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One Story of Academia

Race Lines and the Rhetoric of Distinction through the Académie française


Moussa Traore

One Story of Academia: Race Lines and the Rhetoric of Distinction through the Académie française explores how the word race was historically linked to kings and feudal lords as a sign of elite social distinction, and how the Académie française has embodied that type of distinction in France since its establishment in 1635. Meant to be an undeclared, scholarly, «mysterious» companion to the French monarchy, the Académie created a powerful attraction for the highest classes, inspiring critics of different stripes; considered to be the highest expression of Frenchness, it excluded different groups based on class, gender, race/ethnicity, religion, ideology, and nationality. The self-proclaimed heir to ancient Greek and Roman scholarship, the Académie also claims to represent Europe, the West, and even Humanity. However, as an academic institution, it has experienced «dialectical» arguments between traditional (feudal) elitism, and scholarly elitism as both sought to define French culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. «Trustees of taste» and promoters of purity, the Académiciens and their strong supporters followed the troubled evolution of the word race and of social distinction. Borrowing from inter-European ethnic issues and nationalism, subscribers to the growing «racial» distinction had the features of the colonized analyzed with the French, and by extension, European and Western sense of social distinction in mind. Consequently the colonized ended up at the lowest end of the social scale; in turn, this placement explained the application of European feudal norms of exploitation on the colonies and created the more controversial and dreaded concept of «racism». This book highlights how the significance of language in the French sense of race – as superiority – is at the heart of the Académie française.


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Acknowlegments ix


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS This work is the product of my academic experience from early on to graduate school; which means that it made me use just about all the steps in my student career to help it support the possibly ambitious demands of its title. I am clearly indebted to more people than I would dare to start naming: all who have ever been mine a teacher, instructor, adviser/counselor, dialectical partner/opponent or a colleague at the invisible table of intellectual exchange have been, to varying degrees, natural contributors to this book. But a solid line of conscientious, well-meaning souls toiling at the mystery of education—educators who let meaning and higher purpose advise their humble expertise—made it possible and very interesting for me to think this homework. I eagerly let my deepest thanks find them wherever they are, as they have been finding them since. From Yatenga, to the Université de Ouagadougou, to the University of Minnesota, many Good ones spoke school with so positive an attitude that I am was pleased to think of it and come up with this answer. No one, however, should be (re)directed to the blackboard for the limits and shortcomings of this answer: only myself. I hope that those within whose experience this text happens to fall will find, be it just in the form of pieces or twinkles, the enlightening shades of those from whom it duly claims inspiration.

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