Manthia Diawara in the Archive of Postcolonialism

Manthia Diawara in the Archive of Postcolonialism

Manthia Diawara in the Archive of Postcolonialism

His films put into practice the history of radical Black thought by placing generations of thinkers in conversation.


Manthia Diawara is working to preserve and rejuvenate anti- and postcolonialism. He is uniquely positioned to do so because these movements and bodies of thought have shaped his life. Born in Mali in 1953, five years before the country achieved independence, Diawara spent his early life in Guinea until 1964, when Ahmed Sékou Touré’s regime forced his family to leave the country. Years later, while attending graduate school in Bamako, Diawara joined a group opposed to the Vietnam War and to apartheid that also supported the Black Panthers and Black Power more generally. After completing his doctorate in 1985, he put his political analysis on the page, writing several books on Black diasporic cinema, and also on-screen, collaborating with the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o on a documentary about the films and novels of the Senegalese artist Sembène Ousmane.

In recent years, Diawara has increasingly turned to film to wrestle with the legacies of anti- and postcolonialist thought. He does so by cutting together his interviews with and archival films of these influential thinkers. In Diawara’s 2010 film Édouard Glissant: One World in Relation, the Martinican-born poet and philosopher speaks to the camera about some of his most famous ideas while traveling by sea and land. In Diawara’s 2015 film Negritude: A Dialogue Between Senghor and Soyinka, he splices together interviews with Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal’s first prime minister, and Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer and political activist, to produce a compelling dialogue on the Black diasporic movement known as “Negritude.” Diawara’s most recent film, Towards the New Baroque of Voices (which first premiered at Amant, and was a co-production between Amant and the 34th São Paulo Biennial) puts these and other thinkers in conversation to consider the lasting importance of postcolonial thought. The Nation spoke with Diawara about his new film, radical Black thought, and democracy.

—Elias Rodriques

Elias Rodriques: Your latest film opens with Édouard Glissant’s thoughts on the difference between the appearance and the reality of democracy. Why?

Manthia Diawara: As Glissant says, democracy is probably the most perfected and modern form of government that we have at this point, when you go from autocracy to kingdoms to empires and so on. Democracy attempts to make every voice count, to make us hear the echo of every voice, the presence of every person. But Glissant has been co-opted by different ideologies to defend the ways people use democracy to accumulate power. Countries like France or the UK are where modern democracy developed, and they became the world’s biggest colonizers. That’s a contradiction in terms. And Africans, in order to become independent nation-states, have to assume this democratic stance. Whether it’s Sembène Ousmane or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, radicalism in Africa starts with a kind of pursuit of democracy.

ER: How does that pursuit work?

MD: At any given political moment, we have the rebel, the deviant, and the transgressive. The rebel has a vision that they use to bring about transformation. But the rebel usually does not realize when they are surpassed by the revolution that they started. If you look at Mali or Sudan today, the problem is that strong men—they’re usually men—think that they know the solution for the people. But the people have already gone past the vision of that strong man. As the oppressive person reduces the plurality of voices, the transgressive person is questioning and resisting. That resistance is calling for multiplicity, plurality.

ER: Your film is a kind of conversation among many radical thinkers; did you pick this form to represent that multiplicity?

MD: I chose this form to mirror what Glissant calls “the new baroque.” He saw the old baroque, even as it challenged Renaissance art, as conforming to the main ideologies of the Renaissance: heaven and hell, the white man as the model of the world, and so on. Whereas the new baroque, which Glissant first sees in Latin America, is where the present, the past, and the future all come together. Glissant saw this not only in the way people lived in Brazil but in the literature of [Gabriel] García Márquez as well, where time collides together.

He also saw it as a New World phenomenon, especially in petit-pays [literally “small countries”; in Glissant’s thought, the term often refers to islands]. Whether it’s Europe, Africa, or America, everything leads to closure and homogeneity, but the islands are open. People, hurricanes, and earthquakes come and go. People there learned to tremble with the trembling of nature; they learned to tremble with differences. The only way we’re going to have vivacity and creativity is to think with this world of differences.

ER: Can you say more about the West?

MD: The West is not a geography; it’s a project. France, the UK, and now the United States work to save what they call the “Western world,” which is based on sameness, not difference. But the elements in the West, whether they’re technology or human rights, belong to the whole world and get perfected from place to place in a different way. This project gets us out of closures and puts us into multiplicities. And when differences come together, they produce unpredictable results.

ER: One of the differences you’re working with is life and death. Film lets the dead and the living speak to each other.

MD: We learned how to think with [Frantz] Fanon, Ousmane, wa Thiong’o, and Sylvia Wynter. They are here with us. Then we encounter new thinking: Angela Davis, Édouard Glissant. This doesn’t mean that one is better than the other. All this thought is radical Black thought—a thought in search of freedom. It’s a permanent search for freedom that you can see in Cedric Robinson, in [W.E.B.] Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, and so on. They move beyond just one way of seeing things to look for a future philosophy for the world. It’s a permanent search for new spaces to make us tremble with the trembling of people who are being oppressed and are suffering. It’s a permanent movement, with cadences that are different from place to place, that cannot be stopped.

