April 21, 2020
In early February, after I finished reading Robin Mitchell’s Vénus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth Century (University of Georgia Press, 2020), I wrote a short Twitter thread about how it impacted me, personally, as a student and scholar of Francophone Caribbean Studies as well as why I thought it was important for the wider field of French Studies. I also attempted to write an Am*zon review for Mitchell’s book, hoping that by doing so more people would see her work, purchase the book, and read the powerful tales she tells about how three Black women—Sarah Baartmann, Ourika, and Jeanne Duval—became the subject of centuries of French colonial fantasies. My short, yet detailed, review was rejected because it apparently violated the community guidelines (to this day I cannot see how).
As a result of these activities, a few online publications reached out to me requesting either a review or a think-piece on my Twitter thread, these editors hoped to draw attention to Mitchell’s work, providing a space for critical review and reflection in the vacuum created by Am*zon. To this day, I have struggled to sit down and compose said piece of writing, in part, because as I read Vénus Noire I was involved in campus visits for multiple tenure-track jobs in French Studies. You might call it writer’s block or angoisse de la page blanche or even emotional and physical exhaustion. But, now that all of that is over, I think the real reason I struggled to write about Mitchell’s work is that served as a companion while I was on the market. The night before numerous campus visits, Vénus Noire helped me resist the inevitable gaslighting that comes with academic interviews. Mitchell’s book helped me cope with the emotional weight of the journey, constantly reminding me that my research on Black subjects in French Studies has value.
During my travels, I met many passionate students who also aspired to or were currently working within Black French Studies. They, like me, were also emotionally exhausted by the routine marginalization of their area(s) of study, which often held personal significance. These students were tired of an exclusive curriculum that erases difference in favor of universalism. They were tired of a literary canon that is intentionally constructed to avoid discussions of race, gender, and colonialism. They were tired of a canon where the unimpeachable greatness of writers from Balzac to Beauvoir cannot be questioned; their colonial ideas cannot be interrogated as such. They were tired of hearing that “there are no black French fiction writers in the nineteenth century” and that Fanon, Glissant, and the Césaires belong to a “theory” or a “Francophone” comps list, but they are never to reside in a list dedicated to the century in which they lived. They were tired of being told that one faculty member would be expected to teach the whole of the Black French experience when the rest of the program had often multiple faculty members dedicated to a period or thematic frame. I met students who were tired of being urged to study the French canon, or else they would have to spend years developing a bibliography in a subject that they were passionate about, but that their very advisor didn’t recognize as wholly legitimate. In sum, they, me, we are tired of constantly being told, directly or indirectly, that what and who we study are insignificant, are marginal.
In my Twitter thread, I wrote that “reading [Vénus Noire] was a tonic to some of the experiences I’ve had while trying to study colonialism & race in French departments” because Mitchell’s attention to the lives of Baartmann, Ourika, and Duval surpassed her concerns for Géorges Léopold Cuvier, Claire de Duras, Charles Baudelaire, and the scores of other writers and cultural producers who exploited these women for their own gain. Mitchell shows us that there is great potential and merit in revisiting canonical works of literature for narrative purposes, rather than simply what the late Barbara Christian referred to as “the race for theory.” The story of the Black Venus is not a set of theoretical concepts and cultural signifiers; it is instead the shared cultural legacy of three women who lived real lives and endured terrible degradation from racist, pseudo-scientific study to canonized humiliation in works of French literature. The book, itself, reminds us of the virtues of linking theory with practice and how all the tools of French cultural study could be deployed to perform transformative work in the way that Mitchell does.
Another reason why it took me so long to synthesize my feelings about Vénus Noire with the experiences I had on the French Studies job market was that I had to reflect on my own training. In other tweets, I wrote about my experiences as an undergraduate, being told that only canonical writers of the nineteenth century, not the Caribbean writers I adored, could teach me proper French. I thought about all of the times that I was actively discouraged from working on Haitian literature and postcolonial theory for the sake of a more “rounded” (read: canonical) background in theory.
Reading Vénus Noire also made me return to my memories from the first year of graduate school, to that Introduction to Literary Theory® course, to understand why I was so moved by Mitchell’s book. It wasn’t necessarily that this course gave me the foundation I needed to read, dissect, and, dare I say, enjoy monographs. Nor was it that the course provided me with the ability to parse various theories and place their theorists, their founders, their scribes, into genealogical frameworks. No, the reason why Mitchell’s book took me back was because it is where I first read Barbara Christian’s essay “The Race for Theory.” For those unfamiliar with the essay, it is here where Christian decries the production of literary theory for the sake of theory. The editors of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism argue that although it has been criticized for “its vagueness,” Christian artfully refers to theorists with a capital T, the essay carefully articulates that “[theory] has become an end rather than a means to an end” (2127).
For Christian, the production of theory for theory causes authors and texts not-yet-canonized to slip from theory’s purview, stalling the study of important works of contemporary literature in favor of reading and writing theory. You can see how tantalizing it must have been for a first-year graduate student to read this essay, for me to say, “look here is someone writing about theory as a faulty enterprise!” In fact, I think this was my very thought at the time and, since we read “The Race for Theory” in our second week, I assumed that would just be a wrap for the semester. I wrote one of our three required short papers on “The Race for Theory” and I found myself bouncing around all week repeating Christian’s passion for literature and what literary study can do. Sentences like: “My fear is that when Theory is not rooted in practice, it becomes prescriptive, exclusive, élitish” (2133). And, “My major objection to the race for theory . . . really hinges on the question, ‘for whom are we doing what we are doing when we do literary criticism?’” And finally, “I can only speak for myself. But what I write and how I write is done in order to save my own life. And I mean that literally” (2136).
Christian gives literature a great deal of power, writing that it saved her life. I personally know this to be true as well, but I soon learned that the seminar space was not the place to share this vulnerability. In fact, I couldn’t help but think that the way we wrote our short papers and conducted that class session betrayed these very words. The vulnerability of Christian’s prose, this vulnerability would have to be saved for later; this vulnerability was not always allowed to be exposed in a theoretical space. This vulnerability, I later learned, that feeling of the power of literature, of reading, of writing, of study—the very practices Barbara Christian extols—were best to be saved for myself, for my master’s thesis and later for my dissertation.
This type of vulnerability was and is quite personal. It can be difficult to share, but when we share it with others it has the power to inspire others, to build ourselves up, to make changes, and to alter the landscape of what a field, a profession, and a training can make possible. From the moment that I dove into Robin Mitchell’s preface to Vénus Noire, when I read about how her body shook, causing her to burst into tears upon her encounter with Sarah Baartmann’s body cast, I recognized the productive potential of vulnerability. I recognized, in her writing, the reverence and respect that she has for her subjects, the seriousness with which she approaches their lives. Mitchell reminded me that we have a responsibility to one another and part of that responsibility is to be open and vulnerable and to care for one another in and with what we write. For when we do these things, we never cease to benefit.