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French Racial Dynamics, Captured in Comics About Migrant Experiences

Yvan Alagbé continually confronts the reader with difficult glimpses of racial dynamics in modern France.

The cover of Yellow Negroes by Yvan Alagbé (courtesy New York Review Comics)

Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures collects several short comics from French-Beninese author Yvan Alagbé. Starting with the cover, which depicts a black man being strangled, his work continually confronts the reader with difficult glimpses of racial dynamics in modern France.

The first story in the book is something more gentle, though. It’s called “Love,” and it opens with a full-page picture of a woman’s back. She lies on her side, holding her left shoulder with her right hand. The second page pulls back the view as she stretches, nude. The third page pans around the woman, and we learn she is holding something against her chest — it’s not clear what, the art is a scribble and her companion is a mass of black. The last page elucidates that she is cradling an infant — a black baby in her white arms. This is the end of “Love.”

Written between 1994 and 2011, most of these stories were published in the French comics anthology Le Chéval sans tête (“The Horse Without a Head”), which Alagbé co-founded and co-edited, and collected together as Les Nègres jaunes et autres créatures imaginaires in 2012. The American version, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith and published by New York Review Comics earlier this year, marks the first time that Alagbé’s work, long revered in French alternative circles, is officially available in English. The book arrives at a moment in which its political concerns are especially pertinent. Though written across many years now past, Alagbé’s stories about the difficulties faced by migrants in Europe hold special relevance now, as that subject has spiked from one social issue among many to a full-blown crisis.

A heated confrontation from “Yellow Negroes,” the title story of the collection (courtesy New York Review Comics)

“Yellow Negroes,” the longest story in the book and the one it’s named after, takes place at a complex intersection of French colonialism, racial tension, and economics. Siblings Alain and Martine, undocumented Beninese immigrants working odd jobs to make ends meet, find themselves targeted by the unwelcome advances of Mario, a police officer. An Algerian who collaborated with the French to suppress dissent during the Algerian War of Independence (including taking part in a massacre in 1961), Mario now finds himself excruciatingly lonely in old age, renounced by the people he betrayed and disdained by whites for his race. He apparently feels a sense of kinship with Alain and Martine, and seeks to form his own warped “family” with them, the subtle blackmail of possible deportation hanging over their interactions. Alain is caught between repulsion and taking advantage of Mario’s attentions, juggling this with finding work and his romance with Claire, a white woman whose family can barely tamp down their racism around him.

Other stories build on the theme of the migrant experience. “Dyaa” finds Martine remembering her lover back in Benin. “The Suitcase” documents her packing for and then embarking on a return trip from her homeland to France. “Postcards From Montreuil” follows a group of mostly Malian undocumented workers occupying a temping agency in protest, trying desperately to draw attention to their plight. “Poscriptum” is a tribute to Burkinabé revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara. “Sand Niggers,” a new short written for the English release of the book, ties many ideas from Alagbé’s past stories to current events. A grotesque caricature of President Trump holds up a signed executive order, while a direct line is drawn between the Algerian War protest massacre of 1961 and the mass death of refugees in the Mediterranean in the present day. “Telling tales is the business of survivors,” Alagbé writes. “Ghost stories.”

From “Dyaa” (courtesy New York Review Comics)

Alagbé’s artwork is striking. Drawing in charcoal-like strokes of black on white, he will vary the level of detail in his images from one page to the next, or sometimes one panel to another. He will sketch a physical altercation between Alain and Mario in sparse, almost minimalist line work, and then etch out every crag on Mario’s anguished face in close-up. The harsh chiaroscuro and angular figures recall German Expressionism, and the use of shading is meticulous. When Alain meets Claire’s family, he’s conspicuously rendered as an all-black figure against the negative space in which they are thinly sketched. When a sex worker looks down on Mario with contempt, she is outlined in white on black instead of the usual black on white, like a drawn photo negative. During a disastrous encounter with the police, the brushstrokes around Alain turn into smears of despair around him.

From the climax of “Yellow Negroes” (courtesy New York Review Comics)

Throughout Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures, Alagbé’s characters explore different modes of alienation and confused identities. In the US we have a soft spot for stories about “the immigrant experience,” but too often focus on a romanticized vision of distant past immigrants (i.e. white ones), ignoring other experiences. Amidst debate about what is to be done for (or to) migrants in the US and Europe, this book reminds us that the issue is not new. With its stories originally spread out over nearly 20 years, it is a real-time chronicle of how immigrants and their treatment have evolved. The global migrant crisis will only get worse as climate change sets in, and so we would do well to heed Alagbé’s fevered attempts to humanize immigrants.

Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures by Yvan Alagbé is now out from New York Review Comics.

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