ER: Much of the film discusses the ways that borders work against this movement for freedom. How do you think about borders in the film?

MD: In many ways, borders-as-walls is a reality in the Americas, in Europe, in Africa and other places. If you look at West Africa, these countries are now being used as proxies to stop African immigration into Europe. This leads to new forms of very brutal slavery in the frontier areas, from Libya to Greece. In this sense, borders are real. But at the same time, Americans and French people go wherever they want to go. They go to Africa, impoverish countries, and divide them, which makes the nations not very viable. Then they make the priorities: The main problem in those countries is terrorism and borders. In this sense, this definition of borders is past—it’s the last gasp of a losing civilization. It’s the last attempt by Europe and America to maintain a position of leadership in the world, when in reality borders cannot stop people. The only thing they can contribute is more suffering: the murder of people in the Mediterranean, the Aegean, and so on.

ER: And they politicize that murder.

MD: The right wing in the West uses borders in political arguments, but it’s not a winning argument. If you look at Mali, where I’m from, the French Army and the United Nations have been in Mali to make peace. They divided the country between the north and the south; they revived racism between the light-skinned Tuaregs, Berbers, and Arabs and the darker-skinned Mandingos and Bambaras. And jihadisme has been revived in Mali. Then a young group of soldiers took over. Then France said, “You need democracy.” And the soldiers called France’s bluff: “Why don’t you leave, and we’ll bring Russia to Mali to protect us against terrorism?” The French government said, “OK, we’re leaving.” But they can’t leave, because it’s by oppressing the third world that they have 21st-century politics: immigration, building walls, etc. Without the so-called third world, France would not have Mali and Niger, where they get gold, aluminum, and uranium. And without these countries, France has no leadership in the world. So the West keeps alive the idea of third worldism and borders to celebrate itself as a beacon of democracy, freedom, human rights, and so on.

People like Glissant and [Patrick] Chamoiseau and many in the United States believe that, if borders were to reflect our 21st century, they should be porous. It’s good to go from one place to another and see how the flavor of things changes. Let people go back and forth. Politicians in the West know that this is the new reality, but they don’t want it because, without borders, they cannot sustain a political position. They still need racism, bigotry, and scapegoats. They can’t let borders go because, if they let them go, they’re also losing the world that they think is Europe or America. But that world is gone.

ER: This reminds me of Wendy Trevino’s “A border, like race, is cruel fiction.” A fiction perhaps coming to an end.

MD: The right wing is fighting to maintain it. [Donald] Trump goes to Poland and says, “Do you want to lose your culture?” What does that mean? What’s their culture today? People like Trump use borders and differences and frontiers to divide the world, which actually has escaped them. We have already, as Glissant says, entered into a new planetary consciousness. This does not prevent us from denouncing injustice or from struggling for the right to better economic lives for everyone. But we are in a new planetary consciousness that we need to look to for the terms we’re defining. That’s where the struggle is when we talk about radical Black thought. In Africa, Europe, and the United States, people like to see the world as monolithic. But people who have lived through slavery and its heritage have taught them the priceless advantage of multiplicity, as opposed to this closed world of the same.

ER: Many of the thinkers in Towards a New Baroque also discuss the market’s role in undermining radical Black thought. Can you say a little more about the market?

MD: In the US, the market corrupts our relation to the becoming of humanities. The market says, “This is the land of the free. This is the land of liberty. If you work hard, you can be like me.” And they have succeeded in selling that, so we become tribalist. We become self-absorbed. We forget Black freedom. The market is doing that to people. It transforms you, and you forget the struggle that made this place a place that you can come to as a human being and as a multiplicity. That’s the biggest gift that the Ida B. Wellses, the Du Boises, the Douglasses, the Marcus Garveys gave us. But as soon as we go to good schools, we begin to have the same disease that capitalism has: self-absorption. This distracts you from the search for freedom. And freedom definitely is not finished.

The argument that thinkers like Glissant, Wynter, Davis, and Fred Moten are pushing for is for us to look for new “humanities,” in plural, as opposed to “humanity,” singular. To find these new humanities, we have to challenge the market and its homogeneity, which makes us all speak and consume the same in order to better exploit us, and so on. The market now needs to be challenged in a much more energetic manner by looking at its violence in every aspect, whether it’s economic, artistic, or religious. They all reduce multiplicity, human agency, and what makes us different.

ER: How does one continue this project?

MD: It’s important to understand one thing from Glissant. He believed that there are no opposites in the world; there are differences. When you look at the theory of the other—first by white people theorizing nonwhite people as the other and then by Black revolutionaries othering white people—Glissant’s argument is that they essentialize each other. They are in oppositional discourses. But what we need to do is to bring differences together, to find the points of contact between differences, and that’s what’s going to save the world. The world could not be made without the meeting of differences. We can’t leave the world the same as it was.

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