Entretien: Louis Georges Tin, Rozena Maart
Boundaries and Borders – Black Consciousness in France and in South Africa
Rozena Maart in Conversation with Louis Georges Tin:
Boundaries and Borders – Black Consciousness in France and in South Africa
I met Louis-Georges Tin in 2006 when he spoke at the Dissidence conference organised by Jean-Paul Rocchi at Paris-Diderot University. Later as we sat down it became very clear to me that whilst many scholars talk about Black Consciousness as a philosophy and as a politics, a way of being in the world for existentialists, some or all of which are acquired as a result of how Black Consciousness as a movement developed within their environment and their engagement with it, Louis-Georges Tin had brought Black Consciousness to a moment of actualisation – and those who stood in its way, to a moment of reckoning.
In the case of the former, he asked very particular questions of the Négritude movement, which the French claim as theirs when it suits them and when it brings esteem to their cultural life but which was actually started by two men from the Caribbean – Aimé Césaire, from Martinique and Léon Gontran Damas, from Guyana – and one man from Africa, from Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor. He asked: how can I take this knowledge that these men offered, along with women like Martinican Paulette Nardal and her sisters, and ensure that the France within which it developed, is the France which grappled with its history and the fruits that this history bore. In other words, why was the French population not equally influenced by the critiques offered by these thinkers as they were of others whose works offered less significance, and instead chose racism above historical knowledge? In the case of the reckoning that I speak of and of which he projects and asserts within France: he takes the agents of racism to task and addresses them by pointing to their precolonial history, when France and the rest of Europe were smelling the rotten odour of poverty under their noses and sought to venture away from it, to Africa, which at the time they depicted as rich, coveting kingdoms like those in Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and fantasizing about the gold, ivory and other precious stones they could extract, exhibit as their own, which they actualised as part of their usurpation and colonisation to then build and further the process of French empire building. This calculated, strategic forgotten history of France Louis-George Tin illustrates with numerous examples, as he draws to his final moments of questioning, asking how and why Africa had suddenly become poor and depicted as the continent whose inhabitants are at best tolerated and at worst depicted as baboons. Of the latter, Louis-Georges Tin and I agree: this is to ensure that Black people remain as part of the flora and fauna of the European imagination, part of the construction of the African native, closer to animals than to human, and upon which these racist assumptions are unleashed, each and every time a Black person in France ascends to the level of professor, minister, public speaker, intellectual, scholar, and exceeds the limitations that have been imposed by the racist society within which we live. Fear, as Steve Biko once articulated, continues to remain at the heart of White society’s preoccupation with making sure that Black people remain oppressed, divided, and better still convinced of our own inferiority. We chatted casually about what he saw as the similarities that he experienced within the fear of gay people, and the manner in which fear had overtaken those determined to unleash their homophobia. It was at this time that Louis-Georges Tin informed me that in August 2004 he had launched the idea of the International Day against homophobia (IDAHO), and that it was first celebrated on the 17th of May in 2005, with representatives of more than 40 countries around the world participating in the historic event. But before I proceed further, perhaps it is apt to offer a short biography of Louis-Georges Tin.
Louis-Georges Tin was born in Martinique in 1974 and was raised in Paris by his parents, who are both teachers. He studied at the Lycée Schoelcher in Martinique then at the Lycée Henri IV, which led to him entering the École Normale Supérieure in 1993, at the age of 19. His Phd thesis, titled, “Tragedy and Politics in France in the 16th Century,” was received with great accolades, which he politely shrugs off, but was ready to talk about when I inquired as to its content.
My first formal interview with Louis-Georges took place in Paris in November of 2011. Here is a snippet from that interview.
RM: Louis-Georges, I want to say congratulations on winning the nomination and the vote of confidence from the members of CRAN because you will now be the new president. I just heard the news and also read about it. This is excellent. I am very happy for you.
LG: Thank you. It has just happened so I am still slowly accepting this as a reality. My life is already busy. I teach at two universities, I write a column for Le Monde and now I am the president of CRAN.
RM: This is a huge responsibility. I am sure you will take CRAN even further. I want to come back to that later because I have a lot of questions about CRAN, which I never got to ask you about when we first met. When I first met you we talked after your presentation at the Dissidence conference and we shared our stories of arrest. Well it seems that each time we meet you have yet another arrest on your CV. I heard about what happened in Moscow? Can you tell me a little bit about that history?
