Symposium Introduction

Brent Hayes Edwards’s monumental translation of Michel Leiris’s puzzling, infuriating, and thoroughly fascinating Phantom Africa makes available to a new—and newly critical—generation of students and readers a crucial document of colonial ethnography with profound import for literary history and modernism and surrealism in particular. Originally published in 1934, Phantom Africa is as generically wild as it is ideologically fraught, veering from essayistic critiques of the imperial object-gathering enterprise in Africa to rapturous fantasias that imagine cross-cultural knowledge-gathering in terms of radical eroticism and psychic revolution.

In the simplest terms, Phantom Africa is an impressionist’s diary, written by a man disillusioned with the literary culture of Paris, and recounting in granular detail his experience of the Mission Dakar-Djibouti (1931–1933), financed by the French government as its first ethnographic expedition in sub-Saharan Africa. As the mission’s “secretary archivist,” charged especially with documenting each object requisitioned as booty for display in Paris, Leiris was both faithful to this mission and deeply invested in his own position as an outsider to it, oftentimes in what now read as unappealingly heroic and salvific terms. At the same time, the book is marked by a desperate and accelerating sense of melancholy, a growing conviction that the cultural and linguistic abyss between the European observer and the Africa he is charged with grasping is too wide, too cavernous, and too ontologically destabilizing to bridge. There is also the tedious reality of bureaucratic travel: “All these days remain hollow,” Leiris writes, “my motions are purely mechanical. Again, I am being driven to hate my companions.”

Given the purpose of the mission, one doesn’t have to venture many guesses as to why. In preparation for his journey, Leiris writes of the “white mentality” that perceives everything other “in an entirely phantasmagorical way.” Displacing this mentality is, for him, a way to “undermine . . . racial prejudice, and iniquity against which one can never struggle enough.” Phantom Africa, and the non-specialist ethnography it both invents and records, attempts to reckon with this habit by way of a strict empiricism turned most energetically on the writer himself. The journal is infused with Leiris’s own sense and obsessive tracking of the observer’s subjective particularity. Like a latter-day Montaigne, he writes of his heartburn, his Rabelaisian lunch. And his own reflections become, in the later prefaces to the work, the subject of his scrutiny once again. As Justin Izzo suggests in his response, “What results is a mise en abyme of selves, different versions of Leiris (Leiris 2.0 or 3.0, we might say) who critique the political positions of earlier iterations and cause the journal’s original self to recede and become phantomlike.”

These moments and meta-moments within and between the publications of the text confess the science’s non-objectivity a form of accusation, illuminating the mission’s total co-optation into the projects of imperial resource extraction. Nevertheless, the “Africa” that appears in these pages is stubbornly ghost and ghosted. As in many earlier travel narratives attached to the requisition and management of far-flung territories, the epistemic interval Leiris constantly confronts and attempts to bridge amplifies what Amiel Bizé calls in her essay “ethnographic desire”—a “passion” “for speaking of what he does not know,” the “ethnographic bug” that bites him. For Bizé, this desire, offered in the mode of confession, both motors the narrative and constantly threatens to undo it.

Edwards’s introduction and apparatus illuminate these tensions and problematic self-positionings in ways that will be and already have been incredibly productive for students and scholars of imperial and literary history. In this way, Edwards’s Phantom Africa is a gift not only to an English-language readership, but to anyone interested in Leiris’s legacy and the discursive history of a continent that—in the hands of its Western observers—is continually and purposely made to fade from view. Leiris was not the first to stage such an erasure in the terms of keenly documented unknowability—what Keugro Macharia refers to as scholars’ cynical deployment of “the problem of the inexpressible, the untranslatable, the undecipherable, and many other negating prefixes: in-, un-, de-, imp”—nor would he be the last. As Chinua Achebe notes in his indelible repudiation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the modernist and surrealist canons in particular trade in the coin of obscurity and obfuscation when it comes to Africa. For Achebe, Conrad is “engaged in inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery.”1 Such an “adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensive mystery”—terms Achebe borrows from F. R. Leavis—are at work in Leiris’s text as well, and Edwards is a detailed and clear-eyed guide in revealing and interrogating this particularly grim expression of colonialist looting’s aesthetic burnishing. For these reasons and more, Edwards’s introduction is in itself an enormously important piece of scholarship, laying out rich context for the development of interwar literary aesthetics, French anthropology, Leiris’s own body of work, and those he influenced.

Particularly enriching is Edwards’s inclusion, as beautifully laid-out sidenotes, of Leiris’s letters to his wife, Zette, with whom he corresponded voluminously during the mission, his mother, and more—Amah Edoh rightly called the decision “inspired.” The letters offer a valuable and fascinating picture of the literary and observational decisions that shaped Phantom Africa, peculiar as the outcomes or these writerly choices may be in generic and tonal terms.

Vast, uncomfortable, historically essential—the appearance of this work in English almost a century after its publication raises fraught disciplinary and affective questions for its readers. In addition to Bizé’s useful meditation on ethnographic desire, and Izzo’s reflections on Leiris’s ontology and the limits of contemporary discursive barrier policing between literature and anthropology, this dossier contains perspectives that foreground in affective terms the challenge of reading a text as “new” in a present in which the arrogance and racialized injustice in and behind Leiris’s writing is nowhere near eradicated. Kaiama Glover’s essay frames these issues in terms of spatial, temporal, and linguistic translation, beginning of course with Leiris’s own project of translating what he saw and what he heard for the mission and for the broader readership he imagined. For Amah Edoh, “Phantom Africa brought about (to my dismay!) moments of intense recognition and resonance . . . the overwhelm; the beginner’s faith in the promise of ethnographic research as a mode of and means to definitive knowing” but also ambivalence, “points of disjuncture” that are “momentous.”

  1. Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa,” 1785.

Justin Izzo


Phantom Africa

Empire, Paratexts, and Context

Brent Hayes Edwards’s wonderful translation of Michel Leiris’s L’Afrique fantôme (hereafter referred to as Phantom Africa) comes at an especially propitious time. The history of French anthropology and studies of the discipline’s relationships to empire, literature, and fiction in the Francophone world are fast becoming an established field, as recent books by Vincent Debaene, Alice Conklin, and myself attest.1 Leiris’s sprawling and enigmatic Phantom Africa is in the thick of this constellation of issues: the 1931–33 Mission Dakar-Djibouti crossed colonial Africa and independent Abyssinia, but although Leiris’s travel journal offers a real-time account of the expedition it also famously meanders into stylized reflections on literature, selfhood, and the fraught nature of anthropological knowledge production. With Edwards’s translation, Phantom Africa looks set to find new, English-language audiences who will position the work within emerging twenty-first-century contexts.

Thanks to its density, ethnographic detail, paratextual framing, colonial resonances, and affective turbulence, Phantom Africa has long fed critical work that engages with the paradoxes that proliferate in the hundreds of pages Leiris devotes to the mission. One of the most important involves the question of genre, as the text straddles anthropology and literature in Leiris’s journal intime whose prose does not allow readers easily to disentangle these two modes of writing. And in fact they need not be disentangled: although Leiris would go on to write more conventional social-scientific studies like Contacts de civilisations en Martinique et en Guadeloupe (1956) or La Possession et ses aspects théâtraux chez les Éthiopiens de Gondar (1958), in this earlier text he highlights the poetics of ethnographic knowledge production long before anthropologists addressed this question in the “writing culture” moment of the 1980s and ’90s.

Other paradoxes spring from this epistemological and stylistic knot. The affective tenor of the book is unstable and shifting, as Leiris moves from impatient excitement at the kinds of “contact” anthropology might foster to morose introspection and gloomy boredom that keep him forever focused on the mission’s next stops. The same goes for his relationship to colonialism. For one thing, Leiris punctuates Phantom Africa with statements of exasperation at the colonial situation but at the same time he welcomes the fact that colonial politics makes the mission and its object collecting/thievery possible in the first place. For another, in his paratextual preface and preamble (written in 1951 and 1981, respectively) Leiris distances himself from both the man who wrote Phantom Africa initially and from certain naïve remarks about the colonial situation that the original text contains. What results is a mise en abyme of selves, different versions of Leiris (Leiris 2.0 or 3.0, we might say) who critique the political positions of earlier iterations and cause the journal’s original self to recede and become phantomlike.

Edwards’s translation and critical introduction highlight and wrestle with many of these paradoxes. On the colonial question, for instance, he notes that although Phantom Africa does not record on any macro level Leiris’s coming to terms with an anticolonial consciousness (this would come later), the day-to-day pacing of the entries “[capture] in slow motion . . . the process by which a rather callow and disaffected poet was first forced to confront the problem of colonialism in his life as well as in his writing” (24). This observation allows Edwards to point out that much of Leiris’s frustration with colonialism in Phantom Africa springs from a generalized “misanthropy” (23) rather than from any solidifying political position. But it also allows him to suggest that much of the journal is given over to more micro-level engagements with empire, even if these confrontations do not tell the story of an emergent anticolonialism.

Edwards also addresses the literature/anthropology question, rightly arguing that Phantom Africa “creates a bifurcation between anthropology and literature, a split that comes to define [Leiris’s] entire career” (13), even though the journal itself blends anthropology with literary effects. And on the question of selfhood the translation offers a new, intriguing layer: Edwards quotes from the letters Leiris wrote during the mission to his wife, Zette. These excerpts appear as notes to the right and left of the main body of the text, so that readers can easily move back and forth between the journal and these more private reflections. The effect here is at once visual, geographic, and ontological: these letters draw our eyes from Leiris’s real-time recordings to his epistolary metacommentary, reminding us that Leiris remained inescapably focused on Zette in Paris just as he wrestled with anthropology on the ground in Africa. Similarly, in the letters we observe a self who was reflecting on the “first-take” impressions that comprise the journal’s main text but at some degree of remove from the entries’ immediacy.

This play of distancing and layering, filtered as it is through anthropology and the colonial project, is what attracted me to Phantom Africa in the first place. I have lived with this book for a long time, first as an undergraduate interested in anthropology and literature and later as a graduate student working on a dissertation about anthropology, fiction, and empire. The conclusion to the book that grew out of this dissertation meditates on what twentieth-century experimental anthropologies have to tell us about the politics of knowledge production today. Having finished this project, I remain struck by how Leiris and Phantom Africa might intersect with twenty-first-century debates about how knowledge in and about Africa can revitalize planetary perspectives on politics and cultural production. Leiris himself might approve of this convergence, since as he distanced himself from the colonial project in his 1951 and 1981 paratexts he highlighted the ways in which ethnographic knowledge had to leave behind its colonial trappings if it was to link up with “those emerging from that black world who were struggling against oppression and asserting their cultural particularity across the globe” (59–60). As he distanced himself from the self who wrote the journal in the first place, then, Leiris inserted Phantom Africa into global perspectives on politics and blackness.

