Gaston Kelman is the author of I Am a Black Man and I Don’t Like Manioc, published in 2003. In this bestseller Kelman, with provocation and a good dose of humor, castigates the clichés associated with the condition of being black in our society. In his view, these clichés are unexamined beliefs kept alive by whites, as well as by blacks who take a certain kind of pleasure in the status of victim and so are the first ones responsible for bringing about a difficult integration. Gaston Kelman denies that there is black culture. He himself says that “a black man is nothing other than a white man with dark skin.” It is thus possible to be black and not like manioc or even be a little tired of it. Gaston Kelman, thus, favors what he calls an assimilating humanism and is unsympathetic toward certain associations or organizations militating for the integration of black populations while at the same time maintaining the right to assert a difference. These obviously controversial stances provoke a certain incomprehension among numerous black personalities and within his country of origin, Cameroon.
Born in Cameroon, Gaston Kelman began his studies in literature there but then emigrated to France where he married and took up urban studies because he believed his country needed this expertise. In 1992 he started an association for the discussion of matters relating to the integration of the races, known by its French acronym as the CRI. Since 1993 he has been militating for a contractual integration, convinced that it is indispensable to help people to acquire a minimum set of skills?language and knowledge of the laws, to name a few?which are essential for their well-being in France. Afterwards, he became involved in associations and administrative services of the new city of Evry that work for integration (Generation Women, Health and Culture, Generation II, Parenting, stay in school initiatives, citizen associations, etc.).
From a professional standpoint, his involvement in the new town association of Evry (founder and director of an urban advisory board, 1989 to 1999), the national institute on statistics and economic information (census delegate in 1999), the town council of Courcouronnes (responsible for facilities built in common areas of a neighborhood with a large immigrant population), and France Terre d’Asile (responsible for integrating refugees into the workforce) put him at the center of problems pertaining to immigration. He would become increasingly interested in these questions, continually improving his knowledge of the mechanics that led to current difficulties and searching for ways to resolve them. In order to devote himself completely to this task, Kelman founded his own firm in late 2003 and is a consultant in socio-cultural problems associated with immigration from black Africa.
1. Identities and Cultures: New Frontiers
Amin Maalouf used to say, “pick out somebody in any capital city . . .that person is closer to me than my great-grandfather.” Over time, groups of people form sedimentary-like layers over a territory from generation to generation. You were born there, you’d pass your entire life there, and you’d die there. The same group had the same language, the same economic system, the same explanations for the origins of the universe, as well as the same cultural support systems. Culture, which is adaptability to a space and to a given time (Hic et nunc, here and now), was passed on by that group. Are identities passed on today by a country of origin, a skin color (Blacks)? What value do we place today on notions of roots and origins? It happens quite often that the father and the son don’t speak the same language, no longer have the same economic system or religion. How are identities formed these days? This is a question being asked more and more frequently in a world where physical distances have been abolished and borders have become virtual. In a new multiple-color (multicultural?) society like France, what is the real share that origins and roots have in the formation of identities?
2. Putting an end to the racial alibi once and for all
Races are dead and gone but their burial will last for centuries. In the recent past, there were five races in our human geography textbooks. Then there were two: the white man and the man of color. In fact, the notion of race, which reached its apogee in the 19th century, was never conceived as anything other than a justification for man’s exploitation by man. In the past, a justification was maintained for the domination of people of color by men of the white race, but what can be the justification for perpetuating the white and black races today since the yellow and red races have disappeared? Alibi or reality? Does the notion of being Black have the same significance if we’re talking about a single-color situation (Africa) as it does if we’re talking about a multiple-color situation? In the eyes of the Japanese or the French, is the Black from the U.S. seen the same way as the Ethiopian or the Somalian? Why is it that Blacks today, in general, and Africans in particular, shut themselves up in a community of color, forgetting that they are applying obsolete definitions to themselves which were established against them by the other? It’s interesting to understand what realities lay behind the alibi of color today.
3. France the domino: between history and memory
One day after a debate on slavery and colonization in a French high school, a white teenager, 16 years old, contacted me and told me he would have liked to participate in the discussion. Then he added: “I didn’t because if I had, my classmates would have said to me that I didn’t understand because we were the ones who were responsible for it in the first place.” How have we allowed ourselves to pass along guilt and victimization to our children? Would we have it that guilt and victimization are hereditary? Does history belong to a group or a territory for all eternity? How long will the new French society be able to live with fragmented histories, each ethnic group or group of color managing its own, often in conflict with the white dominant group or even with another minority, like the thirteen centuries of black enslavement by the Arabs? Are we prisoners of history? Do we have to look there to find a meaning for our destiny? History is necessarily simplistic. If there were a situation where we could talk about hereditary guilt, would I have the means to pick out among others who the ones were who had inherited the guilt and who had not? How do you use history to define a memory shared by all the members of the same nation, the nation itself being a voluntary construction? These are the questions which the new French society, made up of persons of diverse backgrounds and origins, must answer.
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