Thursday, September 1, 2016

We Wear Our History in Our Darkness - The Black Woman’s Body in France, Past & Present

By Sojourner Ahébée

Black women athletes from every corner of this world were present at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

Simone Manuel makes history as the first African American
to win an individual Olympic swimming medal
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As I watched them break records and push their bodies to new and unforeseen limits, I found myself reflecting on the Black woman’s body and its history with performance.

This year, the French Women’s Judo team was predominantly made up of Black women: Priscilla Gneto (Côte d’Ivoire) and Gévrise Émane (Cameroon) were born on the continent of Africa and the remaining Black judokas -- Émilie Andéol, Clarisse Agbegnenou, and Audrey Tcheuméo -- are of African and Caribbean descent. Andéol captured a gold medal for her team, making her the first French Judoka to do so.

The French Judo Team takes a selfie at the 2016 Olympics in Rio
Photo Source: Emelie Andéol, Official Facebook Page.

If the irony of this is lost on you, let me explain.

France enacted heinous crimes against humanity upon Black colonized peoples in Africa and the Caribbean. In 1907, a kind of “human zoo” of 35,000 colonized peoples was built in Paris’ Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale. They were given mock clothing and performed in replicas of their former homelands for white audiences. They were exploited and degraded through the process, and the line between animal and person was blurred as a result.

A postcard of the Congo pavilion in 1907

France’s history with this human zoo is emblematic of a bigger colonial project that involved “other-ing” colonized peoples, and by extension, rendered whole communities uncivilized and unworthy of humanity. And let us not forget the story of Sarah Baartman, a South African woman who was brought to Paris to be exhibited on stages throughout the city for white, French citizens. She died in her mid-twenties, her body completely exhausted, degraded, and riddled with disease. After her death, her organs, skeleton, and body cast were displayed in the Musée de l’Homme until the late seventies.

La Belle Hottentot, a 19th-century French print of Baartman

Now the the power dynamic has shifted. As five black women -- all with personal ties to former French colonies -- carried the French Olympic Judo Team into phenomenal victory, their bodies were also on display. They served as symbols for a national French identity and their athletic performance belonged to a national pride. While the French obsession with Baartman’s body was one maintained by her performance of otherness, French pride for the Black French judokas is maintained by their proximity to France.

As these five spectacular women broke records and re-wrote history and power for Black, female bodies globally, how were their tremendous achievements in dialogue with the history of Black female bodies of the past in France, and of colonized folks in Africa and the Caribbean?

Émelie Andéol celebrates after defeating Cuba’s Idalys Ortiz

It was incredibly powerful to watch Émilie Andéol‘s award winning match as she defeated Cuba’s Idalys Ortiz. As Andéol struggled against Ortiz, the agony on her face was quite apparent. And as she accepted her gold medal, she smiled as her face overflowed with tears.

French Judo Champion Émelie Andéol accepts her gold medal
at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Photo by Brazil Photo Press/CON

Andéol’s capacity to unapologetically express herself is remarkable. And the depth of her emotion was played over and over again in French media. She was constantly humanized by French sport commentators. Just moments after beating Ortiz, Andéol ran to embrace her family members, who were cheering for her in the front row. The cameras zoomed into an ecstatic Andéol, who was lifted by family members and fans over the metal enclosure that separated them from the Olympic stage. Andéol was repeatedly shown kissing close friends and family as they shared in her triumph. The intimacy and drama of the moment were moving.

Even French President François Hollande contributed to the accolades by tweeting the following:

“Émelie Andéol is the Olympic champion of Judo! Bravo! [Well done]!”

But does France’s pride in Andéol’s accomplishment obscure the history and pain Black women and their bodies have lived through both in France and in the former French colonies?

It is not enough to cheer for Andéol once every four years. It is not enough because Black women in France (and throughout the world) still carry the pain of colonialism. They continue to be treated as second-hand citizens in France, as “other,” and they continue to re-live the trauma of the past.

Sojourner Ahébée is a 2016 BOSP Continuation International Fellow for the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University. She is currently serving as the Paris intern for the Wells International Foundation.

Read more of Sojourner's work at Sojourner Ahébée.


Entrée to Black Paris!™ is a Discover Paris! blog.

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