LGT: Well, after the conference where we met in April in 2006, I co-organised with Nikolai Alekseev, the vice-president of IDAHO the first Moscow Pride. Many people attended, and well-known people from many parts of the world came to the event. During this time both Nokolai and I got arrested. The pride day march was banned but we continued. If we have to wait to get permission for every injustice we fight we are going to wait a long time.
RM: Yes, I agree. I think if we ask for permission we are saying that we need it when in fact we don’t. This I learnt very early on in my life as I came to Black Consciousness.
LGT: Yes, me too. And in France, one is treated as though you have to be grateful for any little gesture that offers you humanity.
RM: I want to have so many discussions with you and at the same time I am aware that I have to remain focused. I know, as I have learnt from your work and from your 2006 presentation, that you connect all of the struggles against oppression in ways that are quite profound. And, I do not want to suggest that one always comes before the other or as a consequence of another but I wanted to ask, as a start to this interview, how did you come to Black Consciousness?
LGT: Of course I read Césaire, Fanon and the Négritude writers. And since I am from Martinique, this history was taught to me by my parents – they were both teachers. I read all of the classics, Black Skin White Masks, the history of Black people in the United States, and also the contribution by all of the people involved in the Négritude movement. When I was at school, it was impossible of course to have any notion of gender studies, sexuality studies or race studies as disciplines, but I knew from a very early age that my history was not taught to me and perhaps this is why my parents made sure that I knew my history. Also, my uncle is Victor Stern, I am his great-nephew. He opposed Admiral Robert during the Vichy period. My uncle was the predecessor of Aimé Césaire, so this history of Black Consciousness is also part of my family history. The history of Négritude and Black Consciousness is part of my family history – it is not one I can ignore. What about you?
RM: I was at school, at age 14, and someone handed me a pamphlet, a little paper that had the writing of Steve Biko on it. It was the first time that I saw the word Black Consciousness written down, articulated in that way – that it was first and foremost a question of mind, and that it was not so much a question of skin pigmentation. These were the words of Steve Biko. He was addressing Black South Africans primarily, and talking about the divide and conquer tactics that had produced the self-hatred and the internalised racism.The skin pigmentation issue was in reference to the hierarchy that had been set-up within White society, and which Black people adopted, then making the distinction between light-skinned Black and dark-skinned Black. So for me, it was as a young teenager that Black Consciousness came into my life ; I was handed a small piece of paper which had Biko’s words on it, wherein he talked about being Black and how it was not merely a question of skin pigmentation. That piece of paper completely changed my life. It was the first time that I understood that the mind was the most important part of my body. This event taught me self-interrogation and self-examination. It also taught me that no one hands you Black Consciousness on a plate but that one has to fight for it. Consciousness is pain, and Black Consciousness is more than pain: it is the path after the pain but once you’re on it there is no going back. It is first the pain that lurks in your stomach when you’re confronted with racism, and your body unsettles you, refuses to let you carry on as though nothing has happened. It is that kind of pain – gut wrenching, determined that you listen to your body because it is precisely that level of pain that your body inflicts on you because it is telling you that if you accept the violence of racism, this I how you will suffer … your body, that is where your psyche will be staged. Tell me, what does Black Consciousness mean to you?
LGT: That I am not only Black and that it is not my only identity because identity works in many different layers. That I am gay, that I am a man, that I am Martinican, and so on, because there are multiple identities … there are interconnections and there are ways in which my identity had to be fought for. And now, it seems one has to fight to maintain one’s Black Consciousness because the French government seems to want to take it away, all the time. French society is not even able to say the word “black” because it makes French people uncomfortable. Racism does not make them uncomfortable but it seems saying the word “black” makes them uncomfortable.
RM: I see what you mean entirely. It is interesting how one has to think about one’s identity in another country, a city and within an existing history of Black Consciousness that is not different but in some way precedes my one’s own and from which Black Consciousness in South Africa also drew its strength. To me Black Consciousness also means the awareness that being Black is inscribed within my heritage, my culture, but also that I owe it to myself to develop my Consciousness so that it stands testimony to my resistance to White domination, on a day to day basis, of how racism functions to take it away from me. I am excited about CRAN and what prospects it holds for your work, for the direction your work and activism will take. How did the CRAN come about? How did it actually start?
