Celebrating the Memory of African American Historical Figures in France: Politics of Respectability or Universalist Appropriation?

Leonard Cortana, New York University


“The sense of timing is chilling” opens the Telerama journalist Marion Rousset in her column on the decision of the Ile de France Regional Council to rename the Angela Davis High School in Saint Denis with the name of Rosa Parks—against the wishes of the establishment’s board of directors and the Minister of National Education.[1] In early July 2023, Valerie Pecresse, head of the Council, put an end to a months-long debate a little over a week after the assassination of the 17-year-old Franco-Algerian Nahel Merzouk by the French police and at the height of the urban revolts that followed. She argued that although Davis is a symbol of the fight for equal rights in the United States, her commitments and “radical positions,” particularly on the importance of thinking about race as a social construct, do not align with the ideals of the French Republic and could be a bad influence on the school’s students. Her decision masterfully demonstrated that anyone critical of the French universalist model has nothing to do with French heritage.

In the long list of Pecresse’s complaints were Angela Davis’s repeated criticisms of the unlawful treatment of women wearing the headscarf in France and her signature on an op-ed in the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur—along with more than 500 other academics—condemning the limits on research freedom in France in 2021. The signatories opposed the actions of Minister of National Education Frederique Vidal, who called for an inquiry into France’s national research organization, the CNRS, and universities, alarmed by the development of “Islamo-gauchisme” (Islamo-leftism). The op-ed stated, this colonial mentality is manifest in France’s structures of governance, especially with regard to both citizens and immigrants of color.”[2]

It is not the decision per se that is surprising, given the ferocious witch hunt against the producers of post-colonial knowledge, but rather the significance of the moment when it occurred: amid highly mediatized urban revolutions and a couple of years after the promulgation of France’s new anti-separatism law passed in 2021. The law updates the 1905 laicity law promoting secularism and includes measures to regulate homeschooling and online hate speech, as well as to provide oversight of religious practices and associations.[3]

In this context, two African American figures, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Josephine Baker, have resurfaced in political discourses and media conversations. Both figures had close relationships with France and shared their admiration for a more accepting and tolerant French society than the United States during racial segregation and the civil rights movements. Nonetheless, the references to their life stories and political commitments went beyond their American experience and were enmeshed with heated conversations about racial equality in France. Crucial episodes of their careers and their intellectual and artistic productions have often been used as a symbol of universalist ideals and a counterargument to people criticizing the colorblind approach in a moment when mass media have repeatedly brought up the risks of importing American racial politics into French discourse.

Therefore, a careful examination of the memory strategies surrounding their personas is pressing in the context of current memory wars, in which other African American figures like Angela Davis lose their social justice auratic persona and become persona non grata when criticizing the introduction of policies that worsen France’s “racial problem.”

Transnational Memory vs. Transcultural Memory

In their book Race in Translation, Robert Stam and Ella Shohat decipher the ironic aversion of French politicians and intellectuals to critical race and postcolonial theory. They analyze the French mockery of a “cult of repentance,” directed against those who see colonial legacies in the current structures of power. As the authors put it,

the phrase cult of repentance served to downplay colonialism’s crimes, while shifting attention to the whites who choose to repent or not to repent as the main actors, with the “rest” as spectators on an intrawhite quarrel. (…) These arguments produce political effects by undercutting any claims by formerly colonized peoples, or by the French people of color descended from them, that anything is owed them.[4]

Like their counterparts in the United States, French anti-racist activists and scholars have been widely criticized, sometimes simply for correcting the significant absences of French and Francophone resistance figures in public space and history books. Their detractors see their positions as not only an outrage to universalism, but also as an appropriation of US identity politics, in the form of what Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant described as cultural imperialism through the circulation of concepts in transnational academic spheres.[5]