Michel Leiris and Africa-World

In a recent essay from his coedited collection, Écrire l’Afrique-Monde (Writing Africa-World), Achille Mbembe raises related questions about how to conceive of knowledge produced within and about Africa and the diaspora from planetary perspectives. This essay, “Penser le monde à partir de l’Afrique” (Thinking the world from Africa), consists of twelve propositions for moving beyond what he calls “modern regimes of knowledge” that position Africa as a cloistered geopolitical/epistemological space and whose hallmark is the idea that “humanity does not share a common world.”2 With these propositions Mbembe tries to imagine now modes of thinking from Africa and the diaspora that would require instead a “politics of sameness” that speaks to our shared planetary condition—here his political epistemology takes on an ecological cast. Mbembe turns to figures like Frantz Fanon, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Édouard Glissant in order to reimagine an “African paradigm for the social sciences” that relies on the opening of worlds onto each other, and that rejects the closure inherent in older nationalist projects. The broad question guiding these interventions is “How can we make the present and African life . . . an event for thought for people of African origins of course, but also for our world?”3

Despite their global inclinations, Mbembe and Leiris are of course working in very different contexts. On the one hand, the paratextual Leiris of the preamble and preface to Phantom Africa is trying to read his earlier self in terms of Third-Worldism and anticolonial nationalisms that, as Edwards stresses in his introduction, he came to believe could be fostered with the help of ethnographers (23). What is more, the fact that these paratexts cause the Africa that appears in Leiris’s “first-take” journal entries to recede even further only reinforces Mbembe’s claim about how modern knowledge regimes have highlighted the continent’s fundamental difference. On the other hand, Mbembe seeks to move beyond the nationalisms toward which Leiris was turning: he focuses instead on circulations, openings, and the question of relationality.

And yet, I want to propose that Leiris and Mbembe are not necessarily speaking past one another, and that reading Leiris in terms of the planetary thrust of “Africa-World” opens up new ways to read Phantom Africa in the twenty-first century. From this perspective, Leiris’s desire for the kinds of “contact” that ethnography offers seems to resonate with Mbembe’s call for a politics of sameness, even though we cannot forget that Leiris always falls back into epistemological difference. This tension suggests that Leiris was working through the global echoes of his work even as his travel diary began to appear utterly foreign or “phantasmal” to him, as he put it in 1981 (61). Further, still in his 1981 preamble, Leiris raises the question of African futures that would break with the modes of knowledge with which he was working in Phantom Africa (61), a break that appears consonant with Mbembe’s call to go beyond what modern epistemologies have made of Africa.

Beyond this question of epistemological periodization, the experimental nature of Phantom Africa speaks to another point Mbembe makes about cultural production in and about Africa. He argues that in order to think world futures from African presents we must adopt a “postanthropological” perspective on the continent that privileges “literary and artistic archives” capable of imagining belonging, circulation, and “proximity” over and against the kinds of difference that the social sciences have historically reified.4 Mbembe only lets us glimpse what “postanthropology” might mean, but we can understand it as a provocation pitting artistic production against the human sciences, spurring the former toward future-oriented knowledges.

In Phantom Africa, Leiris is also wrestling with the entanglement of art/literature, anthropology, and knowledge production. Despite their divergent contexts (Mbembe goes on to reference postcolonial African fiction, for instance), both Mbembe and Leiris wonder about the viability of ethnographic knowledge, the question of genre, and about how African futures push us to redefine our analytic categories. It is on this terrain that we can see these two figures intersect, but it is also here that Leiris provokes us to reframe Mbembe’s argument. Doing so illuminates some of the stakes involved in reading Phantom Africa today.

Mbembe’s postanthropological perspective seems to presuppose a fundamental incompatibility between the social sciences and artistic-literary production. But in Phantom Africa Leiris sees these modes of writing and of conceiving the world as curiously co-dependent: the journal is rich with ethnographic detail, and yet Leiris famously writes of his frustration with ethnography in prose that contains stylized, literary resonances. His writing holds together anthropology, literature, and critical distancing in ways that do not allow for any of these threads to be neatly isolated and considered apart from the others. This feature reaches a crescendo when, toward the end of the journey, Leiris goes so far as to reimagine himself as a fictionalized character in an “idea for a story” that reboots Joseph Conrad’s 1915 novel, Victory (671–75). Doing so removes him from his immediate ethnographic surroundings and allows for imaginative free play that the social sciences cannot admit, but it also shows how ethnographic knowledge production for Leiris floats between these different registers and relies on their interpenetration. And crucially, his exasperation and doubts about the viability or usefulness of ethnographic knowledge function in the same way.

All of this is not to offer an updated vision of Leiris as an afrofuturist avant la lettre. But it is to point out that he was reckoning with certain problems that Mbembe would go on to bring together in his call for a “postanthropological perspective” on Africa. Moreover, Leiris doubles down on his critical distancing from anthropology in his paratextual reframing, writing in 1981 that “I no longer believe that this testimony could be considered any better than phantasmal by those . . . on whom depends to a great extent the future of the new Africa where peoples are coming into contact” (61). What this play of layering and distancing suggests is that although Leiris and Mbembe are working through remarkably similar sets of problems, for the former this process does not involve provocatively leaving anthropology behind. Despite his frustrations with the discipline, Leiris is not imagining ways of knowing “beyond” anthropology (and not just because he went on to write more conventional ethnographic studies). Instead, he tackles what he perceives as anthropology’s epistemological shortcomings by opening up the discipline to art and literature. For Leiris these shortcomings might be addressed by embracing a sense of connectivity between anthropology and other forms of creative cultural production.

What this means, finally, is that Leiris’s experimentation has to do with forcing anthropology to open onto other modes of writing and of imagining the world. It does not, however, involve solidifying boundaries between the social sciences and literature in the same way that Mbembe’s postanthropology risks doing, even though its central thrust about surpassing epistemologies of difference is well-taken. In Phantom Africa and its paratexts, Leiris is in many ways thinking an early, even colonial, version of Mbembe’s Africa-World, one that interrogates anthropological knowledge production by postulating the discipline’s proximity to other creative outlets. And it is this experimental “proximity,” to borrow one of Mbembe’s key categories, that suggests new ways of thinking alongside Leiris and Phantom Africa today.

  1. Vincent Debaene, Far Afield: French Anthropology between Science and Literature, trans. Justin Izzo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); Alice Conklin, In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850–1950 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013); and Justin Izzo, Experiments with Empire: Anthropology and Fiction in the French Atlantic (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming).

  2. Achille Mbembe, “Penser le monde à partir de l’Afrique,” in Écrire l’Afrique-Monde, ed. Achille Mbembe and Felwine Sarr (Paris: Philippe Rey, 2017), 383.

  3. Mbembe, “Penser le monde,” 386. Emphasis in original.

  4. Mbembe, “Penser le monde,” 393.

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    Brent Hayes Edwards


    Rereading Leiris in the Age of Restitution: Reply to Justin Izzo

    I greatly appreciate Justin Izzo’s reflections on the significance of the publication of my recent English translation of Michel Leiris’s Phantom Africa, which has emerged in the midst of what he suggests is an ongoing surge of scholarship on the peculiar intimacies between European anthropology and colonialism in the twentieth century. Although much of the work he cites (including his own forthcoming book, as well as works by Vincent Debaene, Alice Conklin, Edouard Glissant, and Achille Mbembe) has emerged from a Francophone context—and thus grapples with Leiris in the French original—it is my hope that making the “sprawling and enigmatic” (to adopt Izzo’s characterization) Phantom Africa available in a thoroughly documented English-language edition will have a broader impact on the ways we think about and teach the intertwined histories of anthropology and empire moving forward, just as Claude Lévi-Strauss’s 1955 Tristes Tropiques became a touchstone for Anglophone readers after John and Doreen Weightman published their translation in the early 1970s.1

    In an astonishing development that has continued to unfold while this dossier has been in preparation, the historical significance of Phantom Africa has been radically recast in just the past few months, in a manner with implications far beyond the often rarefied confines of the academy. In November 2017, the French president Emmanuel Macron delivered a now-infamous address at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso in which he described himself as a “member of a generation of French people for whom the crimes of European colonization cannot be disputed and are part of our history.” In proposing a wide variety of policy initiatives, Macron emphasized the issue of cultural heritage. “I cannot accept that a large share of several African countries’ cultural heritage be kept in France,” he declared. “There are historical explanations for it, but there is no valid, lasting and unconditional justification. African heritage cannot solely exist in private collections and European museums. African heritage must be showcased in Paris but also in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou; this will be one of my priorities. Within five years I want the conditions to exist for temporary or permanent returns of African heritage to Africa [des restitutions temporaires ou définitives du patrimoine africain en Afrique].”2

    Macron subsequently commissioned a special report on the topic from two respected scholars, Felwine Sarr (a professor of economics at the Université Gaston-Berger in Saint-Louis, Sénégal) and Bénédicte Savoy (a professor of art history at the Department of Art History at the Technische Universität Berlin, as well as the holder of a chair at the Collège de France). The final report, “Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain. Vers une nouvelle éthique relationnelle” (Report on the restitution of African cultural heritage: Towards a new relational ethics),3 formally delivered to President Macron on November 23, 2018, is nothing less than a bombshell.

    It has been estimated that more than 90 percent of the cultural heritage of sub-Saharan Africa—art and artifacts representing the achievement of centuries of civilization—are currently held in European museums and archives. The governing pretense maintained by the most prestigious museums across Europe (the British Museum, the Weltmuseum in Vienna, the musée Royal de l’Afrique central in Belgium, the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, the musée du quai Branly in France) of serving as the custodians of “universal” cultural heritage has provided an alibi for unfettered hoarding, driven by a competitive “logic of national affirmation” in which “the museum permit[ted] the European powers to stage their aptitude for absorbing and classifying the world” (31). This project has been undertaken through an unholy (and largely unavowed) alliance between European museums and European colonialism, an alliance in which generations of anthropologists and art collectors have played a leading role. “The active pursuit of cultural goods and their transfer to the capitals of Europe,” Sarr and Savoy write, “were at the heart—and not at the margins—of the colonial enterprise” (10). Indeed, under colonialism the exploitation of natural resources and the exploitation of cultural resources (considered likewise as goods of economic value) were “indissociable” (11).

    In an extensive series of consultations and ateliers during the spring and summer of 2018, in which Sarr and Savoy met with more than five hundred academics, activists, lawyers, politicians, museum administrators, and art collectors in France as well as Africa, there was widespread consternation about the practicalities of “restituting” such an enormous body of work, and barely concealed panic that such a shift in policy would result in the emptying of the great museums of Europe. (As the sensational headline of one of the first newspaper articles in France to divulge the contents of the Sarr-Savoy Report put it breathlessly: “African Artworks: A Report Recommends Giving Everything Back (or Almost)!”)4 A number of participants suggested that it might be more feasible to approach the problem through a policy “temporary restitutions” (e.g., the long-term loans of artworks to African institutions) rather than “definitive” repatriations. The first priority, some argued, should be to increase the circulation of this rich heritage—to allow other publics to interact with the works, especially in Africa. Such a shift in approach would have the advantage of avoiding many of the legal and ethical pitfalls inherent in the prospect of restitution.

