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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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Chapter 7–The Académie, Europe and the Colonial Rhetoric on Race Separation 119


Chapter 7 The Académie, Europe, and the Colonial Rhetoric on Race Separation One thing to remember, when dealing with the Académie française, is the expressed and argued logic for the French to replace the ancient Greeks and to supplant the Romans because of their Latin heritage as well as their posi- tion in the “Europe française” of the Enlightenment era. This in turn made them unofficial speakers for Europe—and its stereotypical white race—when it came to assessing and assigning codes of conduct between Europeans and others; the others being mostly the colonized in far away lands. The mythic story of the Phoenician princess who had a particularly light skin compared to her parents, and was seduced by a bull into traveling to what was to become Europe—named after her for her color as it is said in her Phoenician language—, became the basis for wanting to unite the continent under the idea of a “white race.” As the historian Sédillot concluded, “So, the myth of Europe appears to be the origin of a continent. Europeans are men of white skin, as the daughter of Agenor, granddaughter of Poseidon was white.” (p.14) Sédillot added this: Just as Europa [the Phoenician girl] gave herself to the god of Olympus, Europe [the continent] was born to history with and by Greece: Gortyne, where the virtue of Eu- ropa succumbed, Delphi, where her brother Cadmos consulted, Thebes, which he founded, count among the first homes...

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