Dr. Childers’ new book, Seeking Imperialism’s Embrace: National Identity, Decolonization, and Assimilation in the French Caribbean, was published this month by Oxford University Press.
Hailed as a “rich and vital work” that explores “a complex and fascinating history,” the monograph makes a “major contribution to our understanding of the Caribbean, France, and the story of empire and decolonization.”
In 1946, at a time when other French colonies were just beginning to break free of French imperial control, the people of the French Antilles—the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe—voted to join the French nation as departments (Départments d’outre mer, or DOMs). Eschewing independence in favor of complete integration with the metropole, the people of the French Antilles affirmed their Frenchness in an important decision that would define their citizenship and shape their politics for decades to come.
For Antilleans, this novel path was the natural culmination of a centuries-long quest for recognition of their equality with the French and a means of overcoming the entrenched political and economic power of the islands’ white minority. Disappointment with departmentalization quickly set in, Kristen Stromberg Childers shows in this work, as the promised equality was slow in coming and Antillean contributions to World War II went unrecognized. Champions of departmentalization such as Aimé Césaire argued that the “race-blind” Republic was far from universal and egalitarian. The French government struggled to stem unrest through economic development, tourism, and immigration to the metropole, where labor was in short supply. Antilleans fought against racial and gender stereotypes imposed on them by European French and sought to stem the tide of white metropolitan workers arriving in the Antilles. Although departmentalization has been criticized as a weak alternative to national independence, it was overwhelmingly popular among Antilleans at the time of the vote, and subsequent disappointment reflects the broken promises of assimilation more than the misguided nature of the decision.
Contrasting with the wars of decolonization in Algeria and Vietnam, Seeking Imperialism’s Embrace examines the Antilleans’ more peaceful but perhaps equally vexing process of forging a national identity in the French empire.
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