Reimagining Liberation: A New Book about Black Women who Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire

This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire was recently published by the University of Illinois Press.


Author of Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire, (University of Illinois Press, 2020), Annette Joseph-Gabriel is a scholar of contemporary francophone Caribbean and African literature with interdisciplinary specializations in black transnational feminisms and slavery in the Atlantic world. She is currently an Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Michigan. Her articles have appeared in Small Axe, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Slavery & Abolition, Nouvelles Études Francophones, and The French Review. She is managing editor of Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International. Follow her on Twitter @AnnetteJosephG.

Black women living in the French empire played a key role in the decolonial movements of the mid-twentieth century. As thinkers and activists, these women lived lives of commitment and risk that landed them in war zones and concentration camps and saw them declared enemies of the state.

Annette K. Joseph-Gabriel mines published writings and untapped archives to reveal the anticolonialist endeavors of seven women. Though often overlooked today, Suzanne Césaire, Paulette Nardal, Eugénie Éboué-Tell, Jane Vialle, Andrée Blouin, Aoua Kéita, and Eslanda Robeson took part in a forceful transnational movement. Their activism and thought challenged France’s imperial system by shaping forms of citizenship that encouraged multiple cultural and racial identities. Expanding the possibilities of belonging beyond national and even Francophone borders, these women imagined new pan-African and pan-Caribbean identities informed by Black feminist intellectual frameworks and practices. The visions they articulated also shifted the idea of citizenship itself, replacing a single form of collective identity and political participation with an expansive plurality of forms of belonging.

“Seven black women anchor Dr. Annette Joseph-Gabriel’s, Reimagining Liberation, an inspired and original history of decolonization. These women’s imaginings and practices of liberation politics and decolonial citizenship made them resilient political protagonists in a time of upheaval. In her important book, Joseph-Gabriel compellingly argues for doing far more of what she, Suzanne Césaire, Paulette Nardal, Eugénie Éboué-Tell, Jane Vialle, Andrée Blouin, Aoua Kéita and Eslanda Robeson have done: centering black women’s experiences, politics, and leadership within struggles to identify and challenge global systems of injustice.”–Jennifer Anne Boittin, author of Colonial Metropolis: The Urban Grounds of Anti-Imperialism and Feminism in Interwar Paris

AAIHS Editors:What type of impact do you hope your work has on the existing literature on this subject? Where do you think the field is headed and why?

Annette Joseph-Gabriel: I situate my work in different fields and so I hope this book will do something different in each of them. As it joins the growing number of studies about Black women’s intellectual thought and activism, I hope that it will be in conversation with these studies. There is value in considering what Black women from the French-speaking world bring to liberation movements given the particularities of French imperialism. Reimagining Liberation facilitates that juxtaposition by being attentive to cross-linguistic exchanges. For example, when African American anthropologist and civil rights activist Eslanda Robeson met French senator Jane Vialle in the Central African Republic, she brought Vialle a tube of Revlon lipstick as a gift. Vialle in turn gave her a shirt with ivory buttons. There is something powerful in this two-way exchange between prominent Black women activists that should nudge us today to consider the direction of knowledge flows that we privilege in our scholarship. This non-verbal exchange between Robeson and Vialle also challenges what we, in the field of literary studies, consider a “text.” What happens when we bring our tools of literary analysis to bear on this moment, not simply as a gesture but also as a text that holds meaning? Because I was trained in French literary studies, I hope that my book will illuminate other forms of long-ignored texts in addition to the written works that I analyze.

In addition to rethinking texts, my work also rethinks geography. A colleague recently told me that my book “provincializes France.” I found that description interesting because France has come to represent the quintessential cosmopolitan metropolis to which Black thinkers gravitated. I would very much like for Reimagining Liberation to disrupt that colonial geography. In this book there is no center. Suzanne Césaire’s work is forever changed by her journey from Martinique to Haiti. Paulette Nardal never makes it back to France because she is injured during World War II and she has to imagine a different geography of belonging that privileges Caribbean connections. By examining the ways that Black women decentered the European metropole or sometimes bypassed it completely, I hope that this book will move us towards a more capacious imagining of the geographies of Black liberation.

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Comments on “Reimagining Liberation: A New Book about Black Women who Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire

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    i congratulate the scholar for producing this important work. Too often feminist scholars, operating in the US, only focus on the work of Black women . Women in African Diaspora has also contributed to freedom, liberation, and the struggle for human rights and justice. This book should be a must read in graduate and undergraduate courses.

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