Recently, France saw an uproar over a festival planned by the black feminist collective Mwasi. The Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, took to Twitter to condemn what she described as a festival “prohibited to white people” and threaten the organizers with possible legal action. On their website, Mwasi explains that the festival, dubbed Nyansapo (“wisdom knot”) in honor of the Adinkra symbol for intelligence and ingenuity, will feature different spaces of collective learning and exchange. Eighty percent of these spaces will be reserved for black women participants.
Critics of the event largely fall into two camps: the reverse racism crowd and those who argue that France is a colorblind state and that any event that privileges spaces for black women or even mentions race is antithetical to the values of the French Republic. Nyansapo’s defense comes from Mwasi itself, as well as scholars and activists such as Maboula Soumahoro and Rokhaya Diallo, who argue that these critiques are devoid of historical context. There have also been attempts to show that the Mwasi collective’s practice of reserving safe spaces for particular groups has long existed in the history of social and political movements. To this end, commentators have traced the origins of this practice to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the largely—although not exclusively—white French feminist movement of the 1970s. This genealogy effectively erases black women from the history of political organizing in France.
Black French women have a long history of carving out spaces for intellectual exchange, economic empowerment, and political action. In the 20th century, the formalized existence of the French empire meant that these spaces were also necessarily international in scope. Consequently, they challenged narrow definitions of who could be French. They also redefined republicanism from a state policy that mandates lip service to colorblindness to an active commitment to France’s tripartite motto of “liberty, equality, fraternity.” Tracing this history of black French women and the contest over citizenship in public spaces allows us to better understand the historical roots of Mwasi’s contemporary afro-feminist politics.
One such privileged space for black French women’s organizing was the Union des Femmes de la Martinique (UFM), or Union of Martinican Women, founded by Jane Léro in June 1944. Léro was part of a group of Martinican intelligentsia based in Fort-de-France, a group that included the well-known intellectuals Aimé and Suzanne Césaire. Her brothers Thélus and Etienne were contributors to the Martinican student journal Légitime Défense published in Paris in 1932. Her sister-in-law Yva Léro actively contributed to the UFM and explored the intersections of race, class, and gender discrimination in Martinican society in her 1957 novel La Plaie. Although Jane Léro founded the UFM barely six months before her compatriot Paulette Nardal’s women’s association, the Rassemblement féminin (Feminine Rally), the two groups had fundamentally different political ideologies. The UFM was a more radical organization. Its leadership critiqued the Rassemblement féminin for catering to Fort-de-France’s upper middle class and for reinforcing class boundaries by offering training courses for domestic workers rather than challenging the social and economic inequalities that made such work one of the only viable options for black women at the time.
Closely tied to the communist party, the UFM’s political action focused on getting Martinican women to the polls to elect representatives who would advocate for their interests in the French government. They also sought to increase women’s awareness of political issues and provided services to assist women with childcare, nutrition, and literacy. In this way, the UFM stepped in to meet crucial social needs that the colonial French government continued to ignore. The UFM remains active in Martinique today, and although the organization does not employ the same language of non-mixité or “non-mixing” that Mwasi does, it remains clear on its objectives to, among other things, create spaces for Martinican women. In 2000, the UFM created the Space for Listening, Information and Support for Women Victims of Domestic Violence, a clear if somewhat unwieldy name that signals the necessary work of carving out a safe space for survivors of domestic violence. The venue is also named The Jane Léro Space in honor of its founder’s vision.
Black French women’s organizing was not limited to hexagonal France and its older colonies in the Antilles. In French West and Central Africa in the 1940s and 1950s, black women played an important role, first in claiming their rights as first-class citizens of France, and later in working towards independence. The Union des Femmes Sénégalaises (UFS), or Union of Senegalese Women, was founded by a multiparty coalition of West African women. Jeanne-Martin Cissé, an activist from Guinea, was instrumental in founding key sections of the organization. In an interview with the Senegalese writer and journalist Annette Mbaye d’Erneville, Cissé describes her refusal to join the existing women’s organization, the Union des Femmes Françaises (UFF) or Union of French Women, at the behest of the colonial governor, Roland Pré, in Guinea. For African women such as Cissé, the UFF represented the colonial interests of white French women. The UFS, in contrast, as an organization founded by and reserved for African women, was a space in which its members could strategize and work towards political and economic autonomy. One of their major political contributions was their official recommendation and campaigning for a “no” vote in the now infamous 1958 referendum in which Guinea refused to adopt the French Constitution and become independent.
As African independence became an imminent reality, Cissé and her colleagues organized a Pan-African women’s movement that subverted colonial linguistic boundaries and brought together women from English and French-speaking territories throughout the continent. Their goal now was to ensure that African women would have a seat at the table in the new political era of sovereignty. Cissé’s political work, first on a local and then on a regional scale, ultimately expanded to the arena of international politics when she became the first woman to chair the United Nations Security Council.
Léro and Cissé are not the only foremothers of Mwasi’s black feminist practice of privileging black women’s voices and perspectives in organizing for social and political change. Other women such as Jane Vialle and Eugénie Eboué sought to be an audible voice for black women in the French National Assembly and Senate. The Nyansapo, the wisdom knot, is therefore an apt image for Mwasi’s proposed afro-feminist festival. It captures not only the collective knowledge and strategizing of black French women today, but also the linkages between this contemporary collective consciousness and the long history of black women carving out spaces of learning, sharing, and organizing—spaces from which they engaged with the French Republic on their own terms.