Dunbar on Black Books
October 1998    

  Spotlight on
Abdourahman A. Waberi

As late as August 22, 1998, Abdourahman A. Waberi was the unlikeliest candidate for inclusion on the roster of writers featured in "Dunbar on Black Books." This for the reason that I had never heard of him, or of his writings. Further, in my scanning of publication lists in search of names of authors of books by and about blacks, the orthography of his name would not have triggered my instinct to pursue it further as a prospect. [Shades of Iyanla Vanzant: see our June 1998 issue.] Happenstance would have it otherwise.

For some thirty-eight years I had planned to revisit Paris where I had been a researcher preparing a doctoral dissertation on selected French men of letters during the 1959-1960 academic year. So it is that chance had it that I be there for one week in August 1998 and on the twenty-third of August pick up from a newsstand a copy of Le Monde which contains an article whose title translates into English as "The Blues of Moussa the African." This "op-ed" essay commends Abdourahman A. Waberi as an eminent member of the roster of authors listed here, never mind the fact that I do not know a single thing about him other than what is in this article and that he writes in French. But, to use one of Mr. Waberi's favorite expressions, "Let's move forward."

From the editor's notes which accompany "The Blues of Moussa the African" we learn that Abdourahman A. Waberi was born in the former French Somaliland in 1965 and has lived in France since 1985, where he is a high school teacher in a Paris suburb. He is the published author of three nonfiction books about his native country and the conflicts in the horn of Africa. They are Le Pays sans ombre, Cahier nomade, and Balbala, all three of which were published by the Serpent plumes publishing house. We also learn from this source that in 1996 Waberi was the recipient of the literary grand prize of North Africa. This is the total factual information which I had on this man, and that from reading the editor's notes before reading the essay itself. But, "Let's move forward."

The tradition-honored French scholarly exercise known as the explication de texte, in which I had been trained more than forty years ago, came instinctively into play. This technique allows one to draw substantial conclusions about an author based on rigorous analysis of the text of his writings. A careful parsing of the text is de rigueur, as is a careful factoring in of biographical and other information about the author of the text. Absent these two ingredients, there is great risk. Nevertheless, to use the Waberian phrase again, "Let's go forward."
The considerable internal evidence in this essay permits a number of conclusions about its author. Even if the photo of him which is part of the presentation had not been there, we would be able to conclude that the intellectual who wrote this piece is black. Moreover, a parsing of the text leads us to conclude that Abdourahman A. Waberi is an authentic French model of the end-of-the-century black, tortured by a Gallic sense of the twoness which being a black African and at the same time a citizen and resident of France arouses in him. We think, despite the linguistic veil which dims the clarity of our intellectual vision, that through the prism of racial kinship we can feel the torment which had scarred the soul of Abdourahman A. Waberi. Without question this torment is the same as that which in 1903 William Edward Burghardt DuBois said, in his Souls of Black Folk, afflicted American blacks at the dawn of this century. We speak of the torment that had scarred Waberi's soul because we believe that there is evidence in the text that he has come to terms with it.

Our grasp of the French language after an absence of more than thirty-eight years permits little more than a surface understanding of texts that we read livre ouvert in that language. That is, without carefully researching words that could be symbolic, or used in an other-than-literal sense, we are not sure that we have seized a possibly subliminal meaning intended by an author. How then do we, after a thirty-eight-year absence from the reading of French texts, or of even visiting the premier French-speaking nation of the earth, come in August 1998 to have the temerity to do an analysis of a French text in the very capital of French letters? An obverse of the temerity which we manifested in 1959 when we did an analysis of the writings of seven white French men of letters to trace the impact on their intellect of certain philosophical currents explains our current presumptious act. "Let's go forward."