    But for Sarr and Savoy this is precisely the reason a “temporary” solution is inadequate. It would allow us to “dodge the moral charge implicit in the term restitution, and to skip over the complex biographies of the works involved as well as the sometimes problematic conditions in which they were brought into French national collections.” And in avoiding “a reflection on the question of legitimate property,” it would perpetuate a refusal to come to terms with the perspectives of the countries that have been dispossessed. True restitution, Sarr and Savoy point out, would require a confrontation with the serious legal consequences of such a shift. In 1960, the African and Oceanic holdings of the former Musée des Colonies were placed under the jurisdiction of the French Ministère de la Culture, meaning that the art and artifacts in those collections were thenceforth considered “French” (14). In other words, their restitution could only take place through a modification of current French law, according to which any artifact of cultural heritage or patrimoine is considered to be “unalienable” national property (24).

    Instead of adopting the pragmatic approach of temporary measures, the Sarr-Savoy Report takes President Macron at his word. In his letter charging them with drafting the report, Macron explicitly stated that he planned to “launch a determined policy in favor of the circulation of these works and the sharing of collective knowledge concerning the contexts in which they were created, but also taken, sometimes pillaged, saved or destroyed.” Such a circulation could take “different forms up to and including the permanent modification of national holdings and restitution.”5 Sarr and Savoy make a bold case that Macron’s use of the word restitution has to be understood in its fullest implications: “Taken literally, to restitute means to give a piece of property back to its legitimate owner. . . . Implicit in the act of restitution is well and truly the recognition of the illegitimacy of the ownership that has previously been in place, no matter how long it has lasted” (25). They lay out a detailed plan for a three-stage structure that would create partnerships between the French government and concerned African nation-states for the inventorying and eventual negotiated return of art and artifacts held in French institutions.

    In outlining the categories of items they consider prime candidates for restitution, Sarr and Savoy highlight

    (1) objects seized as “war spoils” during military campaigns such as the conquest of Abomey in 1892 (during which the French General Alfred Dobbs brought back a large collection of treasures from the Kingdom of Dahomey) and the 1898 defeat of Samory Touré (during which the French took dozens of invaluable items from Guinea and the Ivory Coast) (46);

    (2) objects collected in Africa during the great anthropological “scientific missions” of the early twentieth century, except in cases where there exists “explicit testimony proving the full consent of the owners or guardians of such objects at the time they were taken” (50);

    (3) objects collected by colonial administrators and functionaries and donated to French museums (51); and

    (4) objects acquired after 1960 in proven circumstances of illicit trafficking (52).

    Since the publication of the Sarr-Savoy Report, as commentators have begun to come to terms with the potentially radical implications of the recommendations, there has been a healthy dose of skepticism along with lingering surprise at the abrupt “change of tone” (as art historian Cécile Fromont put it)6 in French public discourse in the short period from Macron’s initial speech through the present. The Sarr-Savoy Report is a set of recommendations without any binding authority over French governmental policy. Is it truly imaginable that Macron would put such an ambitious program into motion (with direct implications for the ways the French see themselves, their history, and their national heritage)? Or would the incendiary report end up being unceremoniously buried in some bureaucrat’s desk drawer? The Sarr-Savoy Report suggests that the “historical window” opened up by Macron’s speech in Ouagadougou has inaugurated “a new era in cultural relations between Africa and France” (75), but it may be all too soon to speak of an age of restitution. There is perhaps cause for guarded optimism in the fact that, shortly after the report was delivered, President Macron announced that France would return “without delay” twenty-six works sought by the government of Benin that were taken from Dahomey in 1892.7

    Nevertheless, as an intervention, the Sarr-Savoy Report has changed the conversation. “To speak of restitutions in 2018,” they write, “is to re-open both the belly of the colonial machine and the dossier of the doubly erased memory of Europeans and Africans today—the former oblivious for the most part to the means by which their prestigious museums were established, and the latter struggling to rediscover the thread of an interrupted memory” (11). The question of restitution is an invitation for us to confront the legacy of “a system of appropriation and alienation, the colonial system, for which certain European museums are today reluctantly the public archives” (2).

    Here is the very first epigraph to the Sarr-Savoy Report, which gives historical context and sets the tone for the framing of the question of restitution in the more than two hundred pages that follow:

    We pillage the Negroes under the pretext of teaching people to understand and appreciate them—that is, ultimately in order to mold other ethnographers who will go in turn to “appreciate” and to pillage them.

    It is an excerpt from a letter Michel Leiris wrote to his wife, Zette, on September 19, 1931, in the wake of the disturbing incident with the forced purchase of the kono in Bla (in present-day Mali) (the letter appears on p. 57 in Phantom Africa). It is worth noting that the passage is not from the main text of the book or even from the footnotes and endnotes that Leiris appended to his diary in 1934 and 1951. If the journal takes shape alongside, but in the margins of—and in contradistinction to—the ethnographic research of the Mission Dakar-Djibouti, as I point out in my introduction to the English translation (15), then the letters Leiris was writing to his wife are the margins of the margins.

    At the same time, the ethnographers’ recourse to what Leiris calls “appalling blackmail” (153) and even brazen theft are recounted openly in the diary entries (see 152–57). And, while one wonders whether Leiris would have approved their inclusion—given his commitment to preserving the unvarnished “first take” quality of his field journal, exactly as he wrote it day by day—once excerpts from his letters to Zette were included in Jean Jamin’s 1996 edition of the book (in Miroir de l’Afrique, a definitive collection of all of Leiris’s writings related to Africa), they must arguably be read as one of the layers or strata of the book. At this point it is nearly impossible to imagine Phantom Africa without the counterpoint between Leiris’s diary entries and his running commentary about many of the same incidents in the letters to Zette.

    Phantom Africa is marshaled throughout the Sarr-Savoy Report as one of the key pieces of direct documentation of the extent to which the “scientific missions” of French anthropology were complicit in the looting and requisition of African art and artifacts. In the book and in his correspondence, Leiris “describes and denounces the logic of suspicion, intimidation and breaking-and-entering at work in the taking of objects during the celebrated Mission Dakar-Djibouti,” Sarr and Savoy write. “Because it operated both in territories under French authority and in the independent empire of Ethiopia, and because it was extremely well documented, this mission allows us to measure to what degree the colonial setting favors and facilitates the massive exportation of cultural goods, which in contrast is met with multiple forms of resistance outside of French colonies” (48).

    Rereading Phantom Africa in the wake of the report, the book is no longer just “a stone marking a bend on a path that is entirely personal,” as Leiris puts it in the preamble to the 1981 edition (61). The book is also, and now inescapably, a deposition included as damning evidence in an indictment: an admission of a crime that might almost be described as disciplinary, since it is a matter not simply of an individual transgression, nor even of the “ambivalent notoriety”8 of the Mission Dakar-Djibouti in particular, but of what I describe in my introduction as the “common sense” of French ethnographic practice under colonialism in general (19).

    When Izzo writes that the translation of Phantom Africa has appeared at an “especially propitious time,” suggesting that the book is “set to find new, English-language audiences who will position the work within emerging twentieth-century contexts,” I can’t help but wonder whether the controversy prompted by the Sarr-Savoy Report may not provoke other parallel reckonings, not only in England and other European former colonial powers, but also in the United States, where museums and archives will perhaps likewise need to confront questions of provenance, property, and restitution. If such a debate emerges, this is one way Phantom Africa might “intersect,” as Izzo writes, “with twenty-first-century debates about how knowledge in and about Africa can revitalize planetary perspectives on politics and cultural production.”

    Izzo is focused more directly on the lessons of a work of “twentieth-century experimental anthology” such as Phantom Africa for contemporary scholarly knowledge production. To this end he considers Leiris’s book from the perspective of a recent essay by Achille Mbembe (“Penser le monde à partir de l’Afrique”) that calls for the construction of an “African paradigm for the social sciences.”

    In Phantom Africa, Izzo argues, Leiris “highlights the poetics of ethnographic knowledge production long before anthropologists addressed this question in the ‘writing culture’ moment of the 1980s and ’90s.” And thus Phantom Africa might be taken to suggest the prospect, not precisely of what Mbembe terms a “postanthroplogical” perspective, but instead of a practice that moves beyond the “modern regimes of knowledge” that consign Africa to a cloistered epistemological space of absolute difference. Whereas Mbembe “seems to presuppose a fundamental incompatibility between the social sciences and artistic literary production,” Izzo writes, Leiris in Phantom Africa seems to imply that these modes are “curiously co-dependent: the journal is rich with ethnographic detail, and yet Leiris famously writes of his frustration with ethnography in prose that contains stylized, literary resonances. His writing holds together anthropology, literature, and critical distancing in ways that do not allow for any of these threads to be neatly isolated and considered apart from the others.” In other words, Leiris “provokes us to reframe Mbembe’s argument,” for Izzo, because the experimental qualities of Phantom Africa have everything to do with “forcing anthropology to open onto other modes of writing and of imagining the world.”

    It goes without saying that in reading Phantom Africa one has to take up what Izzo calls “the question of genre.” It is a strange and singular book, a shifting current of modes and moods. But it doesn’t seem quite correct to me to say that it “straddles anthropology and literature.” As I mention in my introduction (13ff.), when critics such as Vincent Debaene and Denis Hollier argue that Phantom Africa creates a “bifurcation” between anthropology and literature, they mean not that it connects or unites these realms but instead that it enacts their separation. The diary is emphatically not an ethnography, and I describe it as a sort of “counter-writing” (14) because to Leiris it is a way of not doing ethnography: a departure from his official duties as the secretary-archivist of the Mission Dakar-Djibouti, even if most of the entries recount the fieldwork he and the other team members are undertaking. (It is also and not incidentally the space where he intermittently records his disgruntlement with the bureaucratic drudgery and inquisitional violence of the discipline.) I’m not convinced, in other words, by Izzo’s claim that Phantom Africa shows “how ethnographic knowledge production for Leiris floats between these different registers and relies on their interpenetration.” And Leiris’s later, more conventionally anthropological studies, such as La possession et ses aspects théâtraux chez les Éthiopiens de Gondar (1958), do not display this sort of “interpenetration” at all.

    The sole exception that comes to mind is an idea for a collaborative book project that Leiris mentions repeatedly in the second part of Phantom Africa, but which he never brought to fruition. In a letter to his wife written on August 23, 1932, Leiris announces that he is thinking of publishing a book-length “translation, with an introduction and commentary, of Abba Jerome’s notebook, with the notes he has been taking during our visits with the old zar Malkam Ayyahou. I think that it would be possible to put together a surprising book that, while remaining scientific, could be written in a literary manner” (484). In October, after discussing the idea with Marcel Griaule, Leiris revises his conception somewhat, imagining it as a book that would combine Abba Jerome’s transcriptions of the poetic declamations of the possessed women during ceremonies at Malkam Ayyahou’s house with photos by Griaule and a historical introduction to the zar written by Leiris (608). Despite the slight change of plan, what seems to excite Leiris about the idea is that the collaborative book would combine or cut across disciplines: he tells Zette again in almost identical language that he expects that it will result in a “surprising book, unique both as literature and as ethnography” (608).

