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Cécile Coquet-Mokoko. Love Under the Skin: Interracial Marriages in the American South and France

New York & London: Routledge, 2020. 210 p. ISBN: 978-0-367-37097-8. £29.59
Fanny ROBLES
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Cécile Coquet-Mokoko. Love Under the Skin: Interracial Marriages in the American South and France. New York & London: Routledge, 2020. 210 p. ISBN: 978-0-367-37097-8. £29.59

Texte intégral

“The simplest solution to the problem of race in America? Romantic love. Not friendship. Not the kind of safe, shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable. But real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. And because that real deep romantic love is so rare, and because American society is set up to make it even rarer between American Black and American White, the problem of race in America will never be solved.”

  • 1 Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah. London : 4th Estate, [2013] 2017, 296.

1Such is the conclusion to Ifemelu’s first blog post in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, following the young Nigerian woman’s breakup with her White American lover Curt, playing on the commonly shared and rather naïve assumption that interracial relationships can ultimately erase racism1. Cécile Coquet-Mokoko’s study Love Under the Skin: Interracial Marriages in the American South and France looks at the interracial couples who, for the most part and unlike Curt and Ifemelu, stood the test of time, from the 17th century to the present day, on both sides of the Atlantic.

  • 2 The use of “black” instead of “noir” is growingly questioned. See Causit, Charlotte. “’’Je n’aime p (...)
  • 3 See Niang, Mame-Fatou and Maboula Soumahoro. “Du besoin de traduire et d’ancrer l’expérience noire (...)
  • 4 Ibid., 144.

2Looking at the issue of race and anti-Black racism from a comparative perspective between France and the U.S. can prove to be a complex endeavor for a French academic. Language is part of the problem, when the use of the word “race” itself is a bone of contention in French and even what looks like potentially interesting borrowings such as “black” (instead of “noir”2) and “blackface” (instead of “barbouillage”3), can participate in the erasure or othering (“étrangéisation”4, to use Mame-Fatou Niang and Maboula Soumahoro’s neologism) of Afro-French movements and concepts.

  • 5 One thinks about Mame-Fatou Niang’s Mariannes noires (2016), Amandine Gay’s Ouvrir la Voix (Speak U (...)
  • 6 Soumahoro, Maboula. Le Triangle et l’Hexagone : Réflexions sur une identité noire. Paris : La Décou (...)
  • 7 Soumahoro, Maboula. Black is the Journey, Africana the Name. Trans. Kaiama L. Glover. Cambridge : P (...)

3Over the past few years, several autobiographical documentaries and books5 have attempted to render the French Black experience in the specificity of the French context, through situated knowledge. Dr. Maboula Soumahoro’s memoir Le Triangle et l’Hexagone : Réflexions sur une identité noire6 (translated as Black is the Journey, Africana the Name7) is a case in point: she describes her experience as a French Black scholar whose very body seemed to disqualify her from researching African American movements in French academia (p. 80), while her experience as a student at the City University of New York allowed her to willingly “become” Black (p. 84), in a country where, for the first time, she could effortlessly define herself as French and people believed her (p. 88).

  • 8 Mokoko Gampiot, Aurélien. Les Kimbanguistes en France : Expression messianique d’une Église afro-ch (...)

4Situating oneself regarding the color line is still a rare gesture in French academia, and Cécile Coquet-Mokoko, a White French woman, is part of the exception. Indeed, in Love Under the Skin, she makes no mystery of the key role played by her now 20-year relationship with her Congolese-born husband in both her French fieldwork, which she conducted partly with him as part of his own research8, and her U.S. fieldwork, undertaken as an invited professor at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, where the couple resided in 2009-2010. She refers to her personal experience on several occasions, to further illustrate points made by her interviewees on the rejection of the African partner by the French family, the suspicion of French administrative services or the behavior and perception of the interracial couple and their biracial children in U.S. public spaces.

  • 9 Feaging, Joe R. The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing. New York: (...)

5Following in the footsteps of Ann McGrath’s Illicit Love: Interracial Sex and Marriage in the United States and Australia (2015), Coquet-Mokoko’s book uses both qualitative sociological fieldwork and historical research to look at interracial marriages from a transnational comparative perspective. She takes up Joe Feaguin’s definition of the “White racial frame” as her starting point: “an overarching white world view that encompasses a broad and persisting set of racial stereotypes, prejudices, ideologies, images, interpretations and narratives, emotions, and reactions to language accent, as well as racialized inclinations to discriminate”9 (p. 2). She analyzes this multi-layered frame while taking into account the intersectional analysis of gender roles in the “dynamics of racial framing and counter-framing” (p. 8) exposed by Amy Steinbugler in Beyond Loving: Intimate Racework in Lesbian, Gay and Straight Interracial Relationships (2012). Coquet-Mokoko’s book focuses solely on cis-heterosexual couples (for “lack of contact in the LGBTQ+ community”) (p. 7), but studies such as Steinbugler’s provide her with the critical tools to analyze the over-emphasis on heteronormativity as a coping strategy for interracial couples against racist micro-aggressions. The study looks at 35 French and 22 U.S. couples, belonging to the 20-40 age group.

