Francoise Vergès was interviewed on Zoom on June 14, 2021, by Cheryl Edwards.

Francois Vergés Interviewed by Cheryl Edwards

It was back in December 2019, when I received a message from a book designer from Duke University Press. The book designer was inquiring about the use of one of my images for a republished edition book cover for the renowned Political Scientist and Curator, Francoise Vergès. Fast forward – the image was used and the book “The Wombs of Women/Race, Capital, Feminism” authored by Professor Vergès was republished in June 2020. Duke University Press – The Wombs of Women (dukeupress.edu) “The Wombs of Women” is about the forced abortions of women of color during their 5th through 7th month of pregnancy. These occurrences happened in the mid-1970s and were performed by White doctors. Many abortions resulted in the sterilization of these women without their knowledge, let alone their consent.

I wanted to know more about Professor Vergès and so during this pandemic year we began a conversation via email. She is an extraordinary woman who embodies humility and a deep sense of responsibility for the humanity of brown and black women. The Studio Visit’s interview explored three aspects of her work, e.g., background, scholarship, and curatorial practice.

Professor Vergès was born in Paris, France where her mother was from. Her father, Paul Vergès was a Réunionese politician. Réunion is an island in the Indian Ocean that is an overseas department and region of France. Paul Vergés was born in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand to a French diplomat father and Vietnamese mother.  In 1960 he founded the Communist Party of Réunion, a party that he led until retirement in 1994. Her father did not stop there. In the 2005 European Parliament election he was elected as the third candidate on the list of the French Communist Party. He sat in the European Parliament’s Committee on Development. 

Professor Vergès grew up in Réunion and Algeria. She became politically active at an early age and  started writing for a small newspaper in France when she was 16 years old. She went back to Paris after high school to study Arabic and Chinese, and eventually chose journalism as a career path. https://frenchculture.org/books-and-ideas/authors-on-tour/6693verges-francoise  

Dr. Vergès moved to the United States (California) in 1983. What was supposed to be only a one to two week trip resulted in living in California for 14 years. Her status was that of an immigrant without papers; which led her to move to Mexico for a period of eight months while trying to obtain legal documents to return and remain in the United States. During this transition she talks about the racism that she experienced at the border – not unlike what is occurring in the present times. Her immigration papers were eventually processed.

After returning to California, she was accepted to the University of California, in San Diego where she earned a double B.A. degree graduating Summa Cum Laude with honors. Shortly thereafter she attended the University of Berkeley and obtained her Doctorate Degree in Political Sciences. The title of her dissertation was Monsters and Revolutionaries. Colonial Family Romance. Her focus was on the period of the French Colonization examining the actions of the Maroons and their activism. A Maroon is a Black person or a descendant of such a person of the West Indies and Guyana in the 17th and 18th centuries who escaped slavery. Descendants of Maroons can be found today in Jamaica and Cuba, as well as other places in the continents. 

Although, she identifies herself as a Feminist, her work and research are distinctly different than the advocacy of White Feminism. Francois Vergès self identifies as a Decolonial Feminist. This conviction and activism originated from her family; where she states that both boys and girls within the family were treated equally. She was encouraged by both parents to be free.

Professor Vergès is the author of ten books, two of which were translated into English. She has published extensively on postcolonial theory, creolization, psychoanalysis, slavery and the economy of predation and Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire. She has also directed two movies on the great Caribbean authors Aimé Césaire and Maryse Condé and organized a few exhibitions at the Louvre on slavery and women.

Professor Vergès’ research and life work led her to examine the commodities of tobacco, cotton, sugar, and coffee grown in Africa. This analysis carried over into her curatorial practice in the arts where she explored slavery and white patriarchy as the voice and narrator in European paintings. She took a closer look at the use of tobacco, coffee, sugar, chocolate, and cotton within the context of the paintings housed within the collection of the Louvre Museum in France. She analyzed the landscape of paintings created by European artists and questioned the role of slaves in these works.

Curator Vergès made the argument about whose labor generated these commodities for the use of the Europeans and at what cost. She historically noted that Europeans were not drinking coffee with sugar prior to the 16th century. Professor Vergès made a closer examination of the historical role of the Black women represented in these paintings. Curator Vergès asks the question through her exhibitions – “What is the real name of the female slave? Was it the name that her mother gave her? Was it the name that the Slave master gave her?”

The issues addressed by Vergès’ curatorial practice is in conversation with the work of Artist, Kara Walker. Walker’s large scale-scale public project entitled A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. Kara Walker, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby – Smart history. While Vergès’ focus is on the French colonization it speaks to Walker’s constant path of examining the Antebellum period here in the United States.

Professor Vergès is the co-founder of the association “Decolonize the Arts”. This movement advocates that it is not okay now for the French to use Black Face, albeit to the French it is just a joke. She argues that this type of behavior hides racism, sexism, and class. The argument extends to the questions: Who is cleaning the art institutions and museums? Who is making the art exhibitions and programs possible? Who are the invisible people in the office? Most poignantly, how do you explain the possession and pseudo-ownership of stolen African objects found in European and American Museums?

Professor Vergès proposes a solution found within the concept of Decolonization of Self. This concept speaks to the issue of unlearning and relearning social structures which are fairer and more equitable which will serve the collective. . Vergès acknowledges that the burden is not solely the job of the colonized.  Decolonization of self requires all of us to engage in deprogramming the way that we view and live in this world. She asks the question – “How will we humanize the world?” She concludes that it is not always the other; it is also us. 

Decolonization of self – reminds me of the remarks made by Professor Eddie Glaude from Princeton University. When he stated, ‘This is us.’ ‘This is us’: Eddie Glaude’s comments on America and white supremacy, annotated – The Washington Post

Dr. Vergès is the epitome of an old African proverb – ‘The man {woman} on his {her} feet carry the burden of the man {woman} sitting down.’

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