and mechanisms for their conscious and unconscious development. There has been some truly excellent work produced on these individual cities as sites of Black internationalism and anti-imperialism. You mentioned Goebel’s excellent book, but there’s also Jennifer Boittin’s Colonial Metropolis on Paris, Kennetta Hammond Perry and Marc Matera’s work on London, Jacqueline Nassy Brown on Liverpool…. Too many to list here! But I think we can learn a lot from thinking about the urban specificity of the encounters that took place in these cities, and even more from placing situated studies side by side to see how different or similar iterations of Black internationalism become in these diverse locations.

AS: As is made clear throughout the chapters of your book, the link between American and Francophone discourses on political rights was often decisively forged by individual thinkers who functioned as both nodal points and cultural translators. One excellent example of this phenomenon are Martinican intellectuals and sisters Paulette and Jane Nardal, who initiated La Revue du Monde Noir in the 1930s and became important reference points for initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic and for the Black diaspora more generally. In a nod to the Nardals’ crucial positionality, Ashley Farmer recently argued that “black women have been the philosophical epicenter and vanguard of black internationalism.” How central were female voices to the struggle for truly universal citizenship, and how does your work fit within the recent push by Keisha N. Blain, Carole Boyce Davies, Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, and others to foreground the contribution of women of color in transnational intellectual networks and encounters?

SCD: Black women were always and have always been at the center of discussions of citizenship and human rights, even if their contributions have since been sidelined in favor of male protagonists and masculine oriented ideologies of reform. The work that scholars such as Ashley Farmer, Keisha N. Blain, Carole Boyce Davies, and Tracy Sharpley-Whiting are doing has been absolutely formative for me. Sharpley-Whiting in particular has obviously done some tremendously important work on the women of négritude and I certainly sought to build upon her scholarship in my book. Indeed, as per her scholarship, one of the key interventions of my book is to attempt to write women of color back into this genealogy of thinking about rights and citizenship. And in doing so, I wanted to portray them as key political thinkers and activists in their own right rather than participants in male-led movements. It was very important to me, for example, that my portrait of négritude placed the Nardal sisters front and center as pioneers, both intellectually and in terms of their role in introducing Harlem Renaissance writers to Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, amongst others. So, too, did I want to render visible women about whom we know very little—not because they didn’t write, but because too many of their writings have subsequently been lost. For me this included writing about Clara Shepherd, the African American teacher who not only published in La Revue du monde noir but also did editorial and translation work with the Nardals; the Guadeloupean writer Lucie Thésée, who worked on Tropiques; and Jane Vialle, the French Congolese Senator and UN Representative, amongst others. (In this regard, I really wish that Annette K. Joseph-Gabriel’s brilliant Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire had been out whilst I was writing my book. It’s a beautifully crafted exploration of the lives and contributions of seven Black women grappling to reconfigure French empire.)

I think it is also important to think carefully about the idea of “voices” when considering the genealogies of Black internationalism. Women often worked in activist contexts as knowledge facilitators, applying their political sensibilities and intellect to the tasks of translation and editing. Despite the clear intellectual value of this work, it has long been rendered an invisible, or less tangible, mode of knowledge production and activism. Someone like Christiane Yandé Diop is the perfect example here. The Sierra Leonean academic and diplomat Davidson Nicol, when reflecting upon his attendance at the 1956 Présence Africaine Congress of Black Artists and Writers, marveled at the way Diop had “quietly and with great effectiveness and patience” orchestrated the day-to-day running of the Paris Congress, facilitating the translation and publication of manuscripts, speeches, and comments. The entire congress—officially bilingual, unofficially multi-lingual, with delegates from francophone, lusophone, Hispanic, créole and multiple other language contexts—was dependent upon this translation for communication. Whilst some attendants were bilingual, many were not. Christiane Yandé Diop was key to ensuring that pre-circulated papers were translated in both English and French so that delegates could follow arguments in the language of their choice. She, alongside her husband, had also done a great deal of the legwork in coordinating the congress. Moreover, it is my understanding that she, alongside a number of African women students, was responsible for taking down the transcripts of the discussion sections. These transcripts were printed in the Congress special issues of the journals, allowing readers to follow not just the speeches, but also the dynamics of the discussions that followed. This was an extraordinary undertaking that allowed the ideas and debates of the Congress to circulate far beyond the halls of the Congress. Indeed, I relied upon them heavily for Race, Rights and Reform. Such work was vital to consolidating the Présence Africaine network but because Diop’s published work consists primarily of reflection upon her husband’s legacy, we rarely think about her as an important “voice” of Black internationalism. In my book, I wanted to “show the workings,” so to speak, of the gendered dynamics of the dissemination of ideas in this moment.