    Izzo notes that in “Penser le monde à partir de l’Afrique,” Achille Mbembe rejects the closure of nationalism and imperialism to suggest that an “African paradigm” would involve an attention to our shared human condition and a focus on “circulations, openings, and the question of relationality.” I am less convinced than Izzo that Leiris’s desire for “contact” through ethnographic practice “seems to resonate with Mbembe’s call for a politics of sameness.” After all (and as Izzo admits), in Leiris’s prefaces to the 1951 and 1981 editions of Phantom Africa, he dismisses the vain hope that drove him to join the expedition—the notion that he would be transformed by “true contact, via scientific observation” with the “black world” (59)—as the most immature romanticism. He only realized later, he says, that “there is no ethnography or exoticism that can be sustained in the face of the gravity of the social questions posed by the construction of the modern world” (64). (I do think that Leiris developed a more nuanced definition of “contact” by the 1950s, when he wrote a remarkably prescient report on Martinique and Guadeloupe for UNESCO; as Edouard Glissant has observed, with that later book “we are fully within an ethnology of Relation, and ethnography of the relationship to the Other.”)9

    Sarr and Savoy emphasize that in advocating for the restitution of African art and artifacts held in European institutions, they do not mean that the work would somehow be able to be reinserted seamlessly into its original context and social significance. Returning objects to the places where they were made “does not aim to substitute one physical and semantic enclosure for another, now justified by the idea of ‘legitimate property’” (32). Instead they write of the necessary “resocialization” of these objects: they will unavoidably take on new meanings as they are reconnected to contemporary African societies (27). As signaled in their subtitle (“Vers une nouvelle éthique relationnelle” [Towards a new relational ethics]), Sarr and Savoy argue that because restitution could only be carried out through an extensive ensemble of collaborative partnerships between European and African institutions and governments, it would inherently involve the sort of shift that Mbembe is calling for. “To speak openly of restitutions is to speak of justice, rebalancing, recognition, restoration, and reparation, but above all, it is to open the path toward the establishment of new cultural relationships on the basis of a new and rethought relational ethics” (25).

    It is a possibility that may have been unimaginable to Leiris himself, even at the end of his life. But if Phantom Africa is now a key piece of evidence in the case dossier that may lead us into an age of restitution—however contested and fitful that process may turn out to be—then the book may indeed play an unexpected role in the transformation of our global futures.

    1. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans. John and Doreen Weightman (1973; reprint New York: Penguin Classics, 2012).

    2. Emmanuel Macron, speech at the University of Ouagadougou, English translation published December 4, 2017, The French original is available at

    3. Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, “Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain. Vers une nouvelle éthique relationnelle,” November 23, 2018, available online at In what follows, translations from the report are my own. Subsequent page references to the French original will be given parenthetically in the text.

    4. Alain Jocard, “Oeuvres d’art africaines: un rapport préconise de tout rendre (ou presque)!” Le Point, November 20, 2018, available online at

    5. Emmanuel Macron, Lettre de mission, included in the appendix to Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, “Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain. Vers une nouvelle éthique relationnelle,” 95.

    6. Jason Farago, “From Europe to a Homeland Transformed,” New York Times, January 3, 2019, available online at

    7. See the press release “Remise du rapport Savoy/Sarr sur la restitution du patrimoine africain,” November 23, 2018, available online at

    8. Eric Jolly, “Mission Dakar-Djibouti: Les résultats scientifiques et littéraires,” A la Naissance de l’ethnologie française: Les missions ethnographiques en Afrique subsaharienne (1928–1939) (2017), available online at

    9. Michel Leiris, Contacts de civilisations en Martinique et en Guadeloupe (1955; reprint Paris: Gallimard, 1997). Edouard Glissant, Traité du tout-monde (Paris: Gallimard, 1997), 131.



The Moment of Translation

But at the moment of translation, everything is ruined.

—Michel Leiris, Phantom Africa (October 11, 1931)



Multiple and complex layers of translation separate the colonies and sovereign nations across the African continent Michel Leiris traversed in the early 1930s from the early twenty-first-century English-language reader of Phantom Africa. These layers are both temporally and spatially consequential. Between 1931 and 1933, several more-or-less competent and more-or-less willing African interpreters translated their world to Leiris, helping him to perceive, in real time, truths that otherwise would escape (and often nevertheless did) his French European eyes and ears. Largely reliant on these interpreters throughout his journey, and constantly frustrated by what he knew to be their insufficiencies, mocking deceptions, and willful refusals, Leiris sought to transcribe—also in real time—all that he “understood” into his journal. Thus did he set out to translate the accumulated experiences of his travel across the African continent—along with the African languages and cultures he encountered there—for a metropolitan French readership, endeavoring mightily all the while to avoid what Edwards calls the “inevitable distortion” (5) of exoticism.

Of the many fascinating dimensions of this process, one of the most compelling is the extent to which it hinges on the impossible bind of Leiris’s desire-effort to translate Africa. It is crucial to understand the mission as a whole as an ambitious overarching experiment in cultural translation. Ten Frenchmen sought to apply their diverse skills and competencies to making black Africa legible to white Europe. In effecting this translational process, they relied fundamentally on countless, punctual moments of interpretation wherein they could not be entirely sure to have understood anything essential or, at times, even true.

Leiris makes numerous references to his frustrations in the face of translational impossibility. Because he was so meticulous in reporting his interactions with his African interpreter-interlocutors, we readers bear witness to the sustained tension between Leiris’s desire for information that would reveal to him the human truth of the people whose world he temporarily inhabited, and the wariness of those people and/or their interpreters in trusting him with this information. This was, of course, the central bind of the entire expedition, and it saddened and enraged Leiris in equal measure.

Leiris’s affective response to the limits of translation and of his translators—his annoyance and resentment, his anger and his suspiciousness—expose the limits of his self-awareness at the time of the mission and suggest also the limits of the project as a whole. If, that is, a stated objective of the Mission Dakar-Dijbouti was to reveal and record—to translate—the humanity of the African “Other” to a European scientific audience, that objective required knowledge of the “Other.” It required comprehension in its most rooted sense—as understanding, yes, but also as a means of completely taking hold of or seizing.1 In order to serve as privileged intermediaries between the “Us” of Europe and the “Them” of sub-Saharan Africa—again, in order to translate—the men of the mission had to refuse the opacity of the colonial subject.


In this respect, Phantom Africa recalls another important mid-century French text that similarly sought to intervene in metropolitan-colonial relations and that similarly turned around questions of visibility and power: “Black Orpheus,” Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to the 1948 Anthology of New Negro and Malagasy Poetry in French, compiled by Negritude poet-philosopher Léopold Sedar Senghor. Given that “Black Orpheus” is nearly fifteen years Phantom Africa’s junior, there are ways in which it may be anachronistic to compare the two. It is true that at the time of the mission Leiris had not yet come around to an explicitly anti-colonialist politics and that he was, in 1934, a far less sophisticated thinker of race and imperialism than Sartre. Nonetheless, the stakes underlying the two texts—the question of Europe’s imperial gaze, colonial resistance to that gaze, and the ambivalent positioning of the progressive French intelligentsia in the face of these changing dynamics—are remarkably similar. Phantom Africa and “Black Orpheus” exist on a continuum of European male (the question of gender is crucial and is taken up below) attitudes toward and presumptions about nonwhite subjects that are firmly anchored in the relational hierarchies of colonialism.2

The series of provocative question-declarations Sartre puts forward in the very first paragraph of “Black Orpheus” interpolate a white readership that he at once admonishes and acknowledges as his geopolitical kin:

When you removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut, what were you hoping for? That they would sing your praises? Did you think that when they raised themselves up again, you would read adoration in the eyes of these heads that our fathers had forced to bend down to the very ground? Here are black men standing, looking at us, and I hope that you—like me—will feel the shock of being seen. . . . Today, these black men are looking at us, and our gaze comes back to our own eyes; in their turn, black torches light up the world and our white heads are no more than Chinese lanterns swinging in the wind. (13)

The remarkable pronominal instability that runs throughout this introductory paragraph attest to Sartre’s self-positioning as liaison-interpreter. And as he proceeds in his pronouncements on the black poetic imagination, it becomes apparent that he is caught in a bind not dissimilar to that which underpins Leiris’s narrative. It is the bind Frantz Fanon, writing critically about “Black Orpheus,” identifies in his fifth chapter of Black Skin, White Masks (1952), notably, the extent to which the role of sympathetic European intermediary-translator is de facto and inevitably corrupted by the relations of power that mark the colonial era. The European’s right and capacity to know is never disputed, nor is the presumption of universal human movement toward a common goal; Europe’s desire to com-prehend through a rendering transparent of the Other—through a translation of the Other into French metropolitan terms—stands as the legitimate and ultimate objective. That is, while Sartre begins “Black Orpheus” with a forceful claim for reversing the colonial gaze and accepting “the shock of being seen,” he nevertheless proceeds to define “Negro poetry.” He frames his translation within a Hellenic myth and then concludes by coopting black aesthetics into Hegel’s formulation of dialectical materialism—i.e., a universalizing German philosophical conceit.

To consider Leiris’s ambivalent narrative alongside the blind spots in Sartre’s categorical denunciation of white supremacy provides insight into the emotional contours of Leiris’s engagement with the African interpreters and translators he relied on during the mission. More than anything else, Leiris wanted to know—to com-prehend Africa and its people both broadly and in their specificity. This was his principle preoccupation, personal as well as professional. He wanted to understand Africa not merely for the sake of science, but in the interest of empathetic engagement. As Edwards notes, and as is evident throughout Phantom Africa, Leiris was interested foremost in the “human significance” of this African adventure. For reasons genuine if condescending, Leiris sought to appreciate and to document the humanity of the people he met. Yet, from the very outset, the extent to which Africa would remain “ultimately unknowable” (52) made this a near-impossible task.

Within just a couple of months of being on the expedition, Leiris was confronted with the limits of his understanding—with the firm and deliberate impediments to carrying meaning across the barriers of language and culture.3 That he felt keenly these constraints is apparent, in the way he wrote about the mission’s hired servants, beginning with the interpreter Mamadou Vad. Often when Leiris noted down something that came to him by way of Vad’s intervention, he preceded the information with the clause “according to the tardjouman [interpreter]” or “according to Mamadou Vad,” subtly indicating the reserve of suspicion that marked his relationship with his informant. Other revealing journal entries—“I am angry with Mamadou Vad, apparently so devoted to our interests” (July 22, 1931, emphasis mine)—similarly affirm the boundaries of this mutually dependent, mutually vulnerable relationship between colonial administrator and colonial subject. The trickiness of their dynamic is articulated most explicitly less than a month into their time working together: “I explain to Mamadou Vad that his role is to get us information on this subject. What will he bring back? A definitive explanation, or one of those fantasies to which he alone holds the secret?” (July 28, 1931).

Such instances of mistrust, if not downright conflict, between Leiris and his “native informants” were numerous. Some of them, Leiris seems to have taken in stride: he acknowledges, for example, that “the natives often pass off as casual amusement something whose religious purpose they wish to conceal” (note to letter dated July 22, 1931); or, later, “it seems we are making little headway and the people, though they give up little secrets, carefully hide the essentials” (October 3, 1931). Others, he did not: “Livid with rage at a man who shows up to sell grigris and who, when I ask him the magical formulas that must be recited when using them, gives a different version every time I make him repeat one of them so that I can write it down, and, every time that one is to be translated, gives even more new versions” (September 27, 1931). Indeed, there were limits to Leiris’s tolerance for being kept in the dark. And in such moments, his patience sorely tried, he recognized just how unlikely it was that he would achieve any of the noble humanist objectives he had set out for himself. “On reflection,” he writes of an exchange with the father of an informant, “this all seems very artificial to me. What a sinister comedy these old Dogon and I have been playing! A European hypocrite, all sugar and honey, and a Dogon hypocrite, so trite because so much weaker . . . will not be brought any closer by the exchange of fermented liquor. The only link there is between us is a common duplicity” (October 4, 1931).

