Zimmerman on Joseph-Gabriel, 'Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire'

Annette K.. Joseph-Gabriel
Sarah J. Zimmerman

Annette K.. Joseph-Gabriel. Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019. 264 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-04293-5

Reviewed by Sarah J. Zimmerman (Western Washington University) Published on H-Diplo (September, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55560

The middle decades of the twentieth century were a thrilling time for reimagining a new world order. Pan-Africanist intellectual and political movements extended across francophone Afro-Atlantic worlds and generated new ways of imagining shared identities and collective action. Annette K. Joseph-Gabriel’s Reimagining Liberation is a timely monograph that recasts this history of anticolonial black liberation to attend to what “decolonization [would] look like if we took into account, even centered, women’s visions for a decolonial future” (p. 159). The women included in this book are already known for their participation in Négritude or their membership in political bodies like the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain and the French Union’s High Council (1946-58). Here, Annette Joseph-Gabriel foregrounds the intellectual production and radical politics of Suzanne Césaire, Paulette Nardal, Jane Vialle, Eugénie Eboué-Tell, Andrée Blouin, Aoua Kéita, and Eslanda Robeson in a history of intersectional feminist activism. These women had revolutionary, at times discordant, aspirations for equitable futures. Their actions add complexity to historical narratives of mid-century electoral politics and black liberation movements. Reimagining Liberation calls attention to important antecedents for contemporary Afro-feminist and African feminist action in francophone worlds.

Reimagined Liberation contributes to recent scholarly work that historicizes how black French women confronted Republican universalism’s gendered and racialized hypocrisies.[1] Citizenship and its limitations are often central to these critiques. For Joseph-Gabriel, citizenship is less a rights-bearing political status and more an intellectual and political practice. Joseph-Gabriel uses “decolonial citizenship” to frame the diverse means through which black women struggled for their envisioned futures within and without French civic identity in diverse geographies. “Decolonial,” as opposed to “anticolonial,” accounts for intersectional political activities and literary production that championed forms of liberation that do not fit neatly within teleological narratives featuring pan-African independence movements during the postwar era. In pairing decolonial praxis with citizenship, Joseph-Gabriel seeks to “untether citizenship from the narrow confines of the nation-state as the only political community imaginable and advocates a shift toward plural forms of belonging” (p. 11). Decolonial citizenship is an analytical frame used to account for the incongruities and manifold expressions of black women’s struggles for cultural and political transformation in arenas that scaled from village to department to colony to empire. These women redrew the boundaries of black political space and advocated for collective activism that bridged the Caribbean archipelago, French Equatorial Africa, French Soudan, and the transnational global South.

Reimagining Liberation acknowledges that the conventional colonial archive is a product of patriarchal discrimination and anti-black racism that preserves silences and biases around the women included in this book. Joseph-Gabriel locates the political visions of black women in biographical, epistolary, and literary texts produced by and about them. Her examination of autobiographies and personal letters illustrates how public and private spheres were mutually constitutive in developing the intersectional feminist ideologies of these women. Joseph-Gabriel combines historical and literary analysis to interrogate a wide range of sources. Fictional materials—novels and film—provide contextual and comparable examples of black women’s activism in order to “enlarge the field of possibility for imagining and representing women’s contestation of colonial exploitation” (p. 27). This methodology importantly questions the historical production, accuracy, and utility of any source. Joseph-Gabriel’s reliance on fictional sources for historical context is methodologically unconventional. However, this strategy uncompromisingly centers African women’s important political visions without eclipsing them with the masculine worlds they operated in.

Reimagining Liberation is organized around vignettes of African and African-descended women that illustrate their decolonial praxis and their radical imaginings of future worlds. Early chapters address Martinicans Suzanne Césaire and Paulette Nardal, who advocated for postwar departmentalization yet remained critical of racial discrimination in mainland France and new forms of imperialism at home. In the face of US imperialism in the Western Hemisphere, Césaire championed an archipelagic, Caribbean-based anti-imperialism. Nardal portrayed Martinique as a Caribbean space with histories both distinct from and entangled with France. The next chapter addresses the political dynamism of French Guianese Eugénie Eboué-Tell and French Equatorial African Jane Vialle. Both women capitalized on their participation in the French Resistance to win seats in the High Council of the French Union. From within the French government, Eboué-Tell and Vialle endorsed legislative reform that would increase equality for inhabitants of overseas France. They, along with Césaire and Nardal, sought radical social and legal change without advocating for independence from France.

The final chapters focus on women whose decolonial politics aimed for political independence. Andrée Blouin, Aoua Kéita, and Eslanda Robeson respectively championed pan-Africanism, grassroots rural organizing, and South-South transnationalism. For Blouin, a métisse Central African women, pan-Africanism allowed her to claim citizenship in plural registers at a time when black nationalism influenced the discourse of liberation politics across the African continent. Kéita, a professional midwife, renounced French citizenship in order to run for local election in French Soudan. At this level, Kéita was better positioned to meaningfully challenge French colonialism and patriarchy in local government. The Blouin and Kéita chapters use fictional literature and film to contextualize the radical politics of these women. In the case of Kéita, Joseph-Gabriel entangles her life history with images and storylines from Ousmane Sembene’s film Emitaï (1971) and his book God’s Bits of Wood (1960)—fictional portrayals of anticolonial historical events in French West Africa. Unlike the other women in this book, Eslanda Robeson was not of French Empire. Her travels in Francophone Africa convinced her that ending colonialism was a necessary step for black liberation across the global South. In the epilogue, Joseph-Gabriel examines the postcolonial black internationalism on display in the pages of AWA. Produced by an all-female Senegalese editorial team during the 1960s and 70s, this French-language magazine promoted a “global black feminism at the height of African nationalist movements” (p. 190). The pages of AWA promote discordant visions of liberation that convey the complexity of postcolonial black feminine life.  

Reimagining Liberation celebrates the diverse epistemologies and broken lineages of black feminist thought occurring within postwar francophone worlds. This generative study innovatively employs an interdisciplinary methodology that foregrounds and takes seriously black women’s decolonial practices and futurity. In doing so, Joseph-Gabriel has added significantly to histories of black intellectual and political movements, as well as Atlantic and French colonial history. Race and gender are dealt with deliberately and in nuanced ways throughout the book. A critique of class and educational background would add further complexity to a project that exposes the coloniality of power, as well as champions international and intersectional activism. Ultimately, Joseph-Gabriel’s first monograph serves as a model for decolonizing history and prioritizing the intellectual labor of black women in the past. Reimagining Liberation is a book for our times.

Sarah J. Zimmerman is an associate professor of history at Western Washington University. Her research focuses on the experiences of women and the operation of gender in West Africa and French Empire. She recently published Militarizing Marriage: West African Soldiers’ Conjugal Traditions in Modern French Empire (Ohio University Press, 2020). Her work has appeared in the International Journal of African Historical Studies and Les Temps modernes.


[1]. Lorelle D. Semley, To Be Free and French: Citizenship in France’s Atlantic Empire (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Félix F. Germain and Silyane Larcher, eds., Black French Women and the Struggle for Equality, 1848-2016 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018).

Citation: Sarah J. Zimmerman. Review of Joseph-Gabriel, Annette K.., Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. September, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55560

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