The title of my article, “Celebrating the Memory of African American Historical Figures in France: Politics of Respectability or Universalist Appropriation?” is posed as a provocative rhetorical question. I linger less on responding to accusations of copying and pasting American racial discourse into the French context and more on how French institutions use transnational memory politics to promote colorblind meritocracy instead of questioning the foundations of structural racism. Scholars Jean Beaman and Amy Petts—in their shaping of a global theory of colorblindness between France and the United States—revealed the strategy of referencing African American activists to serve a de-racialized meritocratic discourse:

A misreading of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he dreams of people being judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, has come to exemplify contemporary American discourse about race and colorblindness (Lipsitz, 2019). Therefore, colorblindness, the dominant racial ideology, means that individuals can claim that race is inconsequential in their interactions with others and for broader outcomes in society. Otherwise put, it is an opportunity that is colorblind.[6]

By looking at the celebration of African American figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Josephine Baker in the French context, I also respond to the call of Etienne Achille, Charles Forsdick, and Lydie Moudileno to continue identifying sites of postcolonial “realms of memory” and broadening the scope of Pierre Nora’s landmark work.[7] Their project aligns with the work of scholars from the third wave in memory studies, which looks at the “more fluid” global circulation of memories through the lens of their dislocation between different places. In this new direction, the concept of agency emerges to scrutinize the motivations behind transnational memory politics. Jenny Wurstenberg insists that by focusing on agency and going beyond the methodology to identify memory carriers, scholars can look closely at how these actors use “power (either latent or exercised) to create or prevent change.”[8]

I argue here that some French institutions actively appropriate African American figures of resistance to create “lieux de mémoire” (realms of memory), as Pierre Nora described it in his early work, as more static sites that symbolically convey a sense of shared history. However, the rhetoric around the making of these sites eschews any possibility of “repentance.” It prevents any postcolonial reading or building of transnational solidarity networks between anti-racist advocates well informed by critical race theory or transnational racial studies. Doing so, French institutions respond to the request of many anti-racist organizations to make the political legacy of people of color more visible while shaping a narrative cleverly constructed to serve sacrosanct colorblind ideals.

This divide between visibility and deconstruction parallels the useful conceptualization of Barbara Tornquist-Plewa, who makes the distinction between transnational memory, which she refers to as the circulation of memories across nations and borders, and transcultural memories that blend into the cultural context with the potential to transform and create new communities of belonging.[9] In a nutshell, by trying to prevent the construction of transcultural memory, the official framing of the memory of foreign anti-racist figures appears as a continuing strategy to celebrate the values of French  universalism.

Decontextualizing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Legacy: Colorblindness in Translation

In the United States, a large body of scholarship challenges the conservative claim that Dr. King endorsed the ideal of a colorblind society. African American law scholar Mary Frances Berry calls for a wider reading of Dr. King’s intellectual production to re-frame him as a “race vindicator” to eschew conservative tactics that make him the “favorite color-blindness cudgel to use against African-Americans in the political and legal arena.” She closely reads his 1964 opus “Why We Can’t Wait” to retrieve his positive view on affirmative action for education and employment. She continues, “even if King never uses this word, his words make it clear that he cannot be misunderstood as having rejected the principle.”[10] In another essay, Ronald Turner creates an extensive genealogy of misuses and misinterpretations of Dr. King’s legacy and highlights President Ronald Reagan’s landmark radio address in 1986 to celebrate the first national holiday for Dr. King, “We want a colorblind society that, in the words of Dr. King, judges people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”[11] Turner emphasizes the role of education in raising awareness of Dr. King’s legacy missuses. He argues, “in the absence of a willingness to educate ourselves and to correct the glaring as well as the subtle errors in the King-supported colorblindness argument, it becomes easier to misstate and distort King’s views and to substitute iconolatry and fundamentally flawed assumptions for argument and accurate conclusions.”[12]

These American arguments pushing back against the conservative appropriation of Dr. King have a counterpart in the French struggles over memory detailed in this essay. In recent years, the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA) has been one of the French anti-racist organizations that have made the most significant demands on the legacy of Dr. King. Founded in 1927, LICRA intensified its relationships with French institutions and, in particular, schools and non-formal educational centers after World War II. It has kept the memory of Jewish survivors alive and fought against Holocaust denial while showing unconditional support for a universalist approach to fighting racism. In 1966, when Dr. King went to Lyon to support his solidarity networks, LICRA was one of the main hosting organizations, in part thanks to its close relations with the Anti-Defamation League in the United States.

