Slavery: Carson, Trump, and the Misuse of American History

Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary, Housing and Urban Development
Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary, Housing and Urban Development

I am re-posting here Jelani Cobb’s article (The New Yorker) written around the blunder of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Dr. Ben Carson, whereby he compared African slaves to immigrants. This is the same person who, out of the blue, claimed in 2013 that: “Obamacare is really … the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” The +20 million people who got insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) would beg to differ.
Anyhow, Dr. Carson will, most likely, not become president of the United States. The world will thus be probably a better place. Because despite his  acknowledged skills as a neurosurgeon, Carson is a mediocre student of history. Should he want to remedy that self-inflicted intellectual handicap, he would have to rethink slavery. And first of all, he must admit that the Slave Trade is “America’s Original Sin.” Consequently, it was not some migratory itch or urge that uprooted millions of Africans and dumped them on the shores of the “New World.” On the contrary, they were taken out and across the Atlantic Ocean in chains. Upon landing, and as Edward E. Baptist put it best, they toiled, from dawn to dusk and in sweat, tears and blood, for the “Making of American Capitalism.”

Tierno S. Bah

In referring to slaves as “immigrants,” Ben Carson followed a long-standing American tradition of eliding the ugliness that is part of the country’s history.

Earlier this week, Ben Carson, the somnolent surgeon dispatched to oversee the Department of Housing and Urban Development on behalf of the Trump Administration, created a stir when he referred to enslaved black people—stolen, trafficked, and sold into that status—as “immigrants” and spoke of their dreams for their children and grandchildren. In the ensuing hail of criticism, Carson doubled down, saying that it was possible for someone to be an involuntary immigrant. Carson’s defenses centered upon strict adherence to the definition of the word “immigrant” as a person who leaves one country to take up residence in another. This is roughly akin to arguing that it is technically possible to refer to a kidnapping victim as a “house guest,” presuming the latter term refers to a temporary visitor to one’s home. Carson had already displayed a propensity for gaffes during his maladroit Presidential candidacy, and it might be easy to dismiss his latest one as the least concerning element of having a neurosurgeon with no relevant experience in charge of housing policy were it not a stand-in for a broader set of concerns about the Trump Administration.

A week earlier, Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, had described historically black colleges and universities as pioneers in school choice—a view that can only co-exist with reality if we airbrush segregation into a kind of level playing field in which ex-slaves opted to attend all-black institutions rather than being driven to them as a result of efforts to preserve the supposed sanctity of white ones. The Trump Administration is not alone in proffering this rosy view of American racial history. Last week, in a story about changes being made at Thomas Jefferson‘s estate, Monticello, the Washington Post referred to Sally Hemings, the enslaved black woman who bore several of Jefferson’s children, as his “mistress”—a term that implies far more autonomy and consent than is possible when a woman is a man’s legal property. Last fall, the textbook publisher McGraw-Hill faced criticism for a section of a history book that stated, “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” The word “worker” typically carries the connotation of remuneration rather than lifelong forced labor and chattel slavery.

One part of the issue here is the eliding of the ugliness of the slave past in this country. This phenomenon is neither novel nor particularly surprising. The unwillingness to confront this narrative is tied not simply to the miasma of race but to something more subtle and, in the current atmosphere, more potentially treacherous: the reluctance to countenance anything that runs contrary to the habitual optimism and self-anointed sense of the exceptionalism of American life. It is this state-sanctioned sunniness from which the view of the present as a middle ground between an admirable past and a halcyon future springs. But the only way to sustain that sort of optimism is by not looking too closely at the past. And thus the past can serve only as an imperfect guide to the troubles of the present.

In his 1948 essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Robert Warshow wrote about the mid-century efforts to pressure studios to stop producing their profitable gangster movies. The concerns focussed partly upon the violence of the films but more directly upon the fear that these films offered a fundamentally pessimistic view of life and were therefore un-American. There is a neat through-line from those critics to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” idealism to the shopworn rhetoric of nearly every aspirant to even local public office that the nation’s “best days are ahead of us.” We are largely adherents of the state religion of optimism—and not of a particularly mature version of it, either. This was part of the reason Donald Trump’s sermons of doom were seen as so discordant throughout last year’s campaign. He offered followers a diet of catastrophe, all of it looming immediately if not already under way. He told an entire nation, in the most transparently demagogic of his statements, that he was the only one who could save it from imminent peril. And he was nonetheless elected President of the United States.

Strangely enough, many of us opted to respond to Trump’s weapons-grade pessimism in the most optimistic way possible, conjuring best-case scenarios in which he would simply be a modern version of Richard Nixon, or perhaps of Andrew Jackson. But he is neither of these. Last summer, as his rallies tipped toward violence and the rhetoric seemed increasingly jarring, it was common to hear alarmed commentators speak of us all being in “uncharted waters.” This was naïve, and, often enough, self-serving. For many of us, particularly those who reckon with the history of race, the true fear was not that we were on some unmapped terrain but that we were passing landmarks that were disconcertingly familiar. In response to the increasingly authoritarian tones of the executive branch, we plumbed the history of Europe in the twentieth century for clues and turned to the writings of Czeslaw Milosz and George Orwell. We might well have turned to the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin for the more direct, domestic version of this question but looked abroad, at least in part, as a result of our tacit consensus that tragedy is a foreign locale. It has been selectively forgotten that traits of authoritarianism neatly overlap with traits of racism visible in the recent American past.

The habitual tendency to excise the most tragic elements of history creates a void in our collective understanding of what has happened in the past and, therefore, our understanding of the potential for tragedy in the present. In 1935, when Sinclair Lewis wrote “It Can’t Happen Here,” it already was happening here, and had been since the end of Reconstruction. In 1942, the N.A.A.C.P. declared a “Double V” campaign—an attempt to defeat Fascism abroad and its domestic corollary of American racism.

Similarly, it was common in the days immediately following September 11th to hear it referred to as the nation’s first large-scale experience with terrorism—or at least the worst since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, staged by Timothy McVeigh. But the nation’s first anti-terrorism law was the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, designed to stall the attempts to terrorize emancipated slaves out of political participation. McVeigh’s bombing, which claimed the lives of a hundred and sixty-eight people, was not the worst act of terrorism in the United States at that point—it was not even the worst act of terrorism in the history of Oklahoma. Seventy-four years earlier, in what became known as the Tulsa Race Riot, the city’s black population was attacked and aerially bombed; at least three hundred people were killed. Such myopia thrives in the present and confounds the reasoning of the director of the FBI, James Comey, who refused to declare Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black congregants in a South Carolina church, done in hopes of sparking a race war, as an act of terrorism—a designation he did not withhold from Omar Mateen’s murderous actions in the Pulse night club, in Orlando.

