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September 30, 2009
By Mary Hunton
For the past three years, Charles Tshimanga, an Assistant Professor of History, has been composing a book called Frenchness and the African Diaspora: Identity and Uprisings in Contemporary France (Indiana University Press), which examines the concept of identity in France today. Following the November 2005 French riots, Charles Tshimanga and ten other scholars and literary figures working in France and the US have striven to shed light on the notion of “Frenchness,” looking at it through different angles.
“This book explores the process of globalization and its role in the creation of an African Diaspora in France. It examines the debates taking place in France over culture and national identity due to the visibility of ethnic minorities,” said Tshimanga. “On the one hand, the book looks at the developing of African Diaspora populations. On the other hand, it analyzes how the African Diaspora recasts and redefines French and European identity.”
This challenge in identity is something Tshimanga has experienced firsthand. Pursuing his higher education in France before moving to the United States in 2002, Tshimanga said that he “learned a lot from France.”
“When you are from Africa, it is very different to go to Europe with new roots,” said Tshimanga. “Living within the country allowed me to learn more and to have new views about many things and to have a very good idea about what it means to be French.”
But what does it mean to be French? One of the primary focuses of the book is to understand the debate in France about its national identity.
“While living in France I attended and participated in debates taking place in France about what it means being a French man or woman,” he said. “America believes that the country is a melting pot. France believes that it’s still a specific country with one religion, one group of people, and that other people joining the country have to conform to the French standards.”
Tshimanga found the transition from France to the United States very different. Things that had been hard for him overseas, such as finding a job or a place to live, were not nearly as difficult once he moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“At the time, one of my colleagues helped me,” Tshimanga says. “She called the landlord at 9:30 in the morning. He gave us an appointment at 11. At 12 I signed my contract. In France, it takes months, if not years, because of discrimination. To get a job it’s the same.”
According to Tshimanga, there are two concepts of “national identity,” and France has found itself caught between them. The first idea is much more general, derived from the French revolution, based primarily off of the rights and responsibilities of the citizen: the right to vote and choose leaders and the responsibility to pay taxes and contribute to their communities. The second is exclusive, claiming that to belong to a nation, one must look like everyone else, speak the same language, and share the same religion and history.
“Those two ideas about the nation, the national identity, are conflicting in France,” Tshimanga said. “Which one of them is to be applied. This book is exploring this really well.”
The 11 authors composing the book address an array of themes such as the November 2005 riots, immigration, citizenship rights, the headscarf controversy and cultural expressions related to minority rights in France. Tshimanga’s own paper is entitled “Let the Music Play: The African Diaspora, Popular Culture, and National Identity in Contemporary France.” In this article, Tshimanga analyzes identity politics in France through French hip hop and popular culture.
The book, “Frenchness and the African Diaspora: Identity and Uprisings in Contemporary France, is now available at the ASUN bookstore.