Final Friday Film: Camp de Thiaroye

Directed by Ousmane Sembène 
From a screenplay by Ousmane Sembène and Thierno Faty Sow 
(1987 Senegal 153 mins)

“In this powerful and moving film Sembène, in collaboration with Thierno Faty Sow, who co-scripted and co-directed, reclaims and tells to the world another of those fragments of history concealed by colonialism which he sees it as his task to disinter. Such stories are part of the history not only of Africa, but of the colonial powers, in this case France, as well. “You don’t know natives or the colonies”, Capt. Raymond is informed when, at a meeting at the General’s H.Q., he insists that the Army should honour its obligations to the tirailleurs. France, he argues, cannot successfully reconstruct by “robbing natives”, particularly those who have, as he outspokenly reminds the assembled officers, been fighting the war “in your place, gentlemen”, a reminder that the authorities in Senegal initially collaborated with Vichy. Ironically, it is not his ignorance of “natives or the colonies” that limits Raymond, but his naivety about his fellow Frenchmen: “An officer who does not keep his word is not worthy to wear the French uniform.” When he hears of the massacre in Diatta’s village he is quick to point out that it occurred in 1942, under Vichy. (In Sembène’s 1971 film Emitai massacres in the Diola region from which Diatta comes are shown as continuing after the liberation of France, and De Gaulle’s assumption of power.) Diatta argues that the mentality of colonial armies, be they French or Nazi, is the same, going on to point out that collaborators are surrounding the leader of the Free French and being put in charge of the colonies. Despite his greater historical awareness (Raymond is, in fact, often prepared to defer to his erudition) Diatta too is taken in when the General apparently gives in to the tirailleurs‘ demands, and offers his word “as a general officer”.

“Secondly, debate is very important in African cinema. It draws on the political rituals of traditional society, which, though feudal, had its system of checks and balances, which resulted in some degree of democratic exchange of opinion. In Camp de Thiaroye the tirailleurs use the traditional, highly rhetorical, almost theatrical, mode of debate of their various societies, but adapt this ritual form to the only language they have in common: the pidgin which the French insultingly call “petit nègre”, a language which is both a result and a tool of colonial exploitation. Here it is revealed as having a potential for eloquence, allowing it to become a moving medium for the articulation of feelings, needs, grievances and resistance, and thus ultimately for the development of the tirailleurs‘ collective political awareness and consciousness of themselves as Africans. One consequence of the latter is the decision to choose their own leaders, selecting a representative from each barracks, rather than relying on their nonetheless much loved and respected Sergeant-Major, who has been promoted by the whites. The structures they evolve grow out of their historical situation, and compare strikingly with the rigid hierarchies of colonialism and the military: “The army is discipline. Obedience to your superiors”, the General tells them. The formal pageantry of the parade-ground serves to stifle debate, mask conflict, hide betrayal and destruction, whereas the theatrical exchanges of the traditional discourse offer a forum for debate, evolution and reconciliation.”                    —James Leahy, Sense of Cinema, October, 2003

Ousmane Sembène was the son of a fisherman, born in Ziguinchor in Casamance to a Lebou family. From childhood Sembène was exposed to Serer religion especially the Tuur festival, in which he was made cult servant. Although the Tuur demands offerings of curdled milk to the ancestral spirits (Pangool), Sembène did not take his responsibility as cult servant seriously and was known for drinking the offerings made to the ancestors. Some of his adult work draws on Serer themes. His maternal grandmother reared him and greatly influenced him. Women play a major role in his works.

In 1944, Sembène was drafted into the Senegalese Tirailleurs (a corps of the French Army). His later World War II service was with the Free French Forces. After the war, he returned to his home country and in 1947 participated in a long railroad strike on which he later based his seminal novel God’s Bits of Wood.

 

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Moving Against the System

Moving Against the System:
The 1968 Congress of Black Writers and the Making of Global Consciousness
With editor and author David Austin

In 1968, as protests shook France and war raged in Vietnam, the giants of Black radical politics descended on Montreal to discuss the unique challenges and struggles facing their Black brothers and sisters. For the first time since 1968, David Austin brings alive the speeches and debates of the most important international gathering of Black radicals of the era.

Against a backdrop of widespread racism in the West, and colonialism and imperialism in the ‘Third World’, this group of activists, writers and political figures gathered to discuss the history and struggles of people of African descent and the meaning of Black Power.

With never-before-seen texts from Stokely Carmichael, Walter Rodney and C.L.R. James, these documents will prove invaluable to anyone interested in Black radical thought, as well as capturing a crucial moment of the political activity around 1968.

David Austin is the author of the Casa de las Americas Prize-winning Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal, Moving Against the System: The 1968 Congress of Black Writers and the Making of Global Consciousness, and Dread Poetry and Freedom: Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Unfinished Revolution. He is also the editor of You Don’t Play with Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of C.L.R. James.