The American capacity for tragedy is much broader and far more robust than Americans—most of us, anyway—recognize. Our sense of ourselves as exceptional, of our country as a place where we habitually avert the worst-case scenario, is therefore a profound liability in times like the present. The result is a failure to recognize the parameters of human behavior and, consequently, the signs of danger as they become apparent to others who are not crippled by such optimism. A belief that we are exempt from the true horrors of human behavior and the accompanying false sense of security have led to nearly risible responses to Trumpism.

It has become a cliché of each February to present the argument that “black history is American history,” yet that shopworn ideal has new relevance. A society with a fuller sense of history and its own capacity for tragedy would have spotted Trump’s zero-sum hustle from many miles in the distance. Without it, though, it’s easy to mistake the overblown tribulations he sold his followers for candor, not a con. The sense of history as a chart of increasing bounties enabled tremendous progress but has left Americans—most of us, anyway—uniquely unsuited to look at ourselves as we truly are and at history for what it is. Our failure to reckon with this past and the centrality of race within it has led us to broadly mistake the clichés of history for novelties of current events.

Jelani Cobb
The New Yorker

webAfriqa Portal back online!

The web server running the webAfriqa Internet Portal is back online after 63 days off-net.

Tierno S. Bah, Nuseum, Washington, DC. Dec. 13, 2016
Tierno S. Bah, Nuseum, Washington, DC. Dec. 13, 2016

All sites are now accessible. They include:

Please note that changes (configuration, design, an —obviously— content)  are under way.
Most notably, BlogGuinée is no longer embedded in webGuinée. It now has its own publishing resources:  IP Address, domain name, etc.

Also, we have not reached the goal for the migration to Drupal/WordPress and related costs. Therefore, the fundraising campaign goes on.

Thanks to all who have contributed so far. They are:

  • Pottal fii Ɓantal, USA
  • The Kouyaté Family (sisters and brothers, children of Capitaine Sangban Kouyaté)
  • Elhadj Baldé
  • Mamadou Barry
  • Ibrahima Bah
  • Alpha Bah
  • Abdoulaye Bah
  • Thierno Bah, “Jr.”
  • Thierno Bah, “Sr.”
  • Ibrahima Ɓouriya Diallo
  • Akanimo Uwan
  • An Anonymous donor

Previous campaigns were generously  funded by:

  • Amadou Baldé, Boston
  • Abdoulaye Souley Diallo, New York
  • Andrée Wynkoop, Ph.D. Washinton, D.C.
  • Lamine Baldé, Canada

Tierno S. Bah

White Nationalism: Conversation, No Dialog

John Hope Franklin & Alfred A. Moss Jr. From Slavery to Freedom A History of African Americans
John Hope Franklin & Alfred A. Moss Jr. From Slavery to Freedom A History of African Americans. McGraw-Hill; 9th edition, 2010. 736 pages
President Barack Obama and Pr. John Hope Franklin
President Barack Obama and Pr. John Hope Franklin

From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans stands as the magisterial study of the American black experience by the late Pr. John Hope Franklin (1915-2009) and Pr. Alfred A. Moss Jr. It was a revelation when it appeared in 1947. He followed up with several and many articles on Reconstruction, the martial culture of the antebellum South, runaway slaves and other subjects. Each one is a model of graceful prose, meticulously documented and free of bias or cant. The quality of Mr. Franklin’s writings made him the first black chairman of a history department at a predominantly white institution, Brooklyn College, in 1956. Later came appointments at the University of Chicago and Duke, and teaching assignments at Howard and Cambridge universities and elsewhere. Along the way he assisted Thurgood Marshall’s legal team in Brown v. Board of Education, served in government and accumulated more academic honors than we have space to mention. In 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

 I am reacting here briefly to the transcript of the interview called “A Frank Conversation with a White Nationalist.” Although not not an empty talk the exchange reads like a polite but vague conversation. It fails to turn into an articulate and meaningful dialog. Its flaw lays in its weakness and even lack of historical perspective.

It is true that the journalist, Al Letson, and his interlocutor, Richard Spencer, met the day after the Republican candidate’s shocking Electoral College victory that made Donald Trump president-elect of the USA.
However, the atmosphere of the electoral upset, it was incumbent on them to acknowledge and explore better the complexities of such loaded topics as identity, race, ethnicity, nationalism, etc. Instead, they went for clichés, wrong assumptions, and somewhat shallow personal stories.

For instance, the two interlocutors agree —not surprisingly— on the contribution of Blacks in the making of American culture. Unfortunately, and due to its entertainment undertones —not to forget the association with sports—, this recognition is nothing but a stereotype. Because we know that real power is not in music and athletic achievement; it is in economics, finances, banking, science, and technology.
So what do I see as hits and misses by Al Letson and Richard Spencer respectively?

Capturing Fugitive Slaves in California, ca. 1856
Capturing Fugitive Slaves in California, ca. 1856

Al Letson

As an investigative journalist, Mr. Letson did not bring up the stronger arguments. Instead, he limited himself in reminding Richard Spencer of the Ku Klux-Klan and its terrorist lynching raids. Oddly, a word search of the interview show that Al fails to mention Slavery altogether. Yet, African bondage has been often and appropriately called America’s original sin, by President Obama. Is it merely coincidental that it was during his stewardship that such movies as 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, Selma, etc., were produced and realized? Probably not. And it was obviously not serendipity but rather a fitting reunion when former President G.W. Bush joined Obama in the inauguration of the African-American Museum of History and Culture back in September The latter finished the project that the former had started.
Therefore, African-American media professionals like Al Letson ought to study as hard as they can African-American history, sociology, economy, political science, linguistics, etc. Such an activity nurtures the mind and helps—among other things—to debunk the myths of white supremacy. They  prepare and empower African-American scholars, journalists and artists as they seek to engage and refute the views of the likes of Richard Spencer.

The other Achille’s heel  in Al Letson argumentation is that he does not draw Richard Spencer’s attention that oppression engenders  resistance and rebellion. And that African-Americans stood up against slavery. They fought heroically to end it during the Civil War. They challenged Jim Crow. Under the leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and others, they defeated legal segregation in 1964 (Civil Rights Act) and in 1965 (Voting Rights Act). Incidentally, Richard Spencer refers to the 1964 legislation as Immigration. That’s a mistake.
The bottom line is that, through and through, Blacks were neither submissive nor passive. Strong personalities and fearless leaders emerged and blazed the trail of no-surrender, insurrection and entrepreneurship right in Antebellum America. Among them Toussaint-Louverture (Haiti), Abdul-Rahman (from my native Fuuta-Jalon), Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and so many others.Their successors fought for the end of the abomination of slavery and to assert their humanity. And Whites and Jews showed solidarity all along. Quakers, intellectuals, politicians joined the anti-slavery movement, which peaked with John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.…

Richard Spencer

 Mr. Spencer’s intellectual handicap and judgemental predicaments are many. I list here some of them.