Despite his best efforts to contextualize his interlocutors’ stonewalling and misinformation, Leiris nevertheless could not help but take personally such failures of translation: “I despair of ever being able to get to the bottom of anything. Merely to have bits and scraps of information concerning so many things infuriates me” (October 5, 1931). Unable to abide an African humanity that might not only be illegible to his European consciousness but that might insist on and defend its illegibility, Leiris experienced these encounters as instances of treacherous translation. Beyond frustration, Leiris on many occasion felt betrayed: “I have been duped,” he rages, “furious and mortified” (October 28, 1931), “old Ambibe has lied to me from start to finish of my work with him, giving me a mass of details, certainly, but deliberately withholding the essential things. I could almost wring his neck” (October 30, 1931). Begrudging, ultimately, the limitations of the privileged metropolitan gaze, Leiris’s expectation of transparency, and the extremes of depression or outrage that ensued in the many instances of its unlikelihood, show just how and to what extent “translation (as a form of mediation between Europeans and Africans) is complicit in the exercise of colonial power,” as Edwards points out (46).


It is unsurprising that, faced with these instances of transparency refused, Leiris imagined sex or romance as the sole space of immediacy available to Africans and Europeans.4 By the time of the expedition’s arrival in Abyssinia, a sovereign territory whose rulers—relative to the inhabitants of the francophone colonies—could not be compelled to indulge the demands of the mission, Leiris had begun to frame intimacy in contradistinction to science: “‘I have never slept with a black woman. Thus I have remained European!’” (March 31, 1932). This shift in perspective, wherein “sex doesn’t complement ethnographic understanding but trumps science, or transcends it” (17), as Edwards puts it, allowed Leiris to regain his bearings—or, rather, to realign his bearings so to extract a different sort of value from the trip.

In this respect, there is yet another “colonial” text that sheds light on Leiris’s desire for translation of the non-European Other, one even more contemporaneous with Phantom Africa than Sartre’s essay: the 1935 feature film Princesse Tam-Tam. A striking example of interwar era colonial cinema, the film’s premise parallels the original impulse behind Leiris’s participation in the mission, that is, the quest to discover in Africa the purpose and passion that had been diminished in the Parisian metropolis. Princesse Tam-Tam tells the story of Max de Mirecourt, a Parisian novelist with a severe case of writer’s block. De Mirecourt is convinced that the life he leads in the capital with his party-hopping, socialite wife has drained him of all creativity, and so he has run away to Africa in search of inspiration. He finds what he needs in the person of Alwina, an impishly alluring and childlike shepherd girl played by world-renowned African American entertainer Josephine Baker. De Mirecourt proceeds to involve Alwina in a suite of adventures and misadventures, of fantasies indulged and disappointed, but ultimately leaves her to her mystifying and incontrovertible otherness—to her Africa—amongst the squalor and simplicity of her animals, unchanged by their encounter. He returns to Paris and to his beautiful blond wife, his love affair with both resurrected by his flirtation with the Other and, more importantly, his fortune assured by the success of the novel he writes based on his African journey.

Like the fictional de Mirecourt, Leiris had left to Africa bored and largely disgusted by the vie mondaine of 1930s Paris, and “increasingly riven by depression and anxiety” (4), as Edwards notes. Heady with African American music and “the ritualistic qualities of black culture” (6), like many of those in his Negrophilic intellectual circles, Leiris sought a dramatic change in environment that would facilitate an equally dramatic change in his personal relationship with a world he increasingly disdained. He was hoping to find, in other words, a cure for his misanthropy.

For the most part, Leiris was frustrated in this objective. Yet there is a way in which Leiris’s African experience mirrors the successful failure of de Mirecourt’s, right down to the unconsummated infatuation with a brown damsel in distress and subsequent return, one manuscript richer, to France and a French wife. Specifically, during the last leg of the mission, the period of engagement with the Abyssinian zar possession cult, Leiris found himself hopelessly captivated by a zarine named Emawayish, “who wants to go to Europe, or at least to Eritrea” (August 24, 1932). “Completely devoted” (August 26, 1932) to her, he indulged in a platonic sort of courtship, attempting to get to know her, bringing her gifts, and otherwise trying to improve what he perceived to be her tragic circumstances. As time passed, however, he became increasingly disillusioned—from believing that she alone allowed him to be “morally reconciled” (September 21, 1932) to a point where, not only was he “no longer dazzled” (October 31, 1932), but where her behavior made him “feel disgusted” (November 8, 1932).

Ironically, however, it is through this gradual disenchantment that Leiris arrived at a victory not unlike that of Princesse Tam-Tam’s de Mirecourt. Disillusionment became liberation: Leiris found himself freed, like de Mirecourt, to fall in love with his wife again—“I’m looking forward to hearing some jazz and going dancing with you when I get back. . . . When I get back, we’ll have to have fun, to dance. With you I’ll have to lead the life of a sailor finally back on solid ground” (letter to Zette, November 28, 1932)—and to return to Paris and the literary life, certain now that he had not been missing anything elsewhere. Like de Mirecourt, he came back to embrace Europe’s promise, cathected in his beloved, who, as Edwards notes in the concluding passage of his introduction, was in many ways the motive force behind his entire enterprise of journaling and self-searching. Like de Mirecourt, he came to see Africa as “poetry probably not quite as beautiful as [he] had believed” (September 1, 1932).

This said, and in a way not dissimilar to Sartre’s claims regarding the “Negro’s” capacity to rejuvenate a soulless Europe, Leiris ultimately did get what he needed from his journey across Africa. He got his mojo back. And he got a book out of it, albeit one that would be neither read nor appreciated by those it translates. Though unable to cross the barriers of culture and consciousness that would have engendered true empathy and understanding, Leiris was unblocked where it mattered. The Africa he encountered in its rawest form worked its magic on his European soul.

  1. From the Latin com- [altogether] + prehendere [to grasp].

  2. Leiris’s investment in the Mission Dakar-Dijbouti is greatly informed by his intention to render African cultures less opaque so to protect them effectively. If these cultures are better seen, appreciated, comprehended, perhaps they will not be subjugated, destroyed, pillaged. As Leiris explains in a letter to his wife, “the notion that anthropology had a usefulness that was in some sense moral led to the belief that, since the ends justified the means, there were some situations in which it was permissible to do almost anything in order to obtain objects that would demonstrate, once they were installed in a Parisian museum, the beauty of the civilization in question” (letter to Zette, September 12, 1931). Though this motivation, and the dubious practices it allowed, stand firm, Leiris nonetheless was aware of the paternalist paradox he had advanced: “I have the strong impression that we are going in a vicious circle: we pillage the Negroes under the pretext of teaching people to understand and appreciate them—that is, ultimately in order to mold other ethnographers who will go in turn to ‘appreciate’ and to pillage them” (letter to Zette, September 19, 1931).

  3. “Translation is, etymologically, a ‘carrying across’ or ‘bringing across’: the Latin translatio derives from transferre (trans, ‘across’ + ferre, ‘to carry’ or ‘to bring’).” Christopher Kasparek, “The Translator’s Toil,” Polish Review 28.2 (1983) 83.

  4. “Immediate” as in im-mediate, as in not mediated—without translation.

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    Brent Hayes Edwards


    Leiris and His Others: Reply to Kaiama Glover

    Kaiama Glover’s illuminating response to Phantom Africa sets Leiris’s book in contrast to a couple of near-contemporary intertexts: Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction to Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française, the pivotal 1948 anthology edited by Léopold Sédar Senghor, on the one hand, and Josephine Baker’s 1935 film Princesse Tam-Tam, on the other. They are examples I know well and teach regularly, although I had not considered their resonances and discrepancies with Phantom Africa. So I found Glover’s piece to be a welcome provocation.

    One word about translation. (“But at the moment of translation, everything is ruined”—I hope that Glover selected this sentence from Phantom Africa as her epigraph as a jocular comment on Leiris’s constant anxiety around the African interpreters who worked with the Mission Dakar-Djibouti team throughout their expedition, rather than as a comment on the quality of my translation into English!) Of course Glover is right to note that the mission was an “ambitious overarching experiment in cultural translation”; I discuss this aspect of their approach to ethnography at some length in my introduction (43ff.). But reading Glover’s response did make me wonder whether it is correct to say that Leiris “set out to translate” Africa for “a metropolitan French readership.”

    Clearly the diary is animated by a problematic of transcription: as Leiris said later, “I forced myself to record virtually everything that happened around me and everything that went through my head” (see 33). As I try to explain, this imperative to “get the writing as close to experience as possible” (37) shapes the form of the book at every level, from the syntactic architecture of particular sentences to the way Leiris represents the passing of time in his writing. For Leiris, the immediacy of the writing guarantees the “authenticity” and “objectivity” of the narrative, as he writes in the draft preface he includes in the book (322).

    But to recognize that for Leiris the diary is an exercise in immediacy is also to note that translation is a problem for him: it is a methodological necessity, but by no means the overarching aim of the expedition or his writing about it. Translation is an intractable burden, an irritant, throughout the voyage because to Leiris translation implies mediation: something getting in the way of his direct experience of contact with the African Other. This is precisely the reason for what Glover describes as “his annoyance and resentment, his anger and his suspiciousness” at “the limits of translation and of his translators” along the way.

    Observing the zar possession ceremonies in Gondar, Ethiopia, in the late summer and fall of 1932, Leiris is driven to the point of desperation because he can’t understand the songs right away—to use the verb Glover adopts, he can’t “com-prehend” them immediately. Instead he has to rely on his interpreter and collaborator Abba Jerome to translate snatches of the lyrics in the moment; full translations can only be done after the fact. “I myself am feeling very disgruntled and increasingly isolated,” he writes in his journal. “Listening to the song lyrics, I can only grasp what Abba Jerome has time to translate for me. . . . It is a cruel blow to realize to what extent I am the foreigner” (486–87). This is also the reason that, as I discuss in relation to some of the more outrageous passages in Phantom Africa (17), for Leiris possession (whether sexual or spiritual) becomes the privileged modality of that comprehension. It’s not simply a matter of understanding the Other: it’s a matter of taking, or being taken by.

