“Race,” asserts Houria Bouteldja, “it is constitutive of this [French] Republic.” In Bouteldja I hear the echo of Hortense Spillers three decades earlier: “my country needs me, and if I were not here, I would have to be invented.” Bouteldja’s bold statement, like many made in her manifesto, White, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love, reveals an uncomfortable truth that, like Spillers’s truth telling on the United States, undercuts a foundational national myth. For Spillers, it is the myth that what makes America “great” is whiteness (hence Donald Trump’s call to make America great [white] again). For Bouteldja, it is the myth of France as a colorblind republic.
In these statements both theorists challenge the casting of colonized people as peripheral or ancillary to the modern nation-state, and to modernity as a whole. The colonized are central but not, Bouteldja argues, due to their glorious pre-modern past that the “West” is indebted to. No, the colonized are central because without their labor and forced migration, physical and conceptual, there would be no “West.” These statements remind me of a t-shirt I own, by the Bakersfield, CA community organization FAAM, that is embossed with a red, black, and green Pan-African flag in the shape of the contiguous United States, under which reads, “We Built This.” Both Spillers and Bouteldja are making a similar declaration—“we built this”—and, to paraphrase Bouteldja, that is enough to make us agents of these nations’ history and present, and agents of a collective future.
I hear Spillers in Bouteldja, though Bouteldja does not explicitly cite her. Yet, that Bouteldja and Spillers connect so easily is one of the aspects of this work that I find so striking and exciting. And lest I be accused of treating US race-making and racial history as universal, the connection I make mimics the connections that Bouteldja puts forward herself. In this text, Bouteldja challenges whites, Jews, and the Indigenous of the Republic for their parallel investments in whiteness, and these challenges are ultimately calls for connection or solidarity. Solidarity is, in fact, the modus operandus of her entire project. Solidarity is made for Bouteldja through connections that transgress artificial boundaries of nation, race, religion, class, and so on. Yet she does not wish to transgress to then only end up with the same anemic colorblind tolerance of the Republic. Rather, she wants to end up with what she calls the politics of revolutionary love. Critically, she enacts this call for solidarity in her writing and theorizing, in which she finds refuge and possibility in Diasporic Blackness.
As a Black scholar of Black Studies, I deeply appreciate the ways the Black Diaspora of the Western Hemisphere appears in the text. Bouteldja builds an alternative pantheon to the standard white Euro-American canon that includes giants like Aimé Césaire and Malcolm X, as well as the West Indian “massive” who have been “‘French’ for four hundred years.” The Black “wretched of the interior” are models for her own liberatory thinking. For example, she extensively cites a dialogue between Audre Lorde and James Baldwin in her chapter “We, Indigenous Women.” She does so to offer a critique of white liberal feminism and Eurocentric models of masculinity. In such engagements, Bouteldja turns to a group that is never considered a model for healthy gender relations but rather is infamously known, according to the logic of white supremacy, as pathological when it comes to gender—as bodies of excess (hypermasculinity, hypersexuality) or lack (docile and impotent mammies and uncle toms). In a profoundly decolonial move, she looks to the descendants of enslaved Africans as generative for understanding and breaking patriarchy’s hold.
This kind of connectivity is not unique to Bouteldja, as Jean Beaman examines in her book Citizen Outsider: Children of North African Immigrants in France. In particular, Beaman demonstrates how the Indigènes of France, ethnically Arab and Berber and non-Black, make connections to Blackness as a politics. Blackness is a politics linked to being racialized but not sutured to skin color (much in the same way, though with different outcomes, that Bouteldja refers to herself as white due to her privileged social position in relationship to those without that privilege). What Clyde Woods called a blues epistemology and Nitasha Sharma, a “global race consciousness,” Blackness functions as an opening rather than enclosure. Blackness is a politics that extends from the experiences of Black people and produces a “complex of social explanation and social action” that has resonances for other marginalized communities. This is also something I found in my own work where non-Black Muslim youth come to better understand their own positionality as racialized subjects by being in relationship to and making connections with Blackness and, more specifically, Black Islam.
Black Islam is also one of the connective tissues that links Bouteldja to the Diaspora. She references, of course, Malcolm X, whom she calls beautiful, and his beauty cannot be—and I think Bouteldja appreciates this—disentangled from his Islam. Malcolm X did “not reject the name ‘Little’” and “substitute it for X” because he alone was lucid. No, he was given the X by his religious teacher when he became a member of a communal reimagining of Black people not as the wretched but as “the cream of the planet earth.”1In Nation of Islam Student Lesson No. 1 blacks or the Original people are described as the “cream of the planet” earth. Simultaneously, Malcolm X is beautiful because of his “victory against the self and against one’s narcissism,” against what the Qur’an calls the nafs.
Victory over the nafs is one through line of the book, also found in Bouteldja’s critique of what I would call the white supremacist “I”—“I think therefore I am . . . God.” In fact, the first thing I scribbled when I read her reconfiguration of the Cartesian I, was “White Man’s Got a God Complex,” the title of a song by the legendary ensemble The Last Poets. And thus to her pantheon of Diasporic Black and Muslim figures, I would add another, Jalaluddin Nuriddin, The Last Poet who famously recited:
I’m making guns!
I’m making bombs!
I’m making gas!
I’m making freak machines!
Birth control pills!
Killed Indians and discovered him!
Kill the Japanese with the a-bomb!
Killed—still killing—Black people!
Enslaving the earth!
Done went to the moon!
Bouteldja is a humanist in that she does not want to be tied to categories of race, class, and nation, but she is not a secular humanist. Rather, she joins the chorus of those who deny secularism neutrality and innocence. Likewise, she departs from seeing godlessness as a sign of progress, and sees it as degeneration. The god complex of whiteness, as Nuriddin describes, is a destructive one. It is destructive because it demands an unnatural hierarchy of human over human that is only able to establish itself through violence, which destroys us all—enslaved and enslaver, colonized and colonizer, alike.
Religion is often seen as site of conflict and division, yet, God in Bouteldja is marshalled to do the opposite. Her conceptualization of God as the “only one entity with the power to rule” is also another node of connectivity. It recalled for me Amina Wadud’s “Tawhidic paradigm” and Sherman Jackson’s identification of white supremacy as a form of shirk (idolatry). In her work around gender justice, Wadud engages the fundamental Islamic belief in the oneness of God (tawhid) to push back against patriarchal hierarchies in which the loyalty and fidelity belonging only to God is misplaced onto human beings and human systems that are gendered male. Likewise, Jackson engages tawhid to challenge racial hierarchies in which the loyalty and fidelity belonging only to God are misplaced onto the human beings and human systems that are raced white. This emphasis on God’s oneness and incomparability is meant to underscore human interdependence, to remind us of our connections to each other.
Bouteldja’s talk of solidarity and connection can feel utopic. Yet, she does not encourage us to wear rose-colored glasses. She is clear that the path to revolutionary love will be difficult. It will be difficult because it requires that we give up our privileges and aspiration to privilege, as it is privilege that disconnects us. It will be difficult because it requires decolonial moves, like following the lead of the “old and deported African.” She encourages us to acknowledge this challenge and to hold on to revolutionary hope: hope that in the work of connecting and solidarity lies the undoing of white supremacy and the building of a collective future for all.