First, he suffers from the delusion that Whites, Blacks, Asians, etc. constitute separate races. Never mind that such a prejudice is deep-seated. Genomics has dispelled it  thoroughly. There is only one species, and that’s Humans, aka Homo sapiens? Even it still applies in culture, politics and in administration, it does not hold water in nature and in biological sciences.

Second, Richard has the illusion that Whites are homogeneous. But history belies that wrong premise. The elites, rulers and states of Germanic, Latin and Slavs peoples and countries have fought many a battle for political and   economic power, as well as for cultural dominance. Three examples:

  • Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812
  • His battle against Wellington in Waterloo (1815)
  • Hiter’s occupation of Poland, France, and Nazi partition of the latter in two territories during World War II
  • …………………………………………………

Richard Spencer does not seem to know that without African —slave and colonial—labor, neither Europe nor America would have gained such prosperity. He ought to read Edward Baptiste’s The Half Has Never Been Told. Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. And  Thomas Piketty. Capital in the 21st Century.

Third, Richard Spencer idealizes and idolizes the history of Europe. He is entitled to his opinion, but not to the facts. Before it spread its tentacles on the Southern Hemisphere of the Globe, capitalism began to wreak havoc at home. Again Richard should read the masterpieces of Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and other works that depict the miseries brought upon Europe by the rise of capitalism. Writing in the 20th century, historian Eric Hobsbawn has laid bare the lows and highs of the Industrial Revolution.

Fourth, for all its scientific and cultural achievements Europe was the matrix of the first (1914-1918) and the second (1939-1945) World Wars. The horrors of WWI led European artists, writers and poets to express their rejection of Western civilization and to seek inspiration elsewhere. Their quest was fulfilled by the so-called primitive arts of Africa and Oceania. Thus was born surrealism, dadaism. Then the Harlem Renaissance flourished. It carried on and elevated centuries of blacks’ struggled against racism and exclusion in the United States of America. Young African and Caribbean scholars in Paris followed suit with the Négritude movement, a trailblazer of the emancipation of Africa from colonial rule.… In essence, the Surrealism—Harlem Renaissance—Négritude chain underscores how  societies and people  are interrelated and interdependent, irrespective of skin color or “racial” background… And, in particular, it illustrates the ties that bind the intelligentsia, as well as literary, artistic and scientific trends and currents, in time and space.
That said, on January 20, 2017 Mr. Trump will have executive control of the world’s largest and most sophisticated nuclear arsenal. Should that lethal armory be—accidentally or willfully—unleashed and retaliated against, it will wipe human life off the planet, sparing no one, including the advocates of racial supremacy or ethnic superiority.

In the end, Al Letson does not introduce Richard Spencer adequately to the audience of his podcast. We are only told that he was born in Massachusetts, grew up in Texas, and that he likes mountain biking! That’s not enough to profile the carrier of a hostile ideology. The interview could have disclosed further information about the white nationalist’s education, profession, intellectual background and political connections.

But since Al Leston and Richard Spencer remain in touch, let’s hope to learn more about this supporter of president-elect Donald Trump .

Tierno S. Bah

The Black Presidency

Michael Eric Dyson. The Black Presidency. Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America
Michael Eric Dyson. The Black Presidency. Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America

Michael Eric Dyson
The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 368 pages

For Marcia

President Barack Obama interviewed by Michael Eric Dyson, Oval Office, 2010
President Barack Obama interviewed by Michael Eric Dyson, Oval Office, 2010


  • Dedication
  • Introduction: The Burden of Representation
  • How to Be a Black President
  • “Invisible Man Got the Whole World Watching”
  • Black Presidency, Black Rhetoric
  • Re-Founding Father
  • The Scold of Black Folk
  • Dying to Speak of Race
  • Going Bulworth
  • Amazing Grace
  • Acknowledgments
  • President Obama’s Speeches and Statements on Race
  • Notes
  • Index
  • About the Author

