Life as a Research Fellow
‘Research Fellowships’ have a wonderful allure from afar: a distant, fertile land where one can hole up in the British Library and read for hours on end before visiting various archives where, once more, one is completely unburdened by daily work-related commitments.
Of course, this is not how things work out. Research Fellowships can just as quickly become swamped with admin, organising workshops, starting up academic blogs, participating in conferences, meeting publication deadlines, doing odd bits of teaching here and there… and that’s even before your own life-management issues (plumbing crisis, medical appointments, moving house, etc.) which interfere with the rêverie that is ‘endless hours at the British Library/archives’.
Often, in these times when you are trying to wrap up your doctoral projects but feel drowned in ‘commitments’, there is only one thing that keeps you going: the dream of the next big research project! And this is exactly where I am. I have three years of Research Fellowship (two at the Pears Institute at Birkbeck, and one at the European University Institute in Florence) lined up, and I’m in my fifth month. Already, the conference papers, article deadlines and general admin of organising conferences and workshops have piled up so high… but, I am not losing faith. Because I have a fascinating project to keep pushing for.
My doctoral studies focussed on the history of railway workers in Vichy France. My thesis challenged the myths of cheminot (orgnanised by the railway workers) resistance and collaboration. The book (coming out with CUP in 2014) looks beyond this: at theft, at Franco-German cohabitation, at professional strikes, at the language of class struggle.
Although this topic continues to interest me, and I am deeply involved in finishing my book, it feels like a much-loved outfit that is starting to age slightly. I am ready for something new. I began thinking about my new research topic in 2011, when I spotted a gap in Vichy historiography. And slowly it has developed into something tangible and manageable.
A history of black people in Vichy France
Whilst the history of Jews in Vichy France had been told and re-told, the history of black people – an otherwise hot topic in modern history – had been largely untouched. Of course there have been plenty of studies of race in France – but they almost always skip over the 1939-45 period – a period reserved for the study of antisemitism. And while some studies of blacks in the French military and French colonies have been taken on, nothing has been done in depth on black people in metropolitan France during the period of 1939-45.
The question of race sits uncomfortably on the sidelines of Vichy history: although blacks were not targeted as visibly and vehemently as the Jews, they were still victims of racial prejudice and sometimes discrimination. Laws targeting Jews to ride in the last carriage of the metro, to stay within the limits of the demarcation line, and to give up their professions in the arts, were also applied to ‘negroes’. The black minister Henry Lémery was dismissed from the Laval government in September 1940 on the basis of his skin colour. Colonial propaganda dispatched throughout France embraced traditional images of the black savage: an exotic, harmless beast whose simple attire was matched by an even simpler mind. Colonial troops who had helped both the French army in May-June 1940, and the Free French in 1940-44, were sidelined from the Liberation ceremonies in 1944-45, and from the general army as a whole. What do these stories say about race in Vichy France?
This is an extremely large topic. However, by dividing my project into manageable chunks, I will examine the many facets – cultural, socio-political, intellectual – of this question of race under Vichy. And after sneaking away to Paris a few days last term, I am increasingly convinced that a micro-history of blacks in Parisian arrondissements will begin to tell us something about race in daily life.
Ultimately, by challenging traditional assumptions of racial persecution under Vichy, I am hoping to shift the historiographical discussion from one where the history of Jews under Vichy is examined seperately from the history of racial minorities, to one where they intersect. Indeed, Marrus and Paxton were clearly correct when, in their remarkable work Vichy France and the Jews (1981), they placed Vichy’s attitudes towards Jews within a longer history of antisemitism. Yet recent works suggest is that this history also intersects with another history: a history of blacks, of the colonies, of difference. How does a history of race interact with the history of Jews? How do they illuminate one another? These are the questions which inspire me through my Research Fellowhsip.