    None of this contradicts Glover’s other important observation that ultimately Leiris could not allow for what she describes (in a critical vocabulary derived from the work of Edouard Glissant) as “the opacity of the colonial subject.” “Unable to abide an African humanity that might not only be illegible to his European consciousness but that might insist on and defend its illegibility,” Glover notes, “Leiris experienced these encounters as instances of treacherous translation.” Although translation is certainly a problem for Leiris, as I’ve said, my point is that this failure to come to terms with opacity—with what Glissant might call the ethics of Relation—is more a matter of phenomenology than of linguistics. It is perhaps most directly reminiscent of Frantz Fanon’s famous argument that “the black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man.”1

    Despite the famous photo op in May 1933 at which Josephine Baker posed in the Musée de l’Homme with artifacts brought back to Paris by the Mission Dakar-Djibouti,2 it had not occurred to me to consider the parallels between Leiris as he presents himself in Phantom Africa and the character of Max de Mirecourt in the Josephine Baker film Princesse Tam-Tam. It is true, as Glover writes, that Leiris tells us that he embarked on the Mission Dakar-Djibouti in search of “a dramatic change in environment that would facilitate an equally dramatic change in his personal relationship with a world he increasingly disdained.” And like de Mirecourt, Leiris does indulge (through his tortured obsession with Emawayish, the daughter of the zar “priestess” Malkam Ayyahou in Ethiopia) in what Glover terms an “unconsummated infatuation with a brown damsel in distress.”

    The parallel breaks down for me because, whereas de Mirecourt is opening fleeing his “party-hopping, socialite wife” (as Glover describes her) in Princesse Tam-Tam, Leiris is compelled to distance himself from the Parisian literary scene but remains deeply attached to his own wife, Zette, even as the selfishness of his traveling so far away becomes yet another excuse for self-flagellation throughout the diary. As I suggest at the end of my introduction (52), one might go so far as to argue that Zette remains Leiris’s “privileged witness” throughout the voyage: his main interlocutor, even at a distance. The distance amplifies the intensity of the connection rather than dissipating it. Throughout the expedition, he is regularly sending sections of the journal to her for safe-keeping, and he writes in full awareness that she is his first reader, as it were—which results in the oddly self-conscious rationalizations that sometimes seep into his ancillary letters to her, such as this missive from December 1932:

    I swear to you that you have nothing to be jealous about, even in retrospect. It’s only a matter of phantoms, which disturbed me (I cannot deny it), but which were never anything more than phantoms to me. You don’t need to be jealous of anyone. Besides, if you knew what life is like in Abyssinia (if you knew, for instance, how when you leave Abyssinia, any old, forgotten corner of Eritrea feels like a Paradise you melt into), you would realize that everything that can happen to someone in such a country takes place on a plane so removed from the one you and I share that it is as though it were a separate world. (678)

    Likewise, as for the denouement of the journey, I find it hard to conclude that Leiris “came back to embrace Europe’s promise,” as Glover suggests. And the morose self-analysis and baroque convolution of Leiris’s later autobiographical work (starting with L’Age d’homme, the book he completed the year after Phantom Africa was published) leaves me unable to concur with Glover’s quip—while I admit the notion is quite amusing!—that returning to France in the wake of the Mission Dakar-Djibouti, Leiris “got his mojo back.”

    I had thought a good deal about Leiris in relation to other contemporaries (André Gide, Henri Michaux, William Seabrook), but I hadn’t considered Phantom Africa next to Jean-Paul Sartre’s seminal essay “Orphée Noir.” Despite their glaring differences in disciplinary inclination, politics, and style, Leiris and Sartre were fellow travelers in the intellectual climate that emerged in postwar Paris. Each man was closely linked to some of the major thinkers and artists of the era of independence struggles throughout the colonized world (Leiris especially with Aimé Césaire and Wilfredo Lam; Sartre especially with Frantz Fanon), and both served on the Comité de Patronage or advisory board for Alioune Diop’s periodical Présence africaine, founded in the fall of 1947.3 Two years earlier, Leiris agreed to serve on the inaugural editorial board of Sartre’s own journal, Les Temps modernes, where Leiris would publish sections of his autobiographical quartet La Règle du jeu as well as his 1950 essay “The Ethnographer Faced with Colonialism,”4 which as I explain in my introduction (22ff.) was a groundbreaking indictment of the complicity of French anthropology with French colonialism.

    I agree with Glover that there are similarities in the stakes of Leiris’s book and Sartre’s introduction, which as she summarizes them have to do with “the question of Europe’s imperial gaze, colonial resistance to that gaze, and the ambivalent positioning of the progressive French intelligentsia in the face of these changing dynamics.” Still, in the end I find the differences between the two texts—on the one hand, an exhaustive travel diary, which broaches these issues through the eyes of one French writer on the ground in Africa; and on the other, a dozen years later, an interpretive introduction to the poetry of Négritude—to be more telling.

    To build on Glover’s comparison, I would be tempted to highlight the issue of the contrast between the two men’s working definitions of poetry. Writing an introduction to an anthology of Francophone African verse, Sartre takes a more conventional generic approach, as one might only expect. But it is striking that he insists that as a cultural movement Négritude must emerge in poetic form. “I am talking now to white men,” Sartre brazenly declares, “and I should like to explain to them what black men already know: why it is necessarily through a poetic experience that the black man, in his present condition, must first become conscious of himself; and, inversely, why black poetry in the French language is, in our time, the only great revolutionary poetry.”5 Later, he explains that the black man “will not speak his negritude in prose,” because the language of racial consciousness can only be forged out of an agonistic poetic confrontation with an inadequate language of communication (that is, the French language, imposed by the circumstances of colonization).6

    Although Leiris thought of himself primarily as a poet at the time he joined the Mission Dakar-Djibouti, in the diary entries of Phantom Africa he is working with a much looser and more generalized sense of the category. Poetry is less a matter of verse form (whether written or oral) and more a matter of an atmosphere or ambiance—an expressive richness or intensity that he associates with the cultural environment. Thus in one June 1931 letter to his wife, he says that the “initial sensation” that he “attributed to the voyage” was one “of the most intense and human poetry” (95). A few months later, characteristically moping about the tedium of ethnographic fieldwork, Leiris writes regretfully that “the ocean of poetry in which we have plunged becomes so routine that one doesn’t even notice it anymore” (196). The figurative rhetoric of inundation and shipwreck becomes habitual, as when he notes in yet another letter in Ethiopia nine months later that the research “has taken hold of me like an ocean,” and that he finds himself “being tossed in a rough life, tossed to and fro between two poles: vermin and extravagant poetry” (497).

    It would be important to consider this question in comparing Sartre and Leiris, because their working definitions of poetry are closely linked to their self-positioning as cultural mediators or interpreters. Sartre frames his introduction as an interception of a dialogue among Africans (the poems “were not written for us,” Sartre declares: “these black men are addressing themselves to black men about black men; . . . it is an awakening to consciousness”), deflecting it towards an unintended European readership (“I should like to show that this poetry—which seems racial at first—is actually a hymn by everyone for everyone”).7 But in contrast, even in the midst of his diary’s extended, agonized self-interrogation, Leiris is much less egotistical about claiming the authority to explain the significance of African poetic expression. In August 1932, writing to Zette about his plans to publish a book of Malkam Ayyahou’s lyrics as translated by Abba Jerome, Leiris explains that his sole task will be to render legible their “profoundly poetic character” as “living documents,” while “putting myself in the foreground as little as possible” (485). No, he doesn’t quite reach the point of recognizing what Glissant calls the “right to opacity.” But neither does Leiris have the hubris to declare, like Sartre, that African poetry is an exercise in “particularism” that will ultimately be transcended by the “dawn” of universal class consciousness.8

    1. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove, 2008), 90.

    2. Photos from this session have been reproduced for instance in Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Black Paris: The African Writers’ Landscape (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 31; and Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 80.

    3. Sartre also contributed an essay to the first issue, as did Marcel Griaule, the director of the Mission Dakar-Djibouti. See Sartre, “Présence noire,” Présence africaine 1 (1947) 28–29; Marcel Griaule, “L’inconnue noire,” Présence africaine 1 (1947) 21–27.

    4. Michel Leiris, “L’ethnographe devant le colonialisme,” Les Temps modernes 58 (1950) 357–74. For an English version of this essay, see Leiris, “The Ethnographer Faced with Colonialism,” in Brisées: Broken Branches, trans. Lydia Davis (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989), 112–31.

    5. Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” in “What Is Literature?” and Other Essays, trans. Bernard Frechtman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 293–94. The French original is “Orphée noir,” in Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française, ed. Léopold Sédar Senghor (1948; reprint Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1972), xi–xii.

    6. Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” 302.

    7. Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” 293.

    8. Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” 329.



On Ethnographic Desire

I have as little taste as I have talent for speaking of what I do not know, and the only thing I know well is myself.

This, from the entry of April 4, 1931 in Michel Leiris’s Phantom Africa, is as much example of Leiris’s tendency to contradict himself as of his confessional style. Leiris seeks repeatedly to position his journal as a reflection on its author more than as a commentary on “Africa”—since, as he tells us in the book’s title and in its preface, the continent presented in his journal is no more than a phantom. This has been taken as a forward-looking acknowledgment of the role of subjectivity in knowledge production. And indeed, it is a valuable counterpart to ethnographic work of the time, both because it depicts the conditions of that work and because it presented the possibility of a form of writing about “the other” that was more doubtful about the nature of identity or self and its relationship to otherness.

But the journal’s confessional mode operates to obscure as much as to reveal. In positioning his writing as being primarily about the search for himself—the elaboration of an individual subjectivity—Leiris opposes his approach (“half-poetic, half documentary”) to “objective” science with its detached view. But by “confessing” his subjectivity Leiris also holds it up as a shield obscuring the fact that he is very much—even obsessively—involved in the project of documenting otherness. How exactly, then, does “subjectivity” work here? I want to think about this through the lens of ethnographic desire, in order to try to articulate what may be misleading about the opposition of subjectivity and objectivity, or even literature and science. In fact, the obsessive form of Leiris’s narration reveals what his own analysis cannot—the ways in which he is drawn into the mission’s project.

Leiris clearly has a taste for speaking of what he does not know. More than a taste, a “passion,” one of his preferred words. It is clear from the early pages of Phantom Africa that Leiris is smitten with ethnographic desire; he wants to know—not himself, but the other. In his descriptions of his work as part of the Mission Dakar-Djibouti, Leiris writes of a quest for knowledge that waxes and wanes like lust, fed by an attraction to precisely that which is not himself.

Sameness bores Leiris. His initial impressions of the mission are that it is an “insipid activity” to go to another continent in order to “buy in a systematic fashion” the “work tools” of people who are “hardly any more interesting in the end than the residents of Auvergne or any other lost countryside” (98). But after seventy or so pages in which he frequently bemoans his disappointment at realizing that he will not be able to escape himself through encounter with the other . . . the other appears. The ethnographic bug bites. As the mission prepares to leave for Dogon country, an atmosphere of anticipation arises in his writing: “Already we can think of nothing but the Habé whom we will soon see” (131). A few short days later, he is ardent. In a letter to his wife Zette he writes, “I continue to devote myself fully to my work and have even given myself over to it with real passion . . .  What gives me moral comfort, and confirms my conviction of the necessity of this voyage, is that it is truly impossible to meet people this outlandish in the metropole” (134).