The Burden Of Representation

Barack Obama‘s black presidency has shocked the symbol system of American politics and made the adjective in “representative democracy” mean something quite different than in the past. Obama provoked great hope and fear about what a black presidency might mean to our democracy. His biracial roots and black identity have been a beguiling draw and also a spur to belligerent reaction. White and black folk, and brown and beige ones, too, have had their views of race and politics turned topsy-turvy. What many Americans of all colors believe is that race fundamentally defines America and is a dividing line drawn in blood through the nation’s moral map. Many metaphors of race drape the nation’s political framework: Barack Obama argued in his famous March 2008 race speech in Philadelphia that slavery is the nation’s original sin, and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice claimed that racism is our country’s “birth defect.” 1 Race is the most durable link in the nation’s chain of destiny; it is at once a damning indictment of our quest for real democracy and true justice, and also a resilient category of individual and “group identity—one that cannot be reduced to either mere pathology or collective pride. Race is both the midwife of glorious achievements like jazz and the black freedom movement and the abortive instrument of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. Race is the thing we cannot seem to do without—and the thing that we cannot seem to get rid of.
Race is the defining feature of our forty-fourth president’s two terms in office. Obama’s presidency is a lens to sharpen the details of American ideas about race and democracy. His presidency also raises the question of how much closer the election of a single black man may bring us to a more just and inclusive society. Barack Obama has finally made transparent the idea that our country cannot fully flourish without embracing a black identity that is the quintessential expression of the American character. What we all intuitively sense is that this presidency turns on their ear all the ways we have historically looked at presidencies, and perhaps, even more broadly, at our very democracy. Obama certainly bears what James Baldwin called “the burden of representation.” 2
That brilliant phrase refers to the weight and meaning  of blackness for individual and collective racial bodies, and for literal and symbolic bodies too. This presidency, unlike all others before it, is analyzed and understood through our obsession with race in the body of the president himself and in the “psyche of the nation he governs. A black presidency is undeniably interracial in the same way that Obama’s body is composed of black and white genes. Obama’s presidency is the symbolic love child of Notes on the State of Virginia and The Fire Next Time 3.
Thomas Jefferson and James Baldwin gaze at us from immortal perches separated by two centuries and two races locked in fateful struggle. But Jefferson and Baldwin are separated only by time and race; they are united in their unrelenting sexual and political preoccupation with the “other.” Jefferson and Baldwin can finally be joined in the full complexity of a conversation about race and American politics across time—a conversation that is constantly evoked but never fully engaged,  as if it were held behind doors that are locked to everyone who would participate. And yet Obama is snared in a fascinating paradox: a man seen by many observers as the key to the locked doors of conversation about race is most reluctant to take charge and unlock the treasures of racial insight and wisdom.
What we learn about Obama says a lot about what we learn about ourselves; his racial reality is our racial reality. And it is never, ever static. That truth becomes apparent when we understand just how much we as a nation project our expectations and frustrations onto Obama’s presidency, and how he effortlessly represents our deepest doubts and our most resilient hopes. We must concentrate on what Obama says and does—on what speech he gives or what policy he enacts or fails to implement. We must also grapple with what Obama literally means, what his ideas amount to, what veins of ideology or sources of racial imagination he taps when he speaks, and where we travel as a nation by welcoming or resisting the social pathways his presence lays before us.
Obama’s presidency represents the paradox of American representation. Obama represents for all of us because he stands as the symbol of America to the world. He also represents to the American citizenry proof of progress in a nation that has never before embraced a black commander in chief. Yet a third sense of representation has a racial tinge, because  Obama is also a representative of a black populace that, until his election, had been excluded from the highest reach of political representation. These three meanings of representation are the core of Obama’s paradoxical relationship to the citizens of the country he represents: he is at once a representative of the country, a representative of the change the country has endured, and a representative of the people to whom change has been long denied and for whom that change has meant the most.
Of course critics may read “black presidency” as a term that denies Obama the agency and individuality that mark genuine social and moral achievement. To say “black presidency” is already  to have “reduced Obama’s presidency to something less than any other presidency. But the term also imbues the presidency for the first time with the true promise of democracy on which this country was founded. The paradox of representation is thus two-sided: a member of a minority group deliberately excluded from opportunity now stands at the peak of power to represent the nation. The idea of race both qualifies and enhances the representative stature of the presidency. When it comes to race, representation in America is always an internal barometer of privilege, through the exclusion of blacks and others, while at the same time, given how central to our lives race has become, it is also an external barometer of justice.
In The Black Presidency I examine Barack Obama’s political journey to tell a story about the politics of race in America—our racial limits and possibilities, our tortured past and our complicated present, our moral conflicts and aspirations, our cherished national myths, and our contradictory political behavior. The cultural impact of Obama’s lean black presidential frame will be far more enduring than partisan debates about his political career. Obama has changed the presidency itself; the ultimate seat of power has now been occupied for two terms by a man whose body translates in concrete terms our most precious democratic ideals. Obama gives African legs to the Declaration of Independence and a black face to the Constitution. Obama’s black presidency cannot be erased by political will even as Congress thwarts his legislation. The paradox of representation Obama symbolizes is not up for judicial review even as the Supreme Court troubles the black vote that helped to sweep him into office.
The existence of a black presidency signals for some people an end to racial categories that have plagued America since 1619. The post-racial urge rises in a society seeking to avoid the pain of overcoming its racist legacy. Obama’s presidency has defeated the post-racial myth, not with less blackness but with more of it, though it is the kind of blackness that insinuates and signifies while hiding in plain sight. The presidency is now permanently marked by difference, one that transcends Obama himself and may pave the way for a female president whose gender will be far less noteworthy for Obama’s having been the first black president.
A black presidency and the politics of a lived American democracy are like a transmission and its motor: the motor creates the power and the transmission makes the power usable. A black presidency necessarily engages the identity and meaning of an American democracy that was for so long an efficient engine for excluding black participation. Some may worry that the term “black presidency” is code for a delegitimized presidency that undermines democratic institutions and ideas. But Obama’s achievement gestures toward  what the state had not allowed at the highest level before his emergence: equality of opportunity, fairness in democracy, and justice in society. Our system of government gains more legitimacy when it accommodates demands for justice and adjusts to the requirements of formal equality. Obama’s presidency, paradoxically, both critiques and affirms a political order that stymied the ambitions of other black politicians—an order he now heads.
I grapple in The Black Presidency with what happens to the psyche and racial identity of a nation when a two-century-old white monopoly on the presidency is broken for two consecutive terms. Then, too, we must ask how and what the blackness of Obama signifies to other blacks.
Obama’s eight years in office will be referred to as the only black presidency until another black person is elected. If the first line in his obituary reads “first (and perhaps only) black president,” is he forever fixed in the American mind with a racial reference that he labored hard to overcome? Obama lives with a burden and possibility that no other black person in our history, perhaps in world history, has ever had to shoulder.
A brief survey of other figures might shed light on Obama’s unique historical situation. Margaret Thatcher looms large 4. Thatcher-as-prime-minister is the nearest analogy we have to Obama-as-president. Of course, the biggest difference between Thatcher and Obama is that Thatcher was “overtly ideological and Obama is anti-ideological, the very reason he was electable. There are other differences. Is Thatcher’s premiership, these many years later, evaluated as “a woman’s leadership” or “the Thatcher Years”? For the first few years of her tenure, not to mention before her election, when she was opposition leader—imagine an American woman in the late seventies as the political and ideological leader of one of our two ruling parties—critics mused about how or whether her gender determined her style of governing. But Thatcher was so hard-line, in truth, heartless, in so many areas—in other words, so stereotypically “masculine”—that in time she was thought of no longer primarily as a woman but as a steely power player, albeit a female one: “the Iron Lady.” 5 (Can we imagine a time when Obama would not be seen as black but merely as president? For that matter, should Hillary Clinton or another woman become president, can we imagine her beyond gender on these shores?) Still, by the time she lost power in 1990, British women were not, because of her position, living in a post-gender world, and they still are not today 6. Yet some of us naïvely believe that Obama’s rise has removed race from the national landscape.
Other analogous figures come to mind, including Benjamin Disraeli, the first Jewish prime minister in the United Kingdom, and John F. Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president. Each offers instructive  similarities. Disraeli’s Jewish identity forced him to assure the largely Christian constituency in nineteenth-century Britain that he would not favor Jewish citizens 7. In the same vein, Obama has not favored blacks, opting, arguably, to underplay their interests in order to reinforce his racial neutrality. Kennedy assured American citizens that he would not take his marching orders from the Vatican 8. Obama went him one better: he pushed aside the former, if greatly weakened, black political pope, Jesse Jackson, and helped to enshrine a new one, Al Sharpton, while keeping at a distance the Congressional Black Caucus, the archbishops of black politics.
Disraeli and Kennedy had, as did Thatcher, their whiteness, an escape hatch that Obama lacks. If boxer Jack Johnson possessed “unforgivable blackness,” then Obama is plagued by inescapable blackness 9. Disraeli soothed the fears of the masses about his Jewishness, Thatcher toned down her femaleness, and Kennedy downplayed his Catholicism and emphasized instead the catholicity of his politics. All three appealed in their own way to the under-girding whiteness that bound them to their constituencies beyond gender and religious difference. Yet color trumps all for Obama; to have one’s presidency examined through the lens of race before any other is as different as Obama’s election itself.
Bill Clinton’s case is not quite like the other figures’, each of whom possesses a quality—ethnicity, gender, religion—that makes their political experiences analogous to Obama’s presidency. But the example of Clinton, steeped in the cultural signifiers of blackness rather than race, still offers an intriguing parallel to consider 10. Toni Morrison and Chris Rock dubbed Clinton the nation’s “first black president”; the white politician from Arkansas shrewdly manipulated the meanings and symbols of blackness to his advantage 11. Clinton strategically embraced blackness to gain the black vote while signaling white suburban voters that he would not bow to Jesse Jackson’s leadership 12. Before his impeachment, Clinton “signed a crime bill that sparked a deadly spike in black incarceration and signed into legislation welfare reform that cruelly cut black bodies unable to find living-wage work from public assistance 13. After his political trial by fire, Clinton embraced Jesse Jackson and played upon black sympathy as smoothly as he blew his sax. Clinton prefigured Obama’s even more complicated use of black ideas and black identity while occupying the Oval Office.
Obama, however, stands alone as the only black person to occupy the world’s pinnacle of power. What he does, says, and means is as important to the future as it is to our own moment. We must grapple with Obama in the present to set the baseline for his interpretation in the years to come. The Black Presidency is my contribution to that goal.
In an Oval Office interview the president granted me for this book, he told me, “In the same way that some of the people who don’t like me probably don’t like me because of race, there are some people who probably like me because of race and put up with me in ways that they wouldn’t if I weren’t African American—the folks in African American neighborhoods who identify with me even if they disagree with my policies. And my hope would be that when you wash out those aspects of it, that people are judging me on what I do as opposed to who I am.”
The Black Presidency wrestles with the words and actions of a singular human being who rose to the summit of American power; it also measures the racial currents his life captures and conveys, and offers the president informed and principled criticism.
Finally, this book asks, and engages, every complex question suggested by its subject. Is it reasonable to expect more than Obama has offered black people and the American public? What are the salient issues provoked by a black presidency, and how  does it affect our ideas of race? How does Obama’s relationship to his black elders reflect generational conflicts in fighting for progress in black America? How does Obama’s racial identity influence our understanding of his duties? How does the way he speaks reflect the “black cultures that molded him? What can we learn from his major race speeches about the ideas that shaped him and the way he confronts racial crises? How does Obama respond to the plague of police brutality that has swept the nation—and the revived racial terror that stalks the land? How does Obama’s habit of scolding black America reinforce harmful ideas about black culture? How does Obama’s emphasis on law and order, personal responsibility, and respectability politics obscure the structural features of black suffering? What—and who—would it sound like if Obama cut loose and said what he really believes? In The Black Presidency I answer these and other questions while confronting Barack Obama’s—America’s first—black presidency.”

