This interview with Professor Malton was conducted by Abigail Cary Moore, PhD candidate at University of Virginia, and Perspectives co-editor.
Abigail Moore (AM): My first question is that much of your argument speaks to the interconnectedness of global Black masculinities within a globalized economy and your historical overview establishes Côte d'Ivoire as a center of the Atlantic slave trade with discursive implications for how Black men are represented, not just throughout the French empire, but throughout the world.
Jordanna Matlon is an Assistant Professor at American University's School of International Service and an urban sociologist interested in racial capitalism and its intersection with the political economy of patriarchy in Africa and the African diaspora.
Jordanna Matlon (JM): I'll be bold and I'll say both. Prefaced with the caveat that every place is different and will articulate dynamics of race, empire, and culture differently, there are also elements that are generalizable. When I talk about global Black masculinity as a shared structural location, I am referring to the fact that slavery and colonialism were part of a singular project of racial capitalism, and we have to understand them as such. We then understand these trans-Atlantic connections, in the way that there are tropes that travel, communication that travels, or imaginaries, specifically, that travel. So, I think it’s really important to understand that there is something generalizable for reasons that have to do with interconnected histories.
That's the historical part. With regards to the ethnography-- in my introduction I write that this is a familiar story to people who study postcolonial cities and specifically African cities, and one thing I wanted to do that was different in my book is tell a story that was more entrenched, to give that background before you look at all these media tropes and say "oh, these are just performative identities." I wanted my reader to understand its rootedness in racial capitalism. And while familiar, there were specificities. French is the lingua-franca in Abidjan, so unlike anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa that I know of, the language of the marketplace is French; it's not Dyula, it's not Wolof like in Senegal; it's not Swahili like in East Africa. Abidjan, the “Paris of West Africa,” was the regional hegemon and that sense of exceptionalism is particular to Abidjan. But these same expressive identities and performative identities cut across postcolonial cities in Africa and elsewhere. With regards to the orators I studied and the “Sorbonne” where they spoke, this was also a phenomenon that you saw in at least several West African countries, these kinds of politicized “street parliament” spaces; in the book I reference a special issue on the phenomenon in the journal Politique africaine. In short, this was definitely an ethnography of one location, but there were elements of the fieldwork that were familiar across African cities, and moreover the ideal type at play becomes instructive for understanding the Black Atlantic experience broadly.
AM: Narratives of temporality and chronology loom large throughout this text. The context of the évolué pointedly infers a movement through historical and biological time, and many of your informants speak of an extended adolescence, the inability to grow up, in the absence of salaried employment and a wife. Do you provide an alternative temporality that better captures these men's lives?
JM: That's a hard question. One thing that I definitely hear about my work is "what is the way out of consent and hegemony? Are you providing a way out in your story?" The category of youth, or “jeunesse,” is tragic, because it infers that these men are stuck. I reviewed Julie Kleinman’s book Adventure Capital, looking at migrants from Mali in Paris, and she insists that they're not stuck, but she says they're moving in place. But that to me sounds like they're stuck, it invokes wheels stuck in the mud, spinning in place. I think that when ethnographers see this kind of tragedy they want to find another meaning behind it. The reality is however undeniably harsh; at one point I write that the chance of media stardom is about as good as the chance of finding a steady job. Both are very distant. We need to see how this is actually a political question, and one entrenched in both racial capitalism and the political economy of patriarchy – themselves anchored in eugenicist thinking about racial difference and gender roles – which combined, constructed a narrow and exclusionary notion of masculine worth. This desire to maintain a breadwinner ideal is simply not attainable given the structure of the economy. James Ferguson's Give a Man a Fish makes for example clear that work, our idea of work, is disappearing. An emergent alternative is entrepreneurship that might be buttressed by a universal wage, which Ferguson talks about, and this would entail another approach to work and the relationship between citizen and state altogether. But if you are fixed to this idea of the breadwinner, which is a colonial invention, and you are in a situation where work is disappearing, but work is what bestows adulthood in your society, makes you an elder, a man, marriageable-- all of this is very heteronormative, of course--then you're stuck, because what you need to become a man is something that is disappearing in the world today. So, I don't think there's a silver lining to that. I think we need to imagine different ways to have relationships and to think outside of masculine worth being rooted in breadwinning and economic value, this is work that masculinities scholars like Kopano Ratele are doing. That is a politics, that is imagining another way to value and affirm masculinity-- but until we do that, we are stuck. So with your question about the category of youth as it relates to the évolué, I think that you absolutely captured what I am doing. We saw the évolué ideal established a long time ago and while it's morphed with the changing economy it's still held up. I found it remarkable how frequently I would hear men insist that they were evolved, évolué… that is a very colonial language, and it was still something that you heard in the Abidjanais vernacular.
AM: To follow up on that: several of your informants mention that their own fathers had had a number of wives and thirty-something children-- how does the concept of multiple wives play into the colonial conception of marriage? Does that still satisfy the hegemonic expectation of masculinity and the structure of marriage involving a breadwinner?