 

Tickets are sliding scale / No one is turned away for inability to pay

 

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Globalization and Writing

Exploration: Exploitation/Domination • Discovery/Liberation
4 Works • 11 Weeks

The MEP Literature Group

In this eleven-week session we will read one memoir and three novels that study the scope of empire. Written between 1899 and 2000, the authors, two sailors (Polish and American), a Jamaican social theorist, and a British Jamaican immigrant are denied privilege because of their citizenship (or lack of it), class, or color. Unwilling, or unable to conform and accept lesser positions in their societies, they remain within their marginality and write their unease in novels which give readers an alternative report of the results of colonization both abroad where the EuroAmerican capitalists have colonized and what consequences that colonization has made for life in the home countries.

Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad
The story, written at the height of the British Empire, reflects the physical and psychological shock Conrad himself experienced in 1890 when he worked briefly in the Belgian Congo. The experience left him disillusioned, questioning what it meant to be civilized in the age of colonialism

This novella is astonishingly powerful and equally enigmatic. Its condemnation of Western imperialism—of the greed, violence, and exploitation that so often accompanies ventures to bring “light” and civilization to the “dark” and needy areas of the world—and its poignant look at the destructive influence of colonization on the colonized and colonizer alike, have been widely praised. However, some postcolonial African writers, most notably Chinua Achebe, deemed the book racist for its portrayal of native African cultures.

Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands
Stuart Hall
Familiar Stranger takes us only as far as the mid-1960s, after a decade during which, for Hall, “normal” life was suspended in favour of non-stop political agitation. The book touches on his role in the New Left; his critical involvement with CND; his early exposition of the “formal” and “unwitting” variants of British racism; and the importance of Catherine, with whom he relocated to Birmingham at the start of his lifelong embrace of cultural studies. These recollections of a busy life in Britain nonetheless remain haunted by the ghostly presence of his earlier years in Jamaica. With its resonant subtitle, A Life Between Two Islands, it encourages the reader to draw such parallels as that between Jamaica’s 1938 rebellion and the Brixton riots of 1981. It was Hall’s belief that the British had never fully come to terms with colonialism and decolonization.

Dog Soldiers
Robert Stone
Dog Soldiers deals with the fall of the counterculture in America, the rise of mass cynicism and the end of the optimism of the 1960s. California has moved on from the Summer of Love to post-Manson paranoia. Converse, a once-promising writer now unable to do more than observe, waits for artistic inspiration as a correspondent in Vietnam. Symbolic of his moral corruption is his decision to traffic in heroin, which the 1960s counterculture never embraced as they did marijuana and LSD.

White Teeth
Zadie Smith
This may be the first novel ever written that truly feels at home in our borderless, globalized, intermarried, post-colonial age, populated by “children with first and last names on a direct collision course.” Published when Smith was just 24, White Teeth follows the friendship of two Londoners, a pub-going working-class bloke named Archie and a Muslim from Bangladesh named Samad. Archie marries a Jamaican; Samad has twin sons, one of whom becomes a religious militant, the other a rabid Anglophile. The overlapping fates of Smith’s characters seem to trace the new structures of 21st-century life and test their sturdiness as framework for peace and happiness. Both deeply Dickensian and playfully post-modern, White Teeth doesn’t quail before the rampantly ramifying novelistic complexities of a multicultural world. It revels in them.

The MEP LITERATURE GROUP has been meeting to discuss literature since the first days of The Marxist Education Project following a presentation by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz on her Indigenous Peoples History of the United States and her recommendation that we take up literature with Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of The Dead. The group has recently completed readings of Victor Serge’s Unforgiving Years following by Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Our second summer of noir, considered works by Hammett, Chandler, Manchette, and others. Other studies have included novels related to World War I, the global depression of the 1930s, and novels on border politics, migrations and labor organizing.

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Caribbean Literature: Breaking bonds before and after betrayed revolutions

10 Weeks beginning October 12 through December 21

A reading and discussion group with the Indigenous People’s History and Literature Group

During this term we will begin with Aimé Césaire’s cultural statement from the 30s, issued from the Caribbean to all those colonized by the capitalist powers, primarily of Europe. Following our discourse on his groundbreaking discourse we will consider three novels on the colonized Caribbean, long engaged in revolutionary struggle with just as long gains towards liberation and the centuries long experiences of counter-revolution, and the consequences of compromise and collaboration with former colonizers and the colossus US that treats the Caribbean like a backyard swimming pool and those of the islands, whether local agent of capital or exploited worker, as servants by that pool.

“I admit that it is a good thing to place different civilizations in contact with each other that it is an excellent thing to blend different worlds; that whatever its own particular genius may be, a civilization that withdraws into itself atrophies; that for civilizations, exchange is oxygen; that the great good fortune of Europe is to have been a crossroads, and that because it was the locus of all ideas, the receptacle of all philosophies, the meeting place of all sentiments, it was the best center for the redistribution of energy.
But then I ask the following question: has colonization really placed civilizations in contact? Or, if you prefer, of all the ways of establishing contact, was it the best?
“I answer no.
“And I say that between colonization and civilization there is an infinite distance; that out of all the colonial expeditions that have been undertaken, out of all the colonial statutes that have been drawn up, out of all the memoranda that have been dispatched by all the ministries, there could not come a single human value.”
` —Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism

Discourse on Colonialism
Aimé Fernand David Césaire
This classic work, first published in France in 1955, profoundly influenced the generation of scholars and activists at the forefront of liberation struggles in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Nearly twenty years later, when published for the first time in English, Discourse on Colonialism inspired a new generation engaged in the Civil Rights and Black Power and anti-war movements.