And then, suddenly, he is jaded: “It seems we are making little headway and the people, though they give up a few little secrets, carefully hide the essentials.” This cycle repeats throughout the text—passion, even obsession, followed by a kind of irritated despair at his research subjects’ unwillingness or inability to give him access to their lives and secrets. Sometimes this despair opens into a critique of the mission itself,1 but most often it is expressed as disgust toward the people who initially seemed to offer precious insights but are then revealed to be lying, or inconsistent, or simply less intelligent than thought.2 The repetition of the cycle, over and over, is one of the things that clearly sets apart the journal form from the arc of a constructed narrative: there is no bildung here. At the same time, the repetition also makes clear the extent to which ethnographic desire is embedded in and produced by the mission itself. No matter how many times Leiris is disappointed, the mission continues, and obsession returns in almost exactly the same form. Even toward the very end of the book, Leiris is still telling us the same story. Having become infatuated with the possession cult of the zar, then once again disillusioned, he describes his reactions as the end of an affair: “Possession is over, my romantic reactions are over. The zar . . . are now no more than family relatives” (547).

Of course, the project of the mission—to collect and document—and that of Leiris’s journal were quite different. As Brent Edwards writes in the introduction to his English translation, Phantom Africa is not itself an ethnography, and indeed, Leiris offers little that could be considered properly ethnographic. But if the “findings” of the mission’s work are not presented here, the structures that supported that work are: Phantom Africa offers a remarkably clear account of both the material and the affective infrastructures underpinning ethnographic work in the 1930s. On the one hand, through the details of everyday life, Leiris allows us to see the money, the transport, the tents, and the entire administrative apparatus of officials, communications, and social life that made the mission possible. And on the other, through his accounts of his own changing emotional state and glimpses into that of his companions, he allows us to see what Edwards calls the mission’s “common sense” (19) as well as its cravings and compulsions, in a way rarely so freely admitted. It becomes evident that the Mission Dakar-Djibouti was built on both a politically-driven and a felt attraction to difference. This is useful not merely as a document of a discipline in formation, but also as an example of the kind of information one might want in order to think carefully about the co-constitution of institutional forces and seemingly individualized desires.

In her (2007; 2014) work on ethnographic refusal, Audra Simpson describes the impulse to produce knowledge about difference as “anthropological need.” This need is tied to the requirements of governance (administrative regimes need to know in order to govern, and their “knowledge” is organized around units of otherness) but is also driven by the fact that “those in the metropole” needed to “know themselves in a manner that accorded to the global processes underway” (2007:67). Thus anthropological need had to do with more than the administrative efforts of the colonial regime. It had to do with an entire affective structure surrounding the production of knowledge about difference that was embedded in museums, in academia, in literature, and in the arts, and which tied the colonies to the metropole through the gathering and circulation of information (see also Conklin 2013).

Ethnographic refusal is then a conscious strategy to make certain kinds of knowledge inaccessible, in the context of histories in which the knowledge of and the governing of difference are difficult to untangle. As Simpson writes, for the anthropologist to acknowledge and participate in a refusal to give information is to recognize the implications of knowing. Simpson’s work comes after a period of self-critique that anthropology had simply not undergone by the time of the Mission Dakar-Djibouti (in France at this time, anthropology was only just beginning to consolidate itself as a discipline). It is interesting nevertheless to consider the question of refusal, because Leiris himself writes about it so frequently, and because it tells us something about the nature of his ethnographic desire.

Leiris regularly encounters refusals but only on a few occasions does he recognize them as such. Such moments clarify both the form and the limits of his ability to see the project in which he is involved. Take this example from the entry of August 26, 1931:

The old woman barely speaks. She smiles maliciously, parries all my questions, and transforms everything into utterly harmless facts. . . . I discover over the course of the afternoon that the reason she is unwilling to say more is that the woman who preceded her as head of the sect was arrested fifteen years ago by the French authorities, beaten, imprisoned, and exiled in Kati where she died in horrible misery. . . . When I learn the reasons for the woman’s muteness, I am . . . incensed with the administration, that iniquitous organization that allows such things to happen under the pretext of morality.” (144)

Despite what he was later to learn, Leiris’s language describing the encounter—“smiles maliciously,” “parries,” “utterly harmless facts”—lets the reader know that during the interview he was angry at this woman’s refusal. Only further down the page do we learn that his anger was soon after transferred away from the woman and toward the colonial administration. In keeping with the immediacy that Leiris cultivates throughout the book, the reader follows the author’s change in mental state as though tracking the events as they unfolded. This strategy is intriguing as an example of Leiris’s confessional style; Leiris does not hide his own initial annoyance, even as he later sees the refusal to have been justified. He appears to be revealing the injustice of his own irritation—but the immediacy-effect also leaves intact the palpable sense of frustrated desire. And despite his “incensed” response to a colonial abuse of power, Leiris does not seem to perceive his own wish to acquire information as a product of the same context. The relationship between knowledge and power (indeed, oppression) that his interviewee can see so clearly remains somehow unseen or at least unspoken by Leiris himself. So he acknowledges the logic of the woman’s refusal, but as an exception.3

I’ve called Leiris’s interest in the other “ethnographic desire” because of the explicit parallels he draws between romantic obsession and the craving for information, but also because the idea of desire—as opposed to that of, say, the “gaze”—helps one better understand how anthropological need is deployed through the bodies and minds of ethnographers. The “detached gaze” that was cultivated and produced by scientific writing is also anchored in the work of individual researchers, whose desires have to be interpellated into the project. More, the very structure of desire seems well suited to describe some of the particular problems of self and otherness that lie at the heart of the ethnographic question. Desire, argues Judith Butler, is a pull toward the other through which one dialectically defines oneself. Appearing to arise from an interiority and yet shaped from without, desire is also at the heart of the paradox of the subject—because to be “a subject” is at once the precondition for agency and a form of subordination. Indeed, it is precisely by creating the interior space of subjectivity and shaping its desire that power operates on the subject (Butler 1997).

This is a long way of saying that I do not view Leiris’s explicit deployment of subjectivity as a writing technique to be separate from his passionate desire to gather information about the people he was encountering. Even the confessional mode itself, which he deploys frequently, is deeply involved in the issue of wanting to know. To think about this, I refer to Susan Sontag’s 1963 discussion of a different French ethnographer, Claude Lévi-Strauss. Sontag describes here a familiar contrast between the literary and the scientific. For Sontag, Lévi-Strauss’s vision of anthropology appears “literary” in its ambitions. Lévi-Strauss understood the anthropologist’s calling, Sontag writes, as a “systematic déracinement,” a self-alienation through the encounter with the other. Yet its methods (namely, structuralism) are dry and cold and “scientific.” In its effort at creating a totalizing structure, it seeks to “vanquish” its subject, to reduce otherness to “purely formal code” (1996: 77). Sontag points out that while these two tendencies seem to be at odds they are in fact linked, because the anthropologist is in control of, and even consciously exploiting, intellectual alienation. Thus, she writes, anthropology is characteristic of a modern sensibility, one which “moves between two seemingly contradictory but ultimately related impulses: surrender to the exotic, the strange, the other; and the domestication of the exotic, chiefly through science.”

Lévi-Strauss begins to be an influential scholar about a decade after the Mission Dakar-Djibouti, and he is the most important French figure in the consolidation of anthropology as a discipline with a canon, a method, and a theory. His brand of anthropology is therefore different from the more fragmented approach of Griaule and co., who represent anthropology before structuralism became the triumphant framework that it was to become. But Sontag’s description of structuralist logic helps to articulate how one might be misled by the question of the literary versus the scientific, or of the subjective versus the objective. Leiris mobilizes the confessional mode to argue that the work makes no claims to total representation, that it is literary/essayistic rather than “scientific,” and that its gaze is turned inward. This is complicated, however, because the shaping of Leiris’s desire reveals that subjectivity itself is what draws him so powerfully into the mission, indeed into the entire complex of “anthropological need” in the interwar period. At least in the context of French intellectuals’ engagement with the colonies in the interwar period, we can see that both the poetic and the scientific are modes for elaborating this dialectical movement around the question of otherness.

Phantom Africa has had a far greater impact as an example of literature than as a work of anthropology, and within anglophone anthropology it is virtually unknown. The book’s bordered circulation both speaks to the deep cleft between francophone and anglophone anthropology and reveals French anthropology’s much closer relationship with the arts, both literary and visual.4 What then can Leiris’s obsessive narration offer those of us working in something called “the humanities” and grappling (in English) with the position from which we apprehend the world? On the one hand, it might ask us to pause and reconsider a contemporary trend—visible across the social sciences as well as in museums—of outsourcing the work of ethical positioning to artists. On the other, as a document of an emergent and fragmented discipline, one drawn to the exotic but also interested in the diversity of the human, it points to the ongoing and difficult entanglement between the desire to know beyond ourselves and the still-narrow frames we have inherited for doing so.


Works Cited

Butler, Judith. 1997. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Conklin, Alice L. 2013. In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France 1850–1950. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Simpson, Audra. 2007. “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship.” Junctures 14: 67–80.

———. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sontag, Susan. 1996. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Dell.

  1. For instance, this quote, which Edwards discusses in his introduction: “All this constant buying leaves me perplexed, because I have the strong impression we are going in a vicious circle: we pillage the Negroes under the pretext of teaching people to understand and appreciate them—that is, ultimately in order to mold other ethnographers who will go in turn to ‘appreciate’ and to pillage them.”

  2. An example: “Livid with rage at a man who shows up to sell grigris and who, when I ask him for the magical formulas that must be recited when using them, gives a different version every time I make him repeat one of them so that I can write it down, and, every time that one is to be translated, gives even more new versions” (170).

  3. The question of refusal and Leiris’s inability to accept it beyond the individual exception is useful for prodding a disciplinary conversation within anthropology around the complicity of anthropology and colonial power. The relationship between anthropological knowledge and power cannot be reduced to the question of whether ethnographers were complicit with or critical of the colonial regime. Whether or not members of the mission were critical of the colonial administration, the expedition’s rapacious desire for collecting is part of the same complex that also undergirded colonial governance (Bennet 2017). (And in fact, examples sprinkled through Phantom Africa reveal moments when the colonial administration actually protected communities from the expedition’s insatiable appetite for objects, again complicating the question.)

  4. This is in part related to a distinction that Alice Conklin describes in the institutional formation of francophone vs anglophone strands. French anthropology was institutionally organized around the museum, where the British and US traditions were consolidated around the university.

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    Brent Hayes Edwards


    The Paradoxes of Ethnographic Desire: Reply to Amiel Bize

    Amiel Bize takes up the difficult question of how to understand the staging of subjectivity in Phantom Africa. At least in the initial framing of the 1934 first edition, Leiris seems to adopt a confessional mode, quoting Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the preface and explaining, “My ambition has been to describe the voyage from day to day as I saw it, myself, such as I am . . .” (63). In claiming to restrict his attention to the contours of his own experience, does Leiris thereby afford his narrative with more observational authority? Or is subjectivity a ruse, a means of finessing the degree to which he remains nonetheless invested in the ethnographic project of documenting the African cultures the Mission Dakar-Djibouti is studying? In the preamble to the 1981 edition, Leiris describes Phantom Africa as “a succession of flashes relating to subjective facts as well as to exterior things (lived, seen, or learned),” a book best viewed from a “half-documentary, half-poetic angle” (61). Bize wonders exactly what subjectivity means in such an endeavor. “By ‘confessing’ his subjectivity Leiris also holds it up as a shield,” Bize suggests, “obscuring the fact that he is very much—even obsessively—involved in the project of documenting otherness.”

