25th Annual Burkhardt Lecture 2015

“Talking Past Each Other: Languages of Race and Colonialism in France during the First World War”

Dr. Richard S. Fogarty, Associate Professor, University at Albany, SUNY

Dean Maggiotto, Dr. Richard S. Fogarty, Dr. Chris Thompson, and Dr. Kevin Smith
Dean Maggiotto, Dr. Richard S. Fogarty, Dr. Chris Thompson, and Dr. Kevin Smith

In the United States racism has historically been overt.  From outright slavery to the Jim Crow laws that were still present until the mid 60s, racism was a very visible aspect of American life.  Other countries maintained policies that also reinforced racism against people who were from (or decedents of someone from) an African country.

African-Americans during World War I perceived that French society was more egalitarian than they were used to experiencing in the United States.  While it is true that an African-American would be treated better than they would be in America, this perception failed to recognize that in French society racism was tied to African regions rather than in general against all Africans.

Dr. Fogarty during Q & A
Dr. Fogarty during Q & A

As a result of the war, the French were in need of more soldiers, and the African natives in their colonies were an easy resource for the French government to use for this purpose. The French soldiers who were training the West African soldiers needed to find an effective way to communicate with them and did not think the Africans would be able to understand the complexities of the French language.  This resulted in African soldiers being taught grammatically bad French.  Since the Africans spoke bad French, the French thought the Africans did not have the intelligence to learn correct French, creating a self-fulfilling cycle. “Pidgin” is another name for a simplified version of a language.  In French, “pidgin” translates to “little negro.” This translation further demonstrates how the use of simplified French was viewed by the French people.

Dr. Fogarty’s lecture wove a useful narrative on how racism has been practiced in other parts of the world.  While the United States has practiced racism openly in the past, it is not the only country in the Western World to have excluded African’s from mainstream culture.

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