All Souls Rising
Madison Smartt Bell
1995
The slave uprising in Haiti was a momentous contribution to the tide of revolution that swept over the Western world at the end of the 1700s. A brutal rebellion that strove to overturn a vicious system of slavery, the uprising successfully transformed Haiti from a European colony to the world’s first Black republic. From the center of this horrific maelstrom, the heroic figure of Toussaint Louverture–a loyal, literate slave and both a devout Catholic and Vodouisant–emerges as the man who will take the merciless fires of violence and vengeance and forge a revolutionary war fueled by liberty and equality.

A Small Place
Jamaica Kincaid
Antigua, 2000
In A Small Place, Kincaid calls attention to the fact that in many ways, conditions in Antigua worsened with the achievement of independence; she communicates her frustration with her people and capitalism. In a nation free from colonialism, Antiguans “do to [themselves] the very things [colonists] used to do to [them]”. Through her critique of colonialism and the development of an exploitative tourist industry in A Small Place, Kincaid addresses several other major themes which include the influence of homeland on identity, culture, and the desire for independence.

A Brief History of Seven Killings
Marlon James
Jamaica, 2014
Winner of the Man Booker Prize
The first part of the novel is set in Kingston, Jamaica, in the build-up to the Smile Jamaica Concert, and describes politically motivated violence between gangs associated with the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP), especially in the West Kingston neighborhoods of Tivoli Gardens and Mathews Lane (renamed in the novel as Copenhagen City and Eight Lanes), including involvement of the CIA in the Jamaican politics of the time. As well as Marley (who is referred to as “the Singer” throughout), other real life characters depicted or fictionalized in the book include Kingston gangsters Winston “Burry Boy” Blake and George “Feathermop” Spence, Claude Massop and Lester Lloyd Coke (Jim Brown) of the JLP and Aston Thomson (Buckie Marshall) of the PNP.

The Indigenous Peoples’s Reading Group, which has grown from the enthusiastic call for the need of greater understanding of the long history of the peoples of North America and other continents of the world who were of those continents before and remain after the European colonists came to settle and bring this capitalist relations to every corner of the globe. Our group began following a stirring presentation by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz September of 2014 where she introduced An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.

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African Literature: Colonialism, Liberation, Disillusionment

We will meet for nine more weeks
Thursdays, February 9 through April 6, 7:30 to 9:30 pm
Organized by Ibrahim Diallo of the Indigenous People’s History and Literature Group

Once you allow yourself to identify with the people in a story, then you might begin to see yourself in that story even if on the surface it’s far removed from your situation. … this is one great thing that literature can do – it can make us identify with situations and people far away. If it does that, it’s a miracle. –Chinua Achebe

With the reading of novels by Ousmane Sembene (Senegal), Tayeb Salih (Sudan), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria) and Ngugu wa Thiong’o (Kenya), we examine four different areas of Africa as the peoples there emerge from European colonization. We witness the struggles of workers on strike before their full independence, anti-colonial resistance spanning from Mount Kenya to academic circles in London. As nations become independent we discover new and recycled forms of oppression, exploitation and war. In the midst of disillusionment, we see resolve and signs of what remains possible.

Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu (God’s Bits of Wood) considered to be Ousmane Sembene’s masterpiece, rivaled only by Xala. The novel fictionalizes the real-life story of a railroad strike on the Dakar-Niger line that lasted from 1947 to 1948. Though the charismatic and brilliant union spokesman, Ibrahima Bakayoko, is the most central figure, the novel has no true hero except the community itself, which bands together in the face of hardship and oppression to assert their rights.

Season of Migration to the North (Arabic: موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال ‎‎ Mawsim al-Hiǧra ilā ash-Shamāl) is a classic post-colonial Sudanese novel by the novelist Tayeb Salih. Salih was fluent in both English and Arabic, but significantly chose to write this novel in Arabic. The novel is a counter-narrative to Heart of Darkness. It was described by Edward Said as one of the 10 great novels in Arabic literature.

Petals of Blood by Ngugu wa Thiong’o The novel largely deals with the skepticism of change after Kenya’s liberation from the British Empire, questioning to what extent free Kenya merely emulates, and subsequently perpetuates, the oppression found during its time as a colony. Other themes include the challenging of capitalism, politics, and the effects of westernization.

Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, tells the story of the Biafran War through the perspective of the characters Olanna, Ugwu, and Richard. The book jumps between events that took place during the early 1960s and the late 1960s, when the war took place, and extends until the end of the war.

Ibrahim Diallo was born in Guinea but has lived in Brooklyn, New York since his childhood. He has lived, worked, studied and/or travelled in nearly a dozen African countries. Ibrahim is one of the initiators of The Indigenous People’s History and Literature Group at The MEP.

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