AS: You end the book with a vignette of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic speech “I Have a Dream.” Typically framed as a hopeful development, the March on Washington appears in stark contrast to the violence unleashed on the other side of the Atlantic by the Algerian War, which had just ended the year prior. Does the seeming asymmetry of these two political events symbolize a rift in the commonalities between American and francophone thinkers as well—i.e. does it mark the end of an initially “shared hope that the republican form could be mobilized to create a political citizenship that allowed for racial and cultural differences,” as you put it?

SCD: One of the reasons that I end the book in the early 1960s is because many of the Francophone thinkers I look at are then involved in the establishment of new nation-states in their respective African and Caribbean regions. Many still retain their belief in the possibilities of the republican form, but it is not the republican form of their contemporary France. Instead they are focused on building, from the ground up, political structures in independent nations that need to take them forward. So it is a moment of disenchantment and, very often, of violence, but it is also a moment of hope throughout the African diaspora.

Many of the relationships and collaborations I document in the book do actually continue on past this early 1960s moment. Indeed, you can see this particularly clearly in moments such as the World Festival of Black Arts held in Dakar in 1966—connected to the Présence Africaine project—or in the Pan-African Festival held in Algiers in 1969. The relationships between Black American groups and the Organisation of African Unity in the 1960s also show traces of the earlier history I look at in Race, Rights and Reform. It would take another book (or two), however, to do these later histories justice.

AS: For the final question, I would like to return to the introduction to your book, in which you reference African American novelist Richard Wright and his evocation of “a frog’s perspective,” a notion borrowed from Nietzsche, as the essential condition of the Black thinker. I find this an interesting moment to begin with, as it gestures toward both the specific relationship Black thinkers had with a decidedly white, “Western” canon in the early 20th century and the broader question of an (often unexpected) intellectual genealogy and adaptation across different political and geographical contexts. How would you chart your own intellectual genealogy that eventually led to this book? Did the theoretical and political force of the thinkers you survey here inflect how you framed your own research?

SCD: As an intellectual history, the book is an exercise in mapping. It is about charting the many contours in the landscape of Black activist thought across the French and American empires in this first part of the twentieth century. As such, it seemed fitting to begin with Wright’s challenge, his absolute confidence that he and his experience was constitutive of the Western experience in the 20th century.

Race, Rights and Reform is certainly the product of my own intellectual grappling with the way that I was taught to think about the past and about so-called Western canon. At high school, for example, we learnt about the French and American revolutions in terms of the fight for republican democracy and freedom. Neither rendering really dealt with the very important fact that many of the leading thinkers on the subject of democracy and citizenship in this period still thought of slavery as compatible with this republicanism. This vision of the past was obviously complicated by my studies of history at an undergraduate level in university. Ultimately, however, study of anti-colonial thinkers, or of race and decolonization, tended to happen in arenas other than the political histories of sovereignty, republicanism, and citizenship. And yet, they very clearly engaged with each other. This is not to flatten out the differences between them. As Brandon Byrd argued in his recent, excellent Modern Intellectual History article on African American intellectual history, Black thinking on these issues is distinctive. It has its own set of explicit intentions and purposes that need to be understood in those terms. What I wanted to do with my book, however, was to show that the very distinctiveness of this genealogy is as much a part of Western political thought as the work of white thinkers. Whilst the power dynamics and opportunities were most certainly asymmetrical, we cannot understand the history of the United States and the French empire without looking to the thought of those men and women who had to reckon with being excluded by virtue of their race. Of course, this is the argument that Wright was making in the anecdote that I use to begin the book. It is also the argument that intellectuals such as Jane Nardal, Suzanne Roussy Césaire, and Aimé Césaire made in their work. So there is definitely a reciprocal relationship between my engagement with the thinking of the figures that populate my book, and the choices I made in framing the material.


[1] James Baldwin, ‘Princes and Powers,” Encounters, (1947): 148.


Anne Schult is a PhD Candidate in New York University’s History Department. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.

Featured Image: Lois Mailou Jones, Les Fétiches, 1938. Oil on linen, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Museum purchase made possible by Mrs. Norvin H. Green, Dr. R. Harlan and Francis Musgrave.

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