1. Barack Obama, “A More Perfect Union,” in The Speech: Race and Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union,” ed. T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2009), p. 237; Condoleezza Rice, interview on Face the Nation, CBS, November 27, 2011, .

2. Quoted in Henry Louis Gates Jr., Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 18.
3. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, annotated ed. (New York: Penguin Classics, 1998); James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963; repr., New York: Vintage, 1993).”
4. John Campbell, The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer’s Daughter to Prime Minister, abridged ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2011); Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).
5. Moore, Margaret Thatcher, pp. 298–333; Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (London: Verso Press, 1988).
6. When Baroness Thatcher died in 2013, President Obama issued an official statement and noted her gender as a defining element of her legacy: “As a grocer’s daughter who rose to become Britain’s first female prime minister, she stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.” “Statement from the President on the Passing of Baroness Margaret Thatcher,” April 8, 2013.
7. Although Disraeli was baptized into the Church of England at the age of twelve, his Jewish heritage remained a central feature of his existence and identity. See Adam Kirsch, Benjamin Disraeli (New York: Schocken Books, 2008). Thanks to historian Gerald Horne for suggesting the parallel between Disraeli and Obama in a brief, serendipitous conversation in an airport.
8. Thomas J. Carty, A Catholic in the White House? Religion, Politics, and John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Campaign (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). For a fascinating comparison of Obama and Kennedy, see Robert C. Smith, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and the Politics of Ethnic Incorporation and Avoidance (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013).
9. Geoffrey C. Ward, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).
10. Dewayne Wickham, Bill Clinton and Black America (New York: One World/Ballantine, 2002).
11. Toni Morrison, “The Talk of the Town: Comment,” The New Yorker, October 5, 1998, pp. 31–32. Chris Rock said in an interview in the August 1998 issue of Vanity Fair that Clinton was “the first black president.” He also said that Clinton was “the most scrutinized man in history, just as a black person would be. He spends a hundred dollar bill, they hold it up to the light.” See Jonathan Tilove, “Before Bill Clinton Was the ‘First Black President,’” Newhouse News Service, March 6, 2007, . In 2008, in Time magazine, when asked if she regretted referring to Clinton as the first black president, Morrison said that people “misunderstood that phrase. I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.” See Toni Morrison, 10 Questions for Toni Morrison, Time, May 7, 2008. Indeed, in The New Yorker, Morrison wrote: “Years ago . . . one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. According to Morrison, Clinton’s blackness became even clearer when “the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the (impeachment) persecution.” Morrison, “Talk of the Town,” p. 32. During a 2008 Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina televised live on CNN, journalist Joe Johns asked Obama if Clinton was the first black president.
“Well, I think Bill Clinton did have an enormous affinity with the African-American community, and still does,” Obama said. “And I think that’s well earned . . . (O)ne of the things that I’m always inspired by—no, I’m—this I’m serious about. I’m always inspired by young men and women who grew up in the South when segregation was still taking place, when, you know, the transformations that are still incomplete but at least had begun had not yet begun. And to see (those) transformations in their own lives(,) I think that is powerful, and it is hopeful, because what it indicates is that people can change.
“And each successive generation can, you know, create a different vision of how, you know, we have to treat each other. And I think Bill Clinton embodies that. I think he deserves credit for that. Now, I haven’t . . . I have to say that, you know, I would have to, you know, investigate more of Bill’s dancing abilities. You know, and some of this other stuff before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother.” Wolf Blitzer said, “Let’s let Senator Clinton weigh in on that.” Hillary Clinton then humorously retorted, “Well, I’m sure that can be arranged.” “Part 3 of CNN Democratic Presidential Debate,” January 21, 2008.
12. Kenneth O’Reilly, Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton (New York: Free Press, 1995); Manning Marable, The Great Wells of Democracy: Reconstructing Race and Politics in the 21st Century (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2002), pp. 77–84.
13. President Clinton admitted, both in a foreword to a book on criminal justice and in a speech before the 2015 NAACP convention—the day after President Obama at the same convention offered his landmark speech denouncing mass incarceration—that his policies had been wrong and harmful. “Plainly, our nation has too many people in prison and for too long—we have overshot the mark. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, we now have 25 percent of its prison population, and an emerging bipartisan consensus now understands the need to do better.” Clinton also argued that it is “time to take a clear-eyed look at what worked, what didn’t, and what produced unintended, long-lasting consequences.” He said that “some are in prison who shouldn’t be, others are in for too long, and without a plan to educate, train, and reintegrate them into our communities, we all suffer.” See “William J. Clinton: Foreword,” April 27, 2015,  (from the book Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice, ed. Inimai Chettiar and Michael Waldman (New York: Brennan Center for Justice, 2015)). In his 2015 NAACP speech, Clinton conceded his error as president: “Yesterday, the president spoke a long time and very well on criminal justice reform. But I want to say a few words about it. Because I signed a bill that made the problem worse and I want to admit it.” See Eric Levitz, “Bill Clinton Admits His Crime Law Made Mass Incarceration ‘Worse,’”, July 15, 2015, . For the deleterious (racial) consequences of welfare reform, see, by Peter Edelman (who resigned as the assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services in September 1996 in protest of Clinton’s signing the welfare reform bill), “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done,” The Atlantic, March 1997. Also see Dylan Matthews, “Welfare Reform Took People Off the Rolls. It Might Have Also Shortened Their Lives,” Washington Post, June 18, 2013; Zenthia Prince, “Welfare Reform Garnered for Black Women a Hard Time and a Bad Name,” Afro, March 18, 2015, ; and Bryce Covert, “Clinton Touts Welfare Reform. Here’s How It Failed,” The Nation, September 6, 2012.”