    Part of the difficulty is that Leiris himself jettisons the confessional framing in the 1951 edition of the book. This is the reason he considers the book “the product of a state of mind I consider myself to have moved beyond,” as he writes in the preface to that second edition (65). Indeed, Leiris critiques his own prior pretense to confession as a flimsy alibi he had adopted in the first edition to conceal his flaws: smugness, estheticism, coquetry, neurosis, self-deprecation, pontification, ill humor, fleeting brutality. Rereading the book in 1951, he tells us, “I am now persuaded that no man living in this iniquitous yet indisputably modifiable—at least in a few of its most monstrous aspects—world we live in should be able to get in the clear by means of a flight and a confession” (65). Is Leiris’s writing in his daily entries motivated by a confessional impulse, or is the invocation of Rousseau just a superficial guise he adopted in the 1934 preface?

    It is not quite the case, either, that Leiris adopts an opposition between “subjectivity and objectivity, or even literature and science” (as Bize would have it). On the contrary, in the initial drafts for a preface he writes in April 1932 (retained in the body of Phantom Africa, although not used in the end as the preface), Leiris makes an extended argument for the interrelation between subjectivity and objectivity. The thesis of the travel journal, he writes, is that “through subjectivity (carried to its paroxysm) that one attains objectivity” (319). He explains this somewhat more clearly in the second draft of the preface: the point of sticking to subjective experience (in as thorough a manner as possible) throughout is to “expose the personal coefficient in the light of day in order to allow the calculation of error, which is the greatest possible guarantee of objectivity” (322). The more detailed and thorough the record of his own experience, the better we can gauge what he missed—the ways his perspective is inherently partial.

    Bize interprets the “obsessional” form of Phantom Africa (marked by Leiris’s “quest for knowledge that waxes and wanes like lust”) as a matter of what she calls “ethnographic desire.” Leiris, she contends, is driven by “an attraction to precisely that which is not himself.” Drawing on the work of Audra Simpson, Bize defines anthropological need as compelled not only by the requirements of colonial administration but also by an “entire affective structure surrounding the production of knowledge about difference that was embedded in museums, in academia, in literature, and in the arts, and which tied the colonies to the metropole through the gathering and circulation of information.” As should be immediately evident, this takes us in the direction I have already explored in my response to Justin Izzo, in that in this sense Phantom Africa must be read as a historical document at the fulcrum of complicity between anthropology, museology, and colonization.

    The affective and the epistemological are conjoined here: if Leiris is struck with ethnographic desire, in other words, he is equally consumed by a desire for ethnography—that is, for a particular set of disciplinary protocols for “the production of knowledge about difference.” This conjoining is evident in Leiris’s descriptions of fieldwork, as much when his enthusiasm wanes (when he describes ethnography as just another sort of bureaucratic paper-pushing, or as a police interrogation) (316) as when it waxes (when he flushes with enthusiasm: “I am the first to get possessed by this icy demon of information”) (138).

    Like Glover, Bize is especially interested in the numerous incidents recounted in Phantom Africa when Leiris is faced with silence, reticence, dissembling, and resistance on the part of his informants. She points out that he almost always tends to read “refusal” as individual failure or personal rejection, even moral betrayal, rather than recognizing the ways that, for the colonized informant, refusal can be a strategy of negotiating the uneven power dynamics produced by anthropological need in the colonial situation. “Ethnographic refusal,” she writes, is “a conscious strategy to make certain kinds of knowledge inaccessible, in the context of histories in which the knowledge of and the governing of difference are difficult to untangle.”

    It is hard to imagine Leiris recognizing and respecting this sort of refusal on the part of his interlocutors, much less incorporating a conscious strategy of refusal in his own ethnographic work as a point of solidarity. This does not seem to be quite what he has in mind in his preamble to the 1981 edition of Phantom Africa when he calls for “an ethnography of militant fraternity” designed to “furnish the people we were studying with the means to construct a future that would belong to them, and in the meantime to produce unassailable work to support their claims” (60).

    I do want to draw attention to one instance of refusal in Phantom Africa, both because it has something to do with the questions Bize raises regarding the confessional aspects of the book, and because it is a matter of ethnographic desire in the specific sense Bize invokes (emphasizing “the explicit parallels [Leiris] draws between romantic obsession and the craving for information” as well as the embodied nature of anthropological need).

    In his review of my English translation of Phantom Africa, Tim Watson muses on the implications of a perturbing lacuna in Leiris’s journal.1 In the entry of August 24, 1932, Leiris describes becoming disillusioned and even “bored” during one “tumultuous” night attending a possession ceremony at Malkam Ayyahou’s house. He is annoyed by the “filth, the disorder, the wretched tawdriness” of the entire affair and, unable to understand the declamations in Amharic, he feels “terribly foreign.” Cryptically, he adds that he has but one “pleasant memory” of that night: “that of Emawayish, her regal air now infused with a succubus-like quality, with her soft, moist and cold flesh, which nauseates me and at the same time scares me a little” (484).

    It is not clear what he is referring to until an entry at the end of December where he muses on the “rare erotic episodes on this voyage,” noting in particular “the single rather misplaced gesture I permitted myself with regard to Emawayish, at the first festival at her mother’s house” (676). Even this explanation remains mysterious, to the point that Leiris feels compelled to offer a further clarification in one of the spare corrective footnotes added to the 1934 edition: “When I put my hand under her shamma. And I will always remember the dampness between her thighs—damp as the earth out of which golems are made” (676). As Watson points out, Leiris’s belated admission that he groped Emawayish under her robe is “a powerful confessional moment that tests the limits of the reader’s sympathy.” But equally importantly, Watson adds, “it distorts the form of the diary and the reader’s fantasy that all significant events are included in the day’s record.”

    Thus, although the footnote is a “confessional moment,” one could argue that its belated inclusion undermines any pretense that the composition of the diary was unfailingly honest and thorough, even in its recording of subjective experience. If there are moments in Phantom Africa that seem to display a compulsion toward so-called full disclosure (for example, the recounting of masturbatory fantasies and erotic dreams), this footnote makes one notice other moments of reticence, even something one might call refusal (such as Leiris’s brief and vague description of “chas[ing] the Somali nymphs in every direction” in the red-light district of Djibouti, toward the end of the journey) (683). This would be a very different sort of ethnographic refusal, in other words: not “a conscious strategy to make certain kinds of knowledge inaccessible, in the context of histories in which the knowledge of and the governing of difference are difficult to untangle,” but instead a disingenuous refusal that on the contrary is produced by the paradoxes of anthropological need.

    1. Tim Watson, “The Horticulturalist of the Self,” Public Books, December 22, 2017,




I was wary of Phantom Africa when I first learned of it. The title alone (and, in all transparency, its juxtaposition with the author’s French name) suggested trafficking in the tropes of a dark, exotic, unknowable Africa. Brent Hayes Edwards’s introduction in this new, translated edition of the book went a long way towards allaying my concerns. In an extensive and deeply thoughtful discussion of how Michel Leiris’s text has been taken up by commentators (including Leiris himself) across the fields of history, literature, anthropology, in the United States and in France, from its first publication to the time of this translation, Hayes Edwards establishes that the complexity, multiplicity, and ambiguity of Phantom Africa form the basis for the book’s enduring relevance and value. He convinced me that the book was worthy of serious engagement, rather than the dismissal towards which I had initially been inclined.

Phantom Africa interpellates so many parts of my being—as a black woman, as a West African, as the child of people who grew up as subjects of the French Empire, as someone obsessed with understanding my inner worlds; and of my experience—as a recently minted anthropologist, moreover, one who works on the idea of Africa and whose first fieldwork experience is still quite fresh. It isn’t difficult to see how this book, a compendium of hundreds of entries often blurring the lines between field notes and journal entries that chronicle a white French man’s journey on an ethnographic expedition through West and East Africa to collect art and artifacts—sometimes by force—at the height of European colonialism on the continent would trigger a great deal of aversion within me. But it also sparked resonance. The dozen or so drafts of this essay on my computer attest to how difficult I have found it to reconcile these two reactions.

On one hand, I found Phantom Africa violent. At the most fundamental level, in the very premise of the Mission Dakar-Djibouti it documents, in the assumption that the members of the expedition had the right to access people, spaces, objects, and knowledge in the various locales they visited. The mission, and other ethnographic voyages like it, were premised on the conviction that collecting and documenting artifacts from colonies, by whatever means necessary, would ultimately benefit the populations from which these objects were taken. Indeed, one of Leiris’s stated motivations for taking part in the mission was the possibility it presented for helping to “dissipate” and “undermine” racial prejudice (Leiris 1930, quoted on p. 5). And yet, as Edwards notes, “there can be no doubt that [the expedition] was undertaken explicitly in the service of the French colonial empire” (3).

One of the most egregious examples of this violence and the ways it intersected with colonial regimes of oppression is the case of the mission’s acquisition of a kono, a sacred ritual object, in Bla, a village along the mission’s itinerary in Niger in 1931. When despite their initial approval, villagers ultimately refuse, through a variety of stalling techniques, to turn over the kono to the anthropologists, Marcel Griaule, eminent anthropologist and expedition leader, threatens to have the police take them before the colonial authorities. Once the village chief’s “permission” is thus secured, Griaule and Leiris enter the hut and remove the kono, “creeping out like thieves while the devastated chief flees” (154).

The text’s violence also manifested in Leiris’s observations, in the banal ways that an otherwise sensitive description slipped into painful tropes. Here, the trope of the African-as-child:

A great religious emotion: this dirty, simple, elementary object whose abject quality is a terrible force because it holds in concentrated form what these men consider to be absolute, and because they have stamped it with their own force, like the little ball of earth a child rolls between his fingers when playing with mud. (147)

Here, that of the African-as-animal lookalike:

Baba Keyta takes me to an old sorceress, literally as pretty as a monkey . . . We find her with a group of other women . . . One is lying on a mat and looks quite nasty; the other is lolling on her mother’s bed, next to her, and either watches me or gazes off into space, as beautiful, literally, as a beautiful cow (it is no laughing matter). There is also a young Toucouleur girl who comes and goes from time to time and who also sits on the bed, as pretty as a common gazelle, literally, and again it is no laughing matter.1 (143–44)

Or again in the expression, however self-reflexive, of his power and status as a white, French man: “I realize in a dazed stupor, which only later transforms into disgust, that you feel pretty sure of yourself when you’re a white man with a knife in your hand” (156), Leiris writes about his part in the theft of the kono.

Leiris became increasingly aware, as the mission progressed, and certainly by its end, that he had been not only implicated, but complicit, in the very structures of oppression that he had believed himself to be challenging through his ethnographic work. In the foreword to the 1934 edition of Phantom Africa, he observes that his journal reveals him to be, among other things, “biased—even unjust—inhuman (or ‘human, all too human’), an ingrate, a false brother, who knows?” And in the foreword to the 1951 edition, he describes the publication of his journal entries even though do not reflect his current perspectives as “a sort of confession.” But Leiris himself seems to recognize that there are limits of the redemptive powers of contrition:

If I put forward in