LICRA’s references to Dr. King in their online and offline outreach communication became more visible following the heated debates over France’s new separatism law in 2021. The organization’s use of Dr. King’s quote, “We must learn to live together as brothers, or we will perish together as fools,” stirred some controversy. LICRA translated it into French as “vivons ensemble comme des frères ou nous finirons comme des fous.” In this approximative translation, they removed the obligation implied by “must” and they chose the word fous (crazy) instead of idiots (fools). For many observers, the quote’s translation revealed a strategy to pathologize the ones who do not affiliate with their type of anti-racist advocacy.

The debate escalated on the anniversary date of Dr. King’s assassination when LICRA published a statement on their Twitter account [image below], using a quote that has often caused controversy when used in the United States to simplify Dr. King’s view of race relations. “Le 4 avril 1968, Martin Luther King était assassiné. Son combat pour l’égalité était universaliste. Son rêve, c’était la mixité, ce moment où les fils des anciens esclaves et les fils des anciens propriétaires d’esclaves pourront s’asseoir ensemble à la table de la fraternité.” (“On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated. His fight for equality was universalist. His dream was diversity, this moment when ‘the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners can sit together at the table of fraternity.’”)

Various internet observers denounced the appropriation of Dr. King’s words and provided counter-memory texts to re-contextualize his legacy, as seen in the examples below:

@yareyaredaze: “’Negroes have to acquire a share of power so that they can act in their own interests as an independent social force.’ Martin Luther King Jr”

@NelsonCarterJr: “Licra completely hijacked Martin Luther King’s words to make the man correspond to the image of his association.” This commentator also attached Dr. King’s 1963 letter from a Birmingham jail.

@reda_tamtam: “for the LICRA to pronounce the word white moderate deserves a complaint for separatism but they pretend that MLK was universalist in their own way. MLK would have made a speech condemning you.”

Other users called for action and tagged Dr. King’s daughter Bernice King.

@oxyaxa: “I think we might use your help here. A French association is quoting Martin Luther King to silence anti-racists. I know you have stepped up in many occasions to denounce that twisted use of Martin Luther King’s legacy.”

@LaylaBe4: “@BerniceKing hey Bernice. This French account is distorting Martin Luther king legacy (using his pic) by insulting Blacks defending a #racist theatrical piece!! There is no limit to Racism like using anti-racism figure to spread racism.”

The day after the publication of their tribute, LICRA tweeted, “to all the ‘indigenistes’ who explained this morning that MLK inspired them, it is a shame that this inspiration did not lead them to go as far as he did to fight against anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.”[13]

The response accuses the people who tweeted about LICRA’s use of Dr. King’s quote of lacking commitment against anti-Semitism and does not examine the question of the organization’s translation. Like the renaming of Angela Davis High School to Rosa Parks instead, timing is crucial here. Dr. King’s legacy, memory, and writings are being used as part of an official argument in favor of France’s new anti-separatism law. The ones who criticize or nuance this posture are cast as internal enemies of the association (indigenistes with anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist positions) and, therefore, are characterized as “communitarian groups” who divide the universalist project of the French nation.

Re-Contextualizing Josephine Baker’s Legacy: Knocking Down the Transnational Racial Optic

 On November 29, 2021, Josephine Baker became the first Black woman to be inducted into France’s Panthéon. President Emmanuel Macron self-congratulated France for being the adoptive country where she found refuge from American racial segregation. In the French advocacy campaigns that made Baker a national figure of resistance, her intersectional persona has been reshaped. Some parts of her identity are magnified, particularly her unconditional love for France and commitment to the French resistance, with her portrait in the French army uniform displayed on the Panthéon building. During the ceremony, the audience could also read the words she said when she accepted her mission to join the French resistance after the solicitation of Jacques Abtey, an officer in the intelligence service. “C’est la France qui a fait de moi ce que je suis, je lui garderai une reconnaissance éternelle.” (“It is France that made me what I am, I will remain eternally grateful to her.”)

Other parts of her identity are sanitized to respect the comfort level of France regarding its colonial past. In the media, several scholars and journalists speculate about the status of Josephine Baker, who could perform on her own terms while other Black people from the colonial empire were exhibited in colonial zoos. Some historians even argued that she would have been approached to be the queen of the colonial zoo in the 1930s. Surprisingly, no French television channel screened one of her films to celebrate the event, as would be the tradition in French media, thus erasing the ritual historical archive used to celebrate an artist’s legacy. A film like Princesse Tam Tam (De Greville, 1935), in which Baker transformed into an Indigenous Tunisian subject brought to Paris to fulfill ethnographic experimentation, would have undoubtedly opened avenues to other considerations regarding the relationship between Baker’s career and France’s colonial past and artistic imaginary.

For many postcolonial thinkers, the lack of reference to more significant contributions of other Black French women who participated in the French resistance, such as Suzanne Césaire or Paulette Nardal—who also defied unequal French treatment in the colonies—revealed a preferred narrative at the moment of memorializing Black figures of resistance. Baker, who always presented France as a nonracial heaven, appears as a shield against any criticism that could be made against the Republic in the aftermath of the promulgation of France’s new anti-separatism law. Her induction sends the message that to gain ses lettres de noblesse in the meritocratic French ladder, a Black person should remain highly grateful and sweep under the rug the unequal treatment of other colonized subjects inside and outside the French hexagon.

For over a decade, French filmmaker and journalist Rokhaya Diallo has spoken out on the denial of racism in the French context and reflected on the relationship between the French values ​​of integration and the political heritage of African American leaders. In 2013, she directed the documentary Steps to Freedom. The film followed the trip of ten young American students to Paris and reflected on whether France also carries the dream of Dr. King in its respect for diversity and equal rights. In a column for the Washington Post titled “Josephine Baker enters the Panthéon. Don’t let it distract from this larger story,” Diallo concludes that “it will take more than Baker’s elevation to show the republic has changed.”[14]

Diallo’s column and other similar analyses provoked a memory war in the mainstream media. In an op-ed in the newspaper Le Figaro, Francois Aubel regards Diallo’s column as “a way of trampling, once again, on universalism,” and begins his article with a list of various readers’ vehement comments against Diallo.[15]Whether or not one agrees with Diallo’s arguments, blaming her for reflecting on Baker through a postcolonial and transnational lens is another missed opportunity to turn a transnational memory into a transcultural memory. The impossible dialogue with people who could exercise their transnational racial optic with an inherently transnational case like Josephine Baker, highlighted the only narrative that is allowed in the politics of remembrance. Tiffany Joseph described the transnational racial optic as the “lens through which migrants observe, negotiate, and interpret race by drawing simultaneously on transnationally formed racial conceptions from the host and home societies.”[16] In her understanding of the memorialization process, refusing the opportunity for journalists like Diallo, who navigates between the United States and France, is another attack on the potential of intellectual contributions of French scholars and journalists of color who not only have expertise on both countries’ racial formations and history but an ability to reflect critically on the transnational and transcultural circulation of Baker’s persona in France and the United States. Instead, their detractors lower the level of the debate, accusing them again of belonging to the “cult of repentance.”

In conclusion, for many scholars and activists who challenge French universalist ideals, memorializing African American figures should not be done à la carte and history can no longer be written by only honoring respectability. If Josephine Baker and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have entered the French realms of memory, their legacies undoubtedly offer a platform to question the complex history of France. A broken-down transnational racial optic between France and the United States will only delay accepting a plurality of voices who want to apply the knowledge informed by the American tradition of critical race theory to the issues of universalism that still need to be adequately addressed.

Far from tarnishing France’s image, accepting the painful but necessary work of contextualizing these historical figures into France’s anti-racist struggles would honor its capacity for transformation and metamorphosis. In the meantime, it would be at least a gesture of reparation for those who hope that one day people like Suzanne Césaire, Frantz Fanon, the Mulâtresse Solitude, and the sisters Nardal, who have criticized France in order to honor it better, would enter the French Panthéon. Instead, reframing African American leaders’ legacies appears to be a timely and concerted effort to delay a French color-conscious coming-of-age process while mainstreaming colorblind strategies of conservative “agents” from the other side of the Atlantic.


[1] Marion Rousset, “En débaptisant le lycée Angela-Davis de Saint-Denis, Pécresse jette de l’huile sur le feu,” Télérama, July 6, 2023.

[2] Collectif, “Tribune: ‘Nous voulons exprimer ici notre solidarité avec les universitaires français,’” Le Nouvel Obs, March 17, 2021.

[3] Since the law came into effect, it has given rise to numerous controversies, particularly on the grounds of stigmatizing Muslim communities in France.

[4] Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Race in Translation: Culture Wars Around the Postcolonial Atlantic (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 249.

[5] According to the authors, this research, often led by American scholars and scholars who trained in the United States, resulted “not from a sudden convergence of forms of ethnoracial domination in the various countries, but from the quasi universalization of the US folk-concept of ‘race’ as a result of the worldwide export of US scholarly categories.” P. Bourdieu and L. Wacquant, “On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason,” Theory, Culture, and Society 16, no. 1 (1999): 41–58.

[6] J. Beaman and A. Petts, “Towards a Global Theory of Colorblindness: Comparing Colorblind Racial Ideology in France and the United States,” Sociology Compass 14 (2020): 3.

[7] Etienne Achille, Charles Forsdick, and Lydie Moudileno, eds., Postcolonial Realms of Memory: Sites and Symbols in Modern France (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020), 14.

[8] Jenny Wüstenberg and Aline Sierp, eds., Agency in Transnational Memory Politics (New York, NY: Berghahn Books, Incorporated, 2020), 4.

[9] B. Törnquist-Plewa, “The Transnational Dynamics of Local Remembrance: The Jewish Past in a Former Shtetl in Poland,” Memory Studies 11, no. 3 (2018): 301–314.

[10] Mary Frances Berry, “Vindicating Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Road to a Color-Blind Society,” The Journal of Negro History 81, no. 1/4 (1996): 137–44.

[11] Ronald Reagan, Radio Address, Jan. 18, 1986. https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/archives/speech/radio-address-nation-martin-luther-king-jr-and-black-americans

[12] Ronald Turner, “The Dangers of Misappropriation: Misusing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Legacy to Prove the Colorblind Thesis,” Michigan Journal of Race & Law 2, no. 1 (Fall 1996), 130

[13] The word indigénistes widely refers to those who adhere to postcolonial theories and reflect on the consequences of slavery and colonization in the dynamics of power and oppression of peoples. It recalls the movement of the Indigenous People of the Republic (2005) which later became a political party and situated their thoughts and actions in an anti-racist and decolonial approach and which reflects racism as structural and inherent to French institutions as a heritage of its colonial past.

[14]  Rokhaya Diallo, “Opinion: Josephine Baker Enters the Panthéon. Don’t let it Distract from this Larger Story,” Washington Post, November 23, 2021.

[15] François Aubel, “Pour Rokhaya Diallo, Joséphine Baker au Panthéon ‘n’efface pas le racisme omniprésent en France,’” Le Figaro, November 29, 2021.

[16] Tiffany D. Joseph, Race on the Move: Brazilian Migrants and the Global Reconstruction of Race(Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2015), 7.