LGT: In 2004 a friend contacted me and suggested I become part of the CIPDIV – the Circle of Action for the Promotion of Diversity in France. At the meeting I saw that all the members were Black and this was a surprise to me. I began to notice that we worked less and less on issues of diversity and more and more on issues that were directly about the experiences of Black people. It seemed that everyone was hiding from this fact ; that there was the word diversity but all of our time was spent on addressing issues of Black people very directly. This was a fact. But we were hiding from this fact. I suggested to the association, “why don’t we just focus on the Black issue in our future initiatives?”. It is interesting that all of the members seemed shocked and even surprised, as if they had not known this before. In February of 2005 we organised a colloquium entitled, “Black in France: Anatomy of an Invisible Minority.” At this colloquium it became very clear that the dissatisfaction of the lack of focus on Black issues had grown and that people were ready for the next step. We discussed the formation of a group, and that it would be a coalition that brought together all of the Black organisations in France. During the first discussion, people were still afraid to say the word Black and to have it in the title of the name but I insisted and more and more people began to agree with me. This is how CRAN (Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires [Representative Council of Black Associations]) started. It was a group effort and a group realisation of what was necessary. On the 26th of November 2006, CRAN was inaugurated in the National Assembly.
RM: Do you think, looking back, any of your professors at the École Normale Supérieure would have thought that it would be you leading the way as president of a council of Black organisations? What was it like being at the École Normale Supérieure when you were a student? There is such esteem afforded to these institutions in France and from the outside, it seems as though there is no problem when it comes to racism. I mean, after all, look at the 1940s, that history of Négritude, and how it changed the whole world, so certainly there is no problem.
LGT: Well, let me give you an example. I needed to choose a topic for my Masters. And a list of topics was mentioned. I said to my professor: “I want to look at the relationship between gay issues and Black issues. I also wanted to work on Négritude. What you think about this?”
She looked completely shocked. She told me, “I don’t really know but I will go and ask my colleagues and also find out what the University thinks and once I have presented this to them I will get a collective answer and get back to you.” So I waited for a while and since she did not get back to me I went to her office because I wanted her to give me an answer. She said: “yes, I asked my colleagues and they all had the same perception ; that you shouldn’t do that. Because, as far as they are concerned, this is a professional suicide so my advice to you is do something classical and when you are 50 or 60 years old and you have a position in the university then perhaps you may consider doing what you want to do.” I thanked her for her answer and then I left. So, I understood three or four things:
First of all, I said to myself, don’t ask another person about this issue because you already got your answer.
Second, it is not going to be a professional suicide, it is going to be a professional murder.
Third, the people who might kill me are exactly the people she asked the question to because these people are the people to make your career or to defeat you.
Fourth, there was not once that sense of support that should be offered to Masters and Phd students: that we protect you and support you no matter which topic you decide to work on. I understood that even if I did a good dissertation there will be no support and in fact they will destroy me. They would be the ones carrying out the murder.
My decision was that I would do a classical dissertation and this is why I became more militant in the process, which is why I organised and edited the Dictionary of Homophobia as well. I became more committed to the fight against homophobia and the fight against racism because of these kinds of experiences. When I wrote the Dictionary of Homophobia it was more the commitment of my interest rather than it merely being my dissertation and what happened was it became more important outside of the university than inside the university because they wanted to forget how they dealt with me – they wanted me to ignore my own identity. As a result I became more committed to fight racism and homophobia and more militant.