JM: That's a great question and it actually enters into a really interesting debate during late colonialism. The civilizing mission promoted wage work as the means for African society to modernize – in other words to Europeanize—by enabling breadwinning and nuclear family structures. At the same time colonial officials maintained that African men were polygamous, and justified denying African workers family wages, pensions, and benefits by arguing that they have different families than Europeans have, and so they'll just take another wife. So this concern over culture and cultural difference in the family was the logic colonial officials used to prevent Africans from having the same privileges and rights as European workers, and contradicted the rhetoric of the civilizing mission which claimed to give them what they needed to modernize, to shift their behaviors in public and private life. The expectation was that as wage earners, the breadwinner-évolué would have a relationship to colonial capitalism, but also that he would love and marry within the realm of European norms, put his children in European schools, make sure that his pregnant wife went to the hospital for prenatal care. All of this was about a social contract with the colonial regime and its civilizing process.
But norms adapt to local practices and power structures, and even for men in my study whose fathers had been bureaucrats or plantation owners, évolué, it was common for them to report growing up in polygamous families. By contrast, the men in my study, of my generation, did not experience this at all. They couldn't afford it. It may have been aspirational, and especially during the heyday of independence wealthier men frequently had a wife and mistress(es), Claudine Vidal has a classic article about that from the 1970s called “Guerre des sexes à Abidjan” (War of the Sexes in Abidjan). There's quite a lot of literature on that, including another classic by James Ferguson, Expectations of Modernity, that looks at the Zambian Copper Belt. As he explains, the European family type never became widespread for many reasons that are not only cultural. One is that the pay was never actually enough, and there was furthermore a real tension between the sexes because women were largely shut out from the wage economy –colonial norms deemed it inappropriate for women to work outside the home-- and that pushed them into romantic or sexual relationships just to survive in the city. So there's a lot, but the short answer is that you're dealing with a clash of pre-colonial and postcolonial patriarchy.
AM: Throughout the text and particularly in its final third, you include so many striking illustrations of advertisements, and informants, and urban landscapes, and it's hard to imagine the book without these central images. So what role do imagery and iconography play in the argument you're forwarding?
JM: Yeah, it's super important. When I was in the field, I didn't know that that would become such a central part of my story, but so much of the things that I wanted to say I would see. I wouldn’t say that every ethnography should be visual, but this one had to be. I look at media tropes, I look at performative identities, I look at representational repertoires, so the visual is an integral part of the story. I interrogate how Blackness is seen, because when it crosses the Atlantic via these media imaginaries, what was behind the images or music videos or the storylines was often lost. The men from my fieldwork didn’t speak English, but the images told their own stories.
Central to my theoretical argument about racial capitalism is moreover the fact that economic subjugation was pursued by devaluing Blackness, by inventing Blackness out of Africanity -- that Africanity was history, culture, humanity, and all that was flattened into “Black.” Part of the struggle against this oppressive system consisted of affirming that Black was beautiful, that Black was powerful. And so I explore how exploitation, and hegemony, operate around racialized registers to engage the visual expression of Blackness and how it manifests in cultural forms. I have several prior articles that examine visuality, but unlike those, in my book I include images that weren't only my own, because I didn't want this story to just be "oh yes, and now we're in Abidjan, look at these photos." I wanted to contextualize them in this visual history. Soap advertisements, ethnographic film, ethnographic museums, human zoos, all these kinds artifacts constitute struggles over representations of Blackness, and I engage theses struggles before arriving in Abidjan circa 2008.
AM: It's such a holistic visual timeline that you present. It's really beautiful. Though the invocation of Black American celebrities seems almost omnipresent throughout Abidjan, you say little about the contrast between this representation of America and the lives of American poor and working-class Black men. So do you think the representation of celebrities functions similarly in Black masculine spaces in urban centers in the US, or can you speak a little to the differences in how that functions here versus in Côte d'Ivoire?
JM: Absolutely, and that is a crucial theoretical point I'm making. When I was in the field, friends or respondents would say "oh let's watch a music video and I want you to explain this to me, or tell me about this," and I would explain, "you know, Black men in the United States have it really hard; African Americans face a lot of difficulties." They would look at me like I was lying, because I was just this one person, this student, coming from the States. And the media was so much more authoritative, these images and the stories that they were presenting in those images were more persuasive than me saying these are imaginaries. But you see the same thing here; you don't even have to cross the Atlantic.
In Masculinities, Raewyn Connell, describing marginalized masculinity, says that you have celebrity Black American athletes, or media personalities, but their success fails to trickle down to Black men generally. I address this in the book but even more so in my ASR article, where I say it does in fact trickle down because their success becomes a truth, a vehicle for hegemony. Despite the structural barriers, consent comes from seeing these stars and being sure that you will be the next successful footballer or successful basketball player or musician or whatnot. It comes from the belief that you can bypass the structural reality and say “I'm just gonna be one of the people who gets out through this." So yes, you see this in the US as well. I write about some Ivoirians who struck it big, like the footballer Didier Drogba, there are others that have come since him, but he was just this huge figure, also La Jet Set ivoirienne and Douk Saga who developed this music style, coupé-décalé, that was a hit in Paris. Everyone has a story about someone who knows someone who knows someone who signed with a European league. It becomes kind of an urban legend. These are devices to ensure consent to a system that is structurally disadvantaging the far majority of people.
AM: What are the future directions of your work? Were there unexpected themes that arose in the writing of this book that you intend to follow up in future projects?
JM: Sure, thank you for that. I mentioned this already, but I often hear that resistance seems to be absent from my analysis – where is resistance, are we just stuck? And another thing I hear is "why do you care so much if men want to be media stars,” or, “what is the problem with their consumerist inclinations?" Well, because commodification, the branding of Black bodies, is being repeated in multiple stages of racial capitalism. One might suppose that because of the legacy of commodified Black bodies, Blackness would be a potential site of resistance. But this is not inherent and it can just as easily be a vehicle of consent. I find it troubling because commodification continues to be extractive, exploitative, and absolutely not sustainable. It contributes to our devastation, our species’ destruction, which is of course not happening evenly but disproportionately affecting racially marginalized communities. The direction that I want to take my future research picks up where I end with the section in my conclusion, "What is at stake," where I raise the issue of the Anthropocene and climate devastation. My research thus far has juxtaposed consent and coercion, but here I want to think about, quoting AbdouMaliq Simone in City Life from Jakarta to Dakar, Blackness straddling “possibility and precariousness.” How have Black people endured despite the subjugations and repressions they have confronted across a range of sites, from urban underground and informal economies to provision grounds on slave plantations and maroon communities? And how is Black survival in turn represented and theorized, particularly as a way to evade the state or operate in ways not fully captured by the world capitalist system?
With regards to the Anthropocene literature, I think all social scientists need to think and write more about the environment and climate change. This is just so urgent, and it's going to become even more so with dislocations, adaptations and expulsions, and the politics that come from that. This is an existential threat, but it's also epistemological, because the civilizing mission and the idea of progress was premised on the supremacy of man over nature. This was an accepted fact for both classic liberal and Marxist thought. Climate change poses a fundamental challenge to that premise. The species is threatened, but so is the theoretical constitution of European modernity. Thinking about this using the lens of racial capitalism compels us to consider dispossession and loss, but again as both possibility and precariousness, the history of Black survival helps us to foresee the future in a far more precarious world.
AM: The very last line of this book is "Life in Abidjan is very hard." Will this new project have an underlying current of hope?
JM: We'll see. Like I said, there is both possibility and precariousness. To give an example, in one of my classes I talk about the experience of the Great Migration. African Americans moved to cities in the North to escape one form of racial terror, and ended up squeezed into segregated areas. Black New Yorkers were squeezed into Harlem, right, because they couldn't be anywhere else. Their landlords were able to charge more and do less, the conditions were exploitative. But you also had the Harlem Renaissance, you had the brilliance and the creativity that came out of that. I always like that example, that out of Harlem came the Harlem Renaissance, arguably the most important movement of American art and culture and music of that period and perhaps of the 20th century. When people are squeezed into conditions that are inhumane they respond with innovation and creativity. But we must not dismiss or forget that it's inhumane, and we cannot celebrate possibility or the ingenuity that comes from conditions of trying to survive without also acknowledging and attending to the inhumanity of these structural conditions. So I'm sure that those people in Harlem would have much preferred to have had more housing opportunities and better economic prospects. I think there can be a danger of glorifying the struggle.
Another point to consider is how challenges to the Anthropocene have come from indigenous knowledge systems which propose different ways of living with nature; indeed much of the literature on the Anthropocene from the lens of race examines alternative ecological inhabitations. The experience of Black enslavement in the Americas, for example, shows how survival was forged on provision grounds. Apart from the logics and extractions of the plantation system, here the enslaved planted seeds and used botanical knowledge from Africa to nourish their bodies and preserve community. In “Plantation Futures” Katherine McKittrick writes about these plots of land where another way of being with nature and with one another was possible. But then again, these were under conditions of enslavement. Ultimately, whose vision prevails will be a struggle and at its core is a question of power. There are plenty of contemporary examples of “sustainable” living experiments such as ecological enclaves at the scale of the neighborhood, city, or region that are exclusive and essentially reproduce what Daniel Aldana Cohen describes as “eco-apartheid.” This is another manifestation of racial capitalism, and the struggle continues.
AM: Well, thanks so much, this has been just fantastic. I really appreciate it.
Jordanna Marlon is the author of A Man among Other Men: The Crisis of Black Masculinity in Racial Capitalism (2022).