Maryse Condé. “Nous préférons la pauvreté dans la liberté, à l’opulence dans l’esclavage”

Maryse Condé. La vie sans fards.
Première Partie
Chapitre 5. — « Nous préférons la pauvreté dans la liberté, à l’opulence dans l’esclavage »
Sékou Touré

Maryse Condé
Maryse Condé

Tout se passa très vite. Grâce à Sékou Kaba, que mon état et le tour que prenait ma vie comblaient de joie, je fus nommée professeur de français au Collège de Filles de Bellevue. Le collège était sis dans un joli bâtiment colonial niché dans un fouillis de verdure à la périphérie de Conakry. Il était dirigé par une charmante Martiniquaise, Mme Batchily, car en Guinée comme en Côte d’Ivoire, les Antillais se retrouvaient à tous les niveaux de l’enseignement.
Cependant, ceux qui se pressaient en Guinée n’avaient rien de commun avec ceux qui travaillaient en Côte d’Ivoire. Ils ne formaient pas une communauté bon enfant, surtout soucieuse de fabriquer du boudin et des aceras. Hautement politisés, marxistes  bien évidemment, ils avaient traversé l’océan pour aider de leur compétence le jeune Etat qui en avait grand besoin. Quand ils se réunissaient chez l’un ou chez l’autre, autour d’une tasse de quinquéliba (décidément ce thé possédait toutes les vertus !) ils discutaient de la pensée de Gramsci ou de celle de Marx et Hegel. Je ne sais pourquoi je me rendis à une de ces assemblées. Elle se tenait dans la villa d’un Guadeloupéen nommé Mac Farlane, professeur de philosophie, marié à une fort jolie Française.
— Il paraît que vous êtes une Boucolon ! me glissa-t-il courtoisement à ma vive surprise. J’ai grandi à deux pas de chez vous, rue Dugommier. J’ai bien connu Auguste.
Auguste était mon frère, mon aîné de vingt-cinq ans, avec lequel je n’avais jamais eu grand contact. Il était l’orgueil de la famille, car il était le premier agrégé ès lettres de la Guadeloupe. Malheureusement, il ne professa jamais aucune ambition politique et vécut toute sa vie à Asnières dans le total anonymat d’un pavillon de banlieue. On comprend si le rapprochement avec lui me terrifia ! Il me semblait que quoi que je fasse, j’étais percée à jour. Si je n’y prenais garde, les « grands nègres » risquaient de me rattraper.
— Votre mari est à Paris ? poursuivit-il.
Je bredouillai qu’il y terminait ses études.
— De quoi?
— Il veut être comédien et suit les cours du Conservatoire de la rue Blanche.
A l’expression de son visage, je sus le peu de cas qu’il faisait de ce genre de vocation. D’ailleurs, il s’éloigna et nous infligea pendant une heure sa lecture de je ne sais plus quel essai politique de je ne sais plus qui.

Désormais, j’évitai soigneusement ces cercles de cuistres de gauche et décidai de vivre sans lien avec ma communauté d’origine. Je ne tins pas entièrement parole et fis une exception. Des deux soeurs de Mme Batchily qui lui avaient emboîté le pas en Guinée, l’une d’entre elles, Yolande Joseph-Noëlle, belle et distinguée, était agrégée d’histoire et enseignait au lycée de Donka. Elle étaie aussi la présidence de l’association des professeurs d’Histoire de Guinée. Malgré tous ses titres, nous devînmes crès proches. Comme plusieurs autres compatriotes, nous étions logées à la résidence Boulbinet, deux tours de dix étages, anachroniquement modernes, qui s’élevaient, inattendues, face à la mer, dans un modeste quartier de pêcheurs. L’ascenseur ne fonctionnant pas, Yolande s’arrêtait chez moi au premier étage avant de commencer l’escalade jusqu’au dixième où elle habitait.

Louis Sénainon Béhanzin
Louis Sénainon Béhanzin

Elle vivait avec Louis, authentique prince Béninois, descendant direct du roi Gbéhanzin, grand résistant à la colonisation francaise. Il fut exilé à Fort-de-France en Martinique avant de mourir à Blida en Algérie. Louis possédait un véritable musée d’objets ayant appartenu à son ailleul : pipe, tabatière, ciseaux à ongles. Il possédait surtout d’innombrables photos du vieux souverain. Ce visage à la fois intelligent et déterminé me faisait rêver. A rna surprise il s’imposa à moi des années plus tard et me conduisit à écrire mon roman Les derniers rois mages. J’imaginai son exil à la Martinique, les railleries des gens : « Un roi africain ? Ka sa yé sa ? »
J’imaginai surtout sa terreur devant la violence de nos orages et le déchaînement de nos cyclones auxquels il n’était pas habitué. Je lui donnai une descendance antillaise en la personne de Spero et je me plus à lui prêter un journal.
Louis Gbéhanzin était un homme extrêmement intelligent, professeur [d’histoire] de mathématiques lui aussi, au lycée de Donka. Il avait l’oreille de Sékou Touré et était le grand artisan de la réforme de l’enseignement, oeuvre colossale qui, en fin de compte, ne fut jamais menée à terme. Bien que l’idée ne m’effleura jamais de m’ouvrir à Yolande, j’éprouvais pour elle une profonde admiration et une réelle amitié. Son franc-parler me faisait du bien. Car elle me tançait souvent vertement :
— Comment pouvez-vous mener une vie pareillement
végétative alors que vous êtes si intelligente ?
Etais-je encore intelligente ?

