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Must Read/Must See: Thinking Blackness, Identity and Racism

In the Fall of 2016, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy chose to tackle race as the theme of its yearly festival. Entitled "Every name in the street" in a nod to James Baldwin and spearheaded by award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates, the festival explored the changing nature of identity and how the arts question our national, social, and cultural labels in France and the United States. It addressed issues of identity, representation, race, and equality. Since then, we have further explored issues of discrimination and social and environmental justice, and have striven to showcase authors and artists who challenge the status quo. We certainly hope to continue this essential endeavor in the future. 

As large scale protests have unfolded throughout the world since the death of George Floyd, we thought it would be useful to point you to some major works that could shed light on these questions. 

This is by no means a complete list. It is, as are our festivals, the start of a conversation. Feel free to point us to books and media that have shaped your experience. (#readbetter)

Here are a few must-reads translated from French into English. These works explore some vast questions: new and old forms of racism, discrimination, representation, unrest, past and current violence, identity, policing, and justice. We hope they will keep the conversation going.


Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon (Grove Press, 2008, tr. Richard Philcox)

Few modern voices have had as profound an impact on the black identity and critical race theory as Frantz Fanon, and Black Skin, White Masks represents some of his most important work. A major influence on civil rights, anti-colonial, and black consciousness movements around the world, Black Skin, White Masks is the unsurpassed study of the black psyche in a white world. Hailed for its scientific analysis and poetic grace when it was first published in 1952, the book remains a vital force today from one of the most important theorists of revolutionary struggle, colonialism, and racial difference in history.  Read more

Discourse on Colonialism by Aimé Césaire. (Monthly Review Press, 2001, tr. Joan Pinkham)

First published in 1955, this work profoundly influenced the generation of scholars and activists at the forefront of liberation struggles in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Nearly twenty years later, Discourse on Colonialism inspired a new generation engaged in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. Aimé Césaire eloquently describes the brutal impact of capitalism and colonialism on both the colonizer and colonized, exposing the contradictions and hypocrisy implicit in western notions of “progress” and “civilization” upon encountering the “savage”, “uncultured,” or “primitive.” It is equally necessary to decolonize our minds, our inner life, at the same time that we decolonize society.” Read more


Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing by Didier Fassin (Polity 2013)

At the time of the 2005 riots, anthropologist Didier Fassin was immersed in the life of a police station in one of the largest precincts in the Paris outskirts, cruising with the patrols, in particular the fearsome anti-crime squads. He uncovered the ordinary aspects of law enforcement, characterized by boredom and eventless days and nights where minor infractions give rise to spectacular displays of force and where officers express doubts about the significance and value of their own jobs. Describing the invisible manifestations of violence and unrecognized forms of discrimination against minority youngsters, he analyses the conditions that make them possible and tolerable, including entrenched policies of segregation and stigmatization, economic marginalization and racial discrimination.  Read more 

AND: Prison Worlds: An Ethnography of the Carceral Condition 

Didier Fassin shows in this essay how the widespread use of imprisonment has reinforced social and racial inequalities and how advances in civil rights clash with the rationales and practices used to maintain security and order. Read more

The Wombs of Women, Race, Capital by Françoise Vergès (Duke University Press, 2020 tr. Kaiama L. Glover)

In the 1960s thousands of poor women of color on the French island of Reunion had their pregnancies forcefully terminated. When the scandal broke in 1970, the doctors claimed to have been encouraged to perform these abortions by French politicians who sought to curtail reproduction on the island, even though abortion was illegal in France. The Wombs of Women traces the long history of colonial state intervention in black women’s wombs during the slave trade and postslavery imperialism as well as in current birth control politics. Vergès demonstrates how the forced abortions on Reunion were manifestations of the legacies of the racialized violence of slavery and colonialism. Read more

Separate and Dominate by Christine Delphy (Verso, 2015, Tr. by David Broder)

In Separate and Dominate, French writer, sociologist, and theorist, Christine Delphy calls for a true universalism that sacrifices no one at the expense of others. Delphy, a central figure in French feminism and one of the first to focus on the structural importance of the family in understanding women’s oppression cofounded Nouvelles questions féministes with Simone de Beauvoir. Separate and dominate is an examination of how mainstream feminism has been mobilized in support of racist measures Read more


The Restless, by Gerty Danbury, (The Feminist Press, 2018)