Closing remarks: There is nothing more important than the realisation that consciousness of mind emerges, burrows through the flesh when the surrounding within which Being is situated, is aroused, disturbed, unsettled, when death is immanent – the death of Being itself. For when Louis-Georges Tin realised who his murderers would be, he decided that since they revealed themselves to him and he now became acquainted with the site, the location and the weapon that would be used to commit the fatal act, he took a stance to withdraw from the scene of the crime, submit his thesis on sixteenth century tragedy and politics in France and have that site marked as the site of a thousand deaths. The metaphor does not match the number, for he knew it was millions ; the death of millions in unmarked graves, at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, in the sands of Africa, in the salt of the earth. Had he succumbed to their will to power, their desire to murder him then hold him accountable for his own destruction and call it a suicide they would have won. Instead, he demonstrated that a task well done, is rewarded by the life long joy of never letting go of own’s passion. Négritude and Black Consciousness was not a moment of determination to prove his teachers wrong, to defy them by insisting that he writes on what he chooses while they reward him with death – it was more than that – it was his life’s commitment to fight against the death that would have been committed, bestowed upon every Black person that came through those doors of learning after him if he had succumbed to his narcissistic needs. There is no transformation without death – we know this as a fact. Steve Biko teaches us this; so does Malcolm X. Louis-Georges Tin knows he is going to die, we all do: the question of how then remains. Montaigne draws our attention right to this point when he says that: “to philosophise is to learn how to die.” For Louis-Georges Tin, this is crucial. If we are going to die because our life comes to an end through aging how wisely are we going to spend our time in order for that death to be one of dignity? Much like Marcus Garvey, who uttered, “while the world has made being Black a crime, I intend to make it a virtue.” Louis-Georges has brought a virtue to the fight against racism and homophobia.
Prof. Rozena Maart holds a PhD. from the University of Birmingham, UK (Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies), is Associate Professor, and Director of the Centre for Critical Research on Race and Identity at the University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban, South Africa. Her work examines relationships between and among Political Philosophy, Black Consciousness, Derrida and Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, Feminist Theory and Critical Theories of race and racism. Prof. Maart recently served on the UNESCO Scientific Committee for the South-South Philosophical Dialogues, which produced a Philosophical textbook covering four regions—Africa, Asia, South and Central America and the Arab region—in three languages. Prof. Maart also writes fiction. In 1992, Prof. Maart won “The Journey Prize: Best Short Fiction in Canada,” for her short story, “No Rosa, No District Six”. After completing her doctoral work, she then decided to write four more stories, which went into the collection Rosa’s District Six. Published in December 2004, it made the weekly bestseller list in Canada and the HOMEBRU list in South Africa in 2006. She published The Writing Circle in November of 2007 both in Canada and South Africa. In 2010 The Writing Circle was noted as one of the ten top books in South African literature in her homeland, South Africa and nominated by the African Studies Association for the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize.
Profesora Rozena Maart tiene un PhD. de la Universidad de Birmingham, Reino Unido (Centro de Estudios Contemporáneos y Culturales), es profesora asociada y Directora del Centro para la Investigación Crítica sobre la Raza y la Identidad en la Universidad de KwaZulu Natal, Durban, Sudáfrica. Su trabajo examina las relaciones entre filosofía política, conciencia de la raza negra. Además es experta en Derrida y deconstrucción, psicoanálisis, teoría feminista y teorías críticas de la raza y el racismo. Profesora Maart recientemente sirvió en el Comité científico de la UNESCO para los diálogos filosóficos de sur, que produjo un texto filosófico que abarca cuatro regiones: África, Asia, Sur y Centroamérica y la región Árabe, en tres idiomas. Profesora Maart también ha escrito ficción. En 1992, Profesora Maart ganó “Un camino hacia el mejor cuento de ficción en Canadá,” por su cuento “No hay Rosa, no hay distrito seis”. Después de completar su estudio doctoral, decidió escribir cuatro cuentos más, que se convirtieron en una colección llamada Rosa en el distrito seis. Fue publicado en diciembre de 2004 y llego a ser incluido en la lista semanal de libros más vendidos en Canadá y en la lista HOMEBRU en Sudáfrica en 2006. En Noviembre de 2007, publico el libro “El círculo de la escritura” en Canadá y Sudáfrica. En 2010 “El círculo de la escritura” fue señalado como uno de los diez mejores libros de literatura de Suráfrica, su tierra natal y fue nominada por la Asociación de Estudios Africanos para el Premio de literatura de Aidoo-Snyder.
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Rozena Maart, Entretien: Louis Georges Tin, Rozena Maart, ©2016 Quaderna, mis en ligne le 1 avril 2016, url permanente : https://quaderna.org/entretien-louis-georges-tin-rozena-maart/