Personne ne pouvait deviner combien j’étais malheureuse, au point souvent de souhaiter la mort. Yolande et Louis, par exemple, attribuaient ma morosité et ma passivité à l’absence de mon mari. En effet, Condé était retourné à Paris pour sa dernière année au conservatoire de la rue Blanche. Il avait accueilli avec fatalisme l’annonce de ma grossesse.
— Cette fois, ce sera un garçon ! avait-il assuré comme si cela rendait la pilule moins amère. Et nous l’appellerons Alexandre.
— Alexandre ! m’étonnais-je en me rappelant les foudres qu’avait causées mon choix du prénom occidental de Sylvie-Anne ! Mais, ce n’est pas Malenké.
— Qu’importe ! rétorqua-t-il. C’est un prénom de conquérant et mon fils sera un conquérant.
Nous ne devions pas avoir de fils ensemble alors qu’il en eut deux ou trois d’une seconde épouse.

Quand Eddy m’écrivit que Condé avait pour maîtresse une comédienne martiniquaise, je dois avouer que cela me laissa totalement indifférente, car je ne pensais qu’à Jacques, me désespérant encore et encore de l’absurdité de ma conduite. Pourquoi l’avais-je quitté ? Je ne me comprenais plus.

La veille de la rentrée au collège de Bellevue, Mme Batchily réunit les enseignants dans la salle des professeurs. C’était tous des « expatriés ». On comptait un fort contingent de Français communistes, des réfugiés politiques de l’Afrique subsaharienne ou du Maghreb et deux Malgaches. Devant un gobelet d’ersatz de café, tout en grignotant des gâteaux ultra-secs, elle nous expliqua que nos élèves appartenaient à des familles où les filles n’avaient jamais reçu d’instruction secondaire. Parfois, leurs mères avaient suivi une ou deux années d’école primaire et savaient tout au plus signer leur nom. Elles se sentaient par conséquent mal à l’aise sur les bancs d’un collège et auraient préféré se trouver à la cuisine ou sur le marché à vendre de la pacotille. Il fallait donc redoubler de soin, d’attention pour les intéresser à notre enseignement.

Vu l’état d’esprit dans lequel je me trouvais, ces propos n’eurent aucun effet sur moi. Alors que je devais, dans les années qui suivirent, porter tant d’attention aux jeunes, je ne m’intéressai pas du tout à mes élèves que je jugeais amorphes et sottes. Mes cours devinrent vite une ennuyeuse corvée. Mon enseignement se réduisait à des exercices d’élocution, d’orthographe et de grammaire. Au mieux, j’expliquais quelques extraits d’ouvrages choisis par de mystérieux « Comités de l’Éducation et de la Culture » qui dans le cadre de la réforme décidaient de tout. En français, leur sélection était basée non sur la valeur littéraire des textes, mais sur leur contenu sociologique. C’est ainsi qu’à ma surprise, La prière d’un petit enfant nègre du poète guadeloupéen Guy Tirolien figurait dans tous les manuels « révisés ». Quand je n’étais pas au collège, je ne lisais pas, les signes dansant sur la page devant mes yeux. Je n’écoutais pas la radio, ne supportant plus les sempiternelles vociférations des griots. Tout doucement, je prenais le pays en grippe. J’attendais les rêves de la nuit qui me ramèneraient vers Jacques.

Seuls Denis et Sylvie me tenaient en vie. C’était des enfants adorables. Ils couvraient de baisers mon visage, toujours triste, tellement fermé (c’est de cette époque que j’ai désappris le sourire) et que leurs caresses assombrissaient encore.

De la terrasse de mon appartement de Boulbinet, j’assistais chaque jour à un spectacle étonnant. A 17h30, le président Sékou Touré, tête nue, beau comme un astre dans ses grands boubous blancs, passait sur le front de mer, conduisant lui-même sa Mercedes 280 SL décapotée. Il était acclamé par les pêcheurs, abandonnant leurs filets sur le sable pour se bousculer au bord de la route.

Apparemment, j’étais la seule à trouver navrant le
contraste entre cet homme tout-puissant et les pauvres hères faméliques et haillonneux, ses sujets, qui l’applaudissaient.

— Quel bel exemple de démocratie ! me répétaient
à l’envi Yolande et Louis.
— Il n’a pas de gardes du corps ! surenchérissait
Sékou Kaba.

On le sait, la Guinée était le seul pays d’Afrique francophone à se vanter de sa révolution socialiste. Les nantis ne roulaient plus en voitures françaises, mais en Skoda tchèques ou en Volga russes. Les chanceux qui partaient en vacances à l’étranger s’envolaient dans
des Ilyouchine 18 ou des Tupolev.

Dans chaque quartier s’élevait un magasin d’État où l’on devait obligatoirement faire ses achats, puisque le commerce privé avait été aboli. Ces magasins d’État étaient toujours insuffisamment ravitaillés. Aussi, le troc était-il la seule arme dont nous disposions pour lutter contre les rationnements et les incessantes pénuries. Les précieuses denrées alimentaires s’échangeaient sous le manteau parce que la pratique du troc était interdite soi-disant pour décourager le marché noir. Il y avait partout des inspecteurs, des contrôleurs que tout le monde redoutait.

J’appris à éviter le lait concentré tchèque, qui donnait des diarrhées mortelles aux enfants (l’une d’entre elles avait failli emporter Sylvie) ; à me méfier du sucre russe qui ne fondait pas, même dans des liquides bouillants. Le fromage, la farine et les matières grasses étaient pratiquement introuvables.

J’ai souvent raconté comment m’est venu le titre de mon premier roman, largement inspiré par ma vie en Guinée. Heremakhonon, expression malenké qui signifie « Attends le bonheur ». C’était le nom du magasin d’état situé dans le quartier de Boulbinet. Il était toujours vide. Toutes les réponses des vendeuses commençaient par « demain », comme un espoir jamais réalisé.

« Demain, il y aura l’huile ! »
« Demain, il y aura la tomate ! »
« Demain, il y aura la sardine ! »
« Demain, il y aura le riz ! »

Le souvenir de deux évènements se dispute ma mémoire en ce début de l’année 1961, évènements dissemblables qui prouvent que le coeur ne sait pas hiérarchiser. Il place au même niveau l’universel et le particulier. Le 4 janvier, Jiman que, grâce à Sékou Kaba, j’avais fait venir de la Côte Ivoire, repartit chez lui après quelques mois en Guinée. Il ne supportait pas les pénuries qui affectaient son travail de cuisinier.
— Un pays qui n’a pas l’huile ! répétait-il, outré.
Sans doute n’avait-il pas suffisamment médité la belle et célèbre phrase de Sékou Touré :

« Nous préférons la pauvreté dans la liberté à l’opulence dans les fers. »

En tous cas, peu m’importe qu’il soit sans nul doute un vil « contre-révolutionnaire » selon l’expression consacrée ! Sur les quais, au pied du paquebot qui le ramenait vers la sujétion dorée de son pays, je versai un flot de larmes en me retenant de le supplier de ne pas m’abandonner lui aussi.