This lyrical novel, structured like a Creole quadrille, is a rich ethnography bearing witness to police violence in the French island of Guadeloupe In the Caribbean. Narrators both living and dead recount the racial and class stratification that led to a protest-turned-massacre. While Dambury's English debut is a memorial to a largely forgotten atrocity, it is also a celebration of the vibrancy and resilience of Guadeloupeans. Read more

The Living Days, by Ananda Devi (The Feminist Press, 2019, tr. Jeffrey Zuckerman)

A chance encounter incites an unsettling, magnetic attraction between Mary, a seventy-five-year-old white British spinster, and Cub, a thirteen-year-old Jamaican boy from Brixton. Mary increasingly clings to phantoms as dementia overtakes her reality, latching on to Cub and channeling all of her remaining energy into their relationship. But their macabre romance comes to a horrific climax, as white supremacy, poverty, and class conflict explode on the streets of London.  Read more


The Collected Poetry by Leopold Sédar Senghor (CARAF Books, 1998, tr. Melvin Dixon) 

Leopold Sédar Senghor was not only president of the Republic of Senegal from 1960 to 1981, he is also one of Africa's most famous poets. A co-founder of the Negritude cultural movement, he is recognized as one of the most significant figures in African literature. His poetry, alive with sensual imagery, contrasts the lushness and wonder of Africa's past with the alienation and loss associated with assimilation into European culture, places Senghor's writing in historical perspective by relating it to both his political involvement Read more


Racism explained to my daughter by Tahar Ben Jelloun (The New Press, 2006, tr. Carol Volk)

When Tahar Ben Jelloun took his ten-year-old daughter to a street protest against anti-immigration laws in Paris, she asked question after question: “What is racism? What is an immigrant? What is discrimination?” Out of their frank discussion comes this book, an international bestseller translated into twenty languages. Ben Jelloun has created a unique and compelling dialogue in which he explains difficult concepts from ghettos and genocide to slavery and anti-Semitism in language we can all understand.   


Seven Plays of Koffi Kwahulé In and Out of Africa (Judith G. Miller, Editor, Chantal Bilodeau, Translator)

Kofi Kwahulé’s theater delves into both the horror of civil war in Africa and the diasporic experience of peoples of African origin living in Europe and the “New World.” Kwahulé confronts us with a violent world that represents the damage done to Africa and asks us to examine the reality of an ever-expanding network of global migrants. His plays speak to the contemporary state of humanity, suffering from exile, poverty, capitalist greed, collusion, and fear of “the other". His work is performed regularly throughout Europe, Africa, and the Americas.  Read more

The Blacks by Jean Genet, (Grove Atlantic, 1960, tr. Bernard Frechtman)

A Play by the infamous playwright, poet, and novelist Jean Genet. Using the framework of a play within a play, The Blacks exposes racial prejudice and stereotypes while exploring black identity. As a troupe of black actors re-enact the trial and ensuing murder of a white woman before a kangaroo court, the Queen and her entourage look on and comment. Read more


Necropolitics (Theory in Forms) by Achille Mbembe, (Duke University Press, 2019)

Achille Mbembe theorizes the genealogy of the contemporary world, a world plagued by ever-increasing inequality, militarization, enmity, and terror as well as by a resurgence of racist, fascist, and nationalist forces determined to exclude and kill. He outlines how democracy has begun to embrace its dark side which is based on the desires, fears, affects, relations, and violence that drove colonialism. This shift has eroded the very values, rights, and freedoms liberal democracy routinely celebrates. Despite his dire diagnosis, Mbembe explores how new conceptions of the human that transcend humanism might come to pass. These would allow us to encounter the Other not as a threat to exclude but as a person with whom to build a more just world. Read more

The Tears of the Black Man by Alain Mabanckou (Indiana University Press, 2018, tr. Dominic Thomas)

In The Tears of the Black Man, award-winning author Alain Mabanckou explores what it means to be black in the world today. He confronts the long and entangled history of Africa, France, and the United States as it has been shaped by slavery, colonialism, and their legacy today. Without ignoring the injustices and prejudice still facing blacks, he distances himself from resentment. Instead, it is time to ask: Now what? Embracing the challenges faced by ethnic minority communities today, The Tears of the Black Man looks to the future, choosing to believe that the history of Africa has yet to be written and seeking a path toward affirmation and reconciliation. Read more