6The book is divided into two parts, “Historical Backgrounds” (“‘Out of A Past That’s Rooted in Shame’: How Interracial marriage Became a Stigma”) and “Comparative Sociological Analyses” (“‘Good Fences Make Good Neighbors’: Internalizing and Contesting the White Racial Frame in the Realm of Intimacy Today”). In the first part, Coquet-Mokoko highlights the cultural specificity of the U.S. White racial frame, which has to be distinguished from the French one. Hence a first chapter entitled “Criminalizing interracial attraction to enshrine white property in America (from 1630 to the present)”, which looks at the “legal construction of interracial couples as inherently illicit”, White state officials and legislator turning them into a “political problem” (24-25), with a particular focus on Alabama, which was the last state to strike out its miscegenation statute in 2000. In a longer chapter entitled “Religion and gender in the construction of Black otherness in Metropolitan France (from 1865 to the present)”, Coquet-Mokoko looks at the constant negotiation between the competing “White virtuousness” frame in metropolitan France and the White planter’s racial frame in the West Indies, which led several courts in metropolitan France (in Paris especially) to refuse to apply the Code noir and other racist royal edicts. This historical analysis lays the emphasis on resistance and agency from the interracial couples themselves. The implementation of the “imperialist White racial frame” in the French colonies, especially following the second abolition of slavery in 1848, is then explored, through the Code de l’indigénat and the specifically French stereotype of the tirailleur (encompassing both the childishness of a blackface minstrel, and the manliness and bravery of a soldier). The stereotype of the undocumented migrant looking for a “white” or “grey” marriage, attached to French citizens of African descent, stands out in the analysis of contemporary France, the White imperialistic frame “morph[ing] into a White anti-immigrant frame” (p. 103).

7The second, sociological part of Coquet-Mokoko’s analysis is divided into four chapters, whose long titles speak for themselves: “Inscribing Race and Gender in a “Colorblind” Era: How Partners are Socialized against Dating “Out”, “Current Repercussions of the Representations of Black-White Couples in France and Alabama: Is it about “Selling Out” or Becoming Kin?”, “Interracial Fusion? Maintaining a Partnership and Starting a Family with More than One Cultural Model”, and “Fantasizing the Child: How Successfully Do Partners Negotiate Racial Otherness When Reflecting on Parenthood and Parenting?”. The focus on the interracial couples’ agency is further developed in this part with the exploration of the several counter-framing strategies, used by the couples themselves, and by Black families historically. Far from renouncing their respective community, the partners engage in “these process of trading and adjustment, which Steinbugler has defined as ‘racework’” (p. 152). Particularly interesting is the focus on the “re-socializ[ation] to interactions with strangers” (p. 99) and “cultural training” (p. 152) undergone by the White partners, especially in France where Coquet-Mokoko’s respondents were much less aware of a White racial frame than her Alabamian interviewees, whose response to race-based hostility is more political. Finally, the understanding of collective parenting in African American, African and West Indian communities provides a powerful counter-frame to interracial families (p. 172).

  • 10 See Yee, Jennifer. ‘’Métissage in France: a postmodern fantasy and its forgotten precedents.’’ Mode (...)

8Cécile Coquet-Mokoko’s macro and micro approach of interracial marriages on both sides of the Atlantic proves to be a much needed counter-frame in the face of growing political polarization and rampant anti-Black racism in France and the U.S. As France has moved from the postmodern fantasy of métissage10 at the beginning of the century, to the fear of grand remplacement (literally: “Great replacement”) now widely discussed by the French media and politicians, one can only hope to see Love Under the Skin translated into French and reach as many readers as possible.

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Notes

1 Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah. London : 4th Estate, [2013] 2017, 296.

2 The use of “black” instead of “noir” is growingly questioned. See Causit, Charlotte. “’’Je n’aime pas qu’on me dise ‘black’’’ : pourquoi, en France, le mot ‘noir’ reste tabou.’’ France Info, 12/06/2020, updated 1/09/2021, https://www.francetvinfo.fr/france/je-n-aime-pas-qu-on-me-dise-black-pourquoi-en-france-le-mot-noir-reste-tabou_4003111.html, accessed 6/12/2023.

3 See Niang, Mame-Fatou and Maboula Soumahoro. “Du besoin de traduire et d’ancrer l’expérience noire dans l’hexagone.’’ Hors-Série Africultures. Décentrer/Déconstruire/Décoloniser (2019) : 142-145, 143.

4 Ibid., 144.

5 One thinks about Mame-Fatou Niang’s Mariannes noires (2016), Amandine Gay’s Ouvrir la Voix (Speak Up) (2017), and Leonora Miano’s collective work Marianne et le garçon noir. Paris : Pauvert, 2017.

6 Soumahoro, Maboula. Le Triangle et l’Hexagone : Réflexions sur une identité noire. Paris : La Découverte, 2020.

7 Soumahoro, Maboula. Black is the Journey, Africana the Name. Trans. Kaiama L. Glover. Cambridge : Polity, 2021.

8 Mokoko Gampiot, Aurélien. Les Kimbanguistes en France : Expression messianique d’une Église afro-chrétienne en contexte migratoire. Paris : L’Harmattan, 2010.

9 Feaging, Joe R. The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing. New York: Routledge [2009] 2013, 3. Emphasis in the original text.

10 See Yee, Jennifer. ‘’Métissage in France: a postmodern fantasy and its forgotten precedents.’’ Modern & Contemporary France 11.4 (2003): 411-425.

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Fanny ROBLES, « Cécile Coquet-Mokoko. Love Under the Skin: Interracial Marriages in the American South and France »e-Rea [En ligne], 21.1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2023, consulté le 27 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/17254 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.17254

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Fanny ROBLES

Aix-Marseille Université, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence, France

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