The venue for this Waberian virtual soliloquy is the opening ceremony of the World Cup on June 9, 1998, on the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Four players symbolizing different racial/ethnic groups are featured at this event to incarnate the sports comradeship of the thirty-two nations and the four continents convened at this event. One of these symbols, Moussa the African, whose Moslem given name, Waberi tells us, has the purpose in the minds of the conceivers of this event, of uniting all of the Africas, the South and the North, the Mali as well as the Malawi, black Africa and the Maghreb, the country of the Bafanas Bafanas and the Tunisia of Ben Ali. What is clear to us is that the concept resonates in the very being of Abdourhman A. Waberi. As he tells it, Moussa the African, born in the heart of Paris on this Tuesday, June 9, 1998, is one who will have no problem regularizing his situation in any precinct.

Waberi begins this essay soliloquizing on his own first conception of France and Frenchmen, gained as a boy in Djibouti as he observed French military men and members of the French Foreign Legion as they served in his country. They were athletic types with skins bronzed by the African sun. France was to his adolescent eyes, he says, powerful, crackling with ease and health, devoted to sports and to leisure, unrelated to the intellectualized France he later came to know.

Advancing, Waberi comes to the lack of rapport between France and the immigrants from its former black colonies. He cites the slow-to-heal wounds, not to mention the illusions lost on the other side of the Mediterranean, that frontier before the police barriers and the customs harassments which are faced immediately at the Charles de Gaulle or Orly Airport by those less-than-white-skinned people arriving in Paris from the former black colonies of France. It is here that Waberi demonstrates his understanding of, and kinship with the sense of the twoness which is felt by those African Americans who are tortured by the reality of being at the same time black and citizens/residents of a nation that does not understand them. France, as he says, has business with the great-grandchildren of those who had come to study in the metropolis at the beginning of the century, those who had rubbed shoulders with the French elite of the time. We are far from the period of the black dances of the Rue Blomet, the belts of bananas worn by Josephine Baker. In the 1930s he says, Josephine Baker sang, "I have two loves, my country and Paris, always equal, my heart is delighted." Today, he says, Doc Gyneco, the young rapper from the West Indies says, "My father was born over there, my mother was born over there. As for me, I was born here." Waberi notes that a long, half-century-old river flows between the two refrains and recounts some tumultuous events which seem to explain the transition from the "fusion" of which Baker sang and the separation of which Gyneco raps.

Paris was, Waberi reminds us, a peaceful harbor and oasis without segregation or discrimination against Afro-American artists after World War II. Numerous were those who chose to be domiciled here, for a season or for life, from Richard Wright to the Duke [Ellington] from James Baldwin to Chester Himes, by way of Langston Hughes or Claude MacKay to Deedee Bridgewater today, he continues. Then, in a peroration in which, frankly, many of the subtleties escape us, one thing leaps out. There is in France an anti-African bias created by newspapers, through "prosthetic treatises." Blacks in France are stereotyped along the lines of their countries of origin, Waberi argues, enumerating at least 24 of these "value judgments without scientific basis," as he calls them.

Waberi's soliloquy on June 9, 1998, on the Place de la Concorde leads us to conclude that he sees in the "birth" of Moussa the African at six o'clock in the evening in the heart of Paris, a symbolic promise of a purging of this anti-African bias in the hearts of Frenchmen. This kind of birth is not given to just anyone, he says.


    This book consists of 12 original interviews of ex-slaves. The interviewees were old, impoverished persons. The interviewers were employed by the Federal Writer's Project. Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe Jr., the book reviewer of the New York Amsterdam News says, "While the significance of Remembering Slavery may not be impeached, the final judgment must still remain the reader's - and this is where I mildly disagree with these reputable and diligent editors."

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    0703 RACE AND SOCIAL JUSTICE. by Howard McGary, Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-20720-1

    0704 THE AMERICAN DREAM IN BLACK AND WHITE: THE CLARENCE THOMAS HEARINGS. by Jane Flax. Cornell Univ. Press. ISBN 0-8014-3575-7.

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The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them.
--Mark Twain     

Copyright © 1998 by Harry B. Dunbar. All rights reserved.
Dunbar on Black Books