Le 17 du même mois, Patrice Lumumba fut assassiné au Congo. A cette occasion, la Guinée décréta un deuil national de quatre jours. J’aimerais écrire que je fus bouleversée par cet évènement. Hélas non ! J’ai déjà dit le peu d’intérêt que j’avais porté aux premières convulsions du Congo ex-belge. Le nom de Lumumba ne signifiait pas grand-chose pour moi.

Président Sékou Touré accueille le Premier ministre du Congo-Léopoldville, Patrice Lumumba, à Conakry en août 1960
Président Sékou Touré accueille le Premier ministre du Congo-Léopoldville, Patrice Lumumba, à Conakry en août 1960

Je me rendis néanmoins à la Place des Martyrs où avait lieu une cérémonie d’hommage au disparu. Je me glissai dans la foule compacte maintenue par des barrières et des hommes en armes à bonne distance de l’estrade où prenaient place les officiels. On aurait cru assister à un concours d’élégance. Les ministres, sous-ministres et dignitaires du régime étaient accompagnés de leurs épouses drapées dans des pagnes de prix. Certaines étaient coiffées de volumineux mouchoirs de tête. D’autres exhibaient des coiffures compliquées : tresses en rosace ou en triangle. Cette impression d’assister à un spectacle était renforcée par les applaudissements et les acclamations de la foule à chaque fois qu’un couple de notables descendait de sa voiture et se dirigeait vers l’estrade. Sous un dais d’apparat, Sékou Touré, vêtu de ses boubous blancs si seyants, fit un discours qui dura des heures. Il tira les leçons de la tragédie congolaise, répétant avec emphase les mots de Capitalisme et d’Oppression.

Cependant je ne sais pourquoi, ces paroles sonnaient le creux. Je me demandais où était cette révolution guinéenne dont il parlait.

Lire l’article de Victor Du Bois “Guinea: Estrangement Between the Leaders and the People”. — T.S. Bah

Je dus attendre la médiation de la littérature, la parution d’Une Saison au Congo d’Aimé Césaire en 1965 pour m’émouvoir vraiment de ce drame et en comprendre la portée.
Je n’étais pas encore suffisamment « politisée» sans doute.

Les privations qui assombrissaient notre existence, je les aurais supportées si elles avaient affecté l’ensemble de la société dans un effort collectif de construire une nation libre. Cela aurait même pu être exaltant. Or ce n’était visiblement pas le cas. Chaque jour davantage, la société se divisait en deux groupes, séparés par une mer infranchissable de préjugés. Alors que nous bringuebalions dans des autobus bondés et prêts à rendre l’âme, de rutilantes Mercedes à fanions nous dépassaient transportant des femmes harnachées, couvertes de bijoux, des hommes fumant avec ostentation des havanes bagués à leurs initiales. Alors que nous faisions la queue dans nos magasins d’Etat pour nous procurer quelques kilos de riz, dans des boutiques où tout se payait en devises, des privilégiés s’offraient du caviar, du foie gras, et des vins fins.

Un jour, Sékou Kaba parvint fièrement à obtenir une invitation à un concert privé à la Présidence. C’était la première fois que j’allais me mêler au monde des privilégiés. J’empruntai à Gnalengbè un boubou afin de cacher mon ventre et suspendis autour de mon cou mon collier grenn dô. Ainsi fagotée, j’allai écouter « l’Ensemble de Musique Traditionnelle de la République ». En vedette, se produisait Kouyate Sory Kandia. Kouyate Sory Kandia était surnommé « L’Étoile du Mandé» et méritait pleinement cette hyperbole.

Sory Kandia Kouyaté
Sory Kandia Kouyaté

Aucune voix ne pouvait se comparer à la sienne. Il était entouré d’autres griots et de plus d’une trentaine de musiciens qui jouaient de la kora, du balafon, de la guitare africaine, du tambour d’aisselle. Je n’avais jamais assisté à pareil spectacle. C’était éblouissant, inoubliable, incomparable. A l’entracte, les spectateurs refluèrent vers le bar. Je fus profondément choquée de voir ces musulmans en grands boubous se gorger de champagne rosé et fumer avec ostentation des havanes.

“Massane Cissé” Album La Voix de La Révolution par Sory Kandia Kouyaté.

Timidement, Sékou Kaba me conduisit vers un groupe et me présenta au Président, à son frère Ismaël, éminence grise du régime qu’entouraient quelques ministres. Ces derniers ne m’accordèrent aucune attention. Seul, le président feignit de s’intéresser à moi. Sékou Touré était encore plus beau de près que de loin avec ses yeux obliques et ce sourire charmeur des hommes à femmes. Quand Sékou Kaba eut fait les présentations, il murmura :
— Ainsi, vous venez de la Guadeloupe ! Vous êtes donc une petite soeur que l’Afrique avait perdue et qu’elle retrouve.
]’ai rapporté cette conversation dans Heremakhonon quand le dictateur Malimwana entre dans la classe de Veronica et s’entretient avec elle. Mais je ne possédais pas l’aplomb de cette dernière qui osa remplacer le mot « perdue » par le mot « vendue » et je me bornai à grimacer un sourire complaisant.

Sékou Touré s’écarta de nous et continua sa route vers d’autres invités. L’adulation dont on l’ entourait était palpable. On lui baisait les mains. Certains ployaient le genou devant lui et il les aidait à se relever avec affabilité. On entendait en arrière-plan les récitations des griots qui s’enflaient par instant comme un choeur d’opéra. Une sonnerie annonça la fin de l’entracte et nous reprîmes place dans la salle de concert.

A suivre. Chapître 6 : « Tu enfanteras dans la douleur » »

Du même auteur :

Aux Éditions Robert Laffont

  • Un saison à Rihata, 1981
  • Ségou, vol. 1, Les Murailles de terre, 1984
  • Ségou, vol. 2, La terre en miettes, 1985
  • La vie scélérate, 1987, Prix de l’Académie française
  • En attendant le bonheur : Heremakhonon, 1988
  • La colonie du Nouveau Monde, 1993
  • La migration des coeurs, 1995
  • Pays mêlé, 1997
  • Désirada, 1997. Prix Carbet de la Caraïbe
  • En attendant le bonheur : Heremakhonon, 1997
  • Le coeur à rire et à pleurer : contes vrais, 1999. Réédition. Prix Marguerite Yourcenar
  • Célanire cou-coupé, 2000

Aux Éditions du Mercure de France

  • Moi, Tituba, sorcière noire de Salem, 1986. Grand Prix
    Littéraire de la femme
  • Pension Les Alizés, 1988
  • Traversée de la mangrove, 1989
  • Les derniers rois mages, 1992
  • La belle créole, 2001
  • Histoire de la femme cannibale, 2003
  • Victoire, les saveurs et les mots : récit, 2006. Prix Tropiques
  • Les belles ténébreuses, 2008

Aux Éditions Jean-Claude Lattès

  • En attendant la montée des eaux, 2010. Grand Prix du Roman Métis