Q&A with Annette K. Joseph-Gabriel, author of Reimagining Liberation

Annette K. Joseph-Gabriel is an assistant professor of French at the University of Michigan. She recently answered some questions about her book, Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

I wanted to learn more about how African and Caribbean women imagined liberation from
colonial rule. As a student in French I read about Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor who were hailed as the founders of the Negritude literary movement and as the architects of
decolonization in Martinique and Senegal. And the more I read the more I wondered about the women who had been sidelined in this history, whose names I knew but not much more than that. So, I started with a very basic question: “where were the women?” Thankfully, that question evolved into more questions about the roles they played, the importance of their work, and the shortcomings of their visions. But it was a starting point that made it clear to me that the dominant narratives I had first encountered are so unsatisfactory because they are partial and limited.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

I feel very indebted to scholars like Irène d’Almeida, Renée Larrier, and Tracy Sharpley-Whiting whose studies on francophone women’s writings paved the way for me to even see my own work as a possibility. I am also very much influenced by the combined literary, cultural and historical approaches of scholars like Régine Jean-Charles, Marlene Daut, Laurent Dubois and others. Their work models how to read critically.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book? 

I was so blown away by the unrelenting courage of all of the women I write about in the book. One of the most interesting discoveries I made is that Jane Vialle was a spy in the French Resistance. Reading the interrogation transcripts of an African woman who was interned in a concentration camp during World War II and then broke out of prison gave me goosebumps! She was silent and stoic in the face of unspeakable terror and only wrote more openly about her fear after the war ended.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

The idea that Black women were secondary players in global intellectual and political
movements is unfortunately still prevalent. Sometimes I encounter dismissal of Black women’s work but more often I encounter people who have simply never thought to read seriously or engage substantively with Black women’s writings. I hope that my book will join the ranks of some insightful and much-needed new publications that highlight the centrality of Black women’s writings, activism, and theorizing.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

There are as many visions of liberation as there are women in the book. I hope readers will take away the one thing that underscored all these varied ideas about how to overthrow imperialism: urgency. The women I write about identified different strategies including poetic expression, voting rights, education, working within government, and working against government through grassroots organizing. But no matter the avenue they chose, they always stated clearly that empire had to be dismantled now.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of oppression in every facet of our lives, to become solelyconcerned with our own survival, to tell ourselves that we are working toward a long game. But the Black women in my book who imagined collective liberation did so even as they fought for their daily survival. For Paulette Nardal it was disability benefits, for Eslanda Robeson it was the right to cross borders freely. They remind me daily that collective liberation does not come after individual survival, it is survival.

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

I watch way too much TV. My current obsession is murder mysteries set in idyllic English
villages. It’s a plus if they feature award-winning strawberry scones. There is something oddly relaxing about priests and gardeners running around the English countryside solving murders.

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