Michel Leiris, "Phantom Africa" (Seagull Books, 2017)


Between 1931 and 1933, French writer Michel Leiris participated in a state-sponsored expedition to document the cultural practices of people in west and east Africa. The Mission Dakar-Djibouti employed some questionable, unethical methods to dispossess African communities of their cultural and religious artifacts and artwork. In his capacity as secretary-archivist, Leiris recorded the events, actions and observations of the mission in great detail, in a daily journal that would become L'Afrique fantome. Leiris was both critical of and to an extent complicit in the exploitative encounter between French ethnographers and the colonized people they sought to study. His journal reveals the tensions between Europe's claims about the superiority of its civilization and the violence and barbarity of colonialism on the ground. It also bears witness to the process by which some of the holdings in the Quai Branly museum in Paris today, were taken as booty (or in Leiris' words, "butin") from the African continent in the early twentieth century. Brent Edward's Phantom Africa (Seagull Books, 2017) makes L'Afrique fantome available to English-speaking readers in its entirety for the first time. This translation presents an important and invaluable archive that documents the makings of ethnography as a field of study, as well its imbrication with colonial conquest and imperialism. In a thoughtful introduction that examines the historical context of Leiris' journey, his personal motivations, his use of language, his triumphs and frustrations, Edwards clearly lays out the importance of this text for readers interested in anthropology, literary studies and the history of colonial encounters. Brent Hayes Edwards was awarded a 2012 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for Phantom Africa. He is also the author of Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2017) and The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Harvard University Press, 2003), which was awarded the John Hope Franklin Prize of the American Studies Association, the Gilbert Chinard prize of the Society for French Historical Studies, and runner-up for the James Russell Lowell Prize of the Modern Language Association. With Robert G. OMeally and Farah Jasmine Griffin, he co-edited the collection Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies (Columbia University Press, 2004). His research and teaching focus on topics including African American literature, Francophone literature, theories of the African diaspora, translation studies, archive theory, black radical historiography, cultural politics in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, surrealism, experimental poetics, and jazz.
Annette Joseph-Gabriel is an Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her forthcoming book, Decolonial Citizenship: Black Women's Resistance in the Francophone World, examines Caribbean and African women's literary and political contributions to anti-colonial movements.

Your Host

Annette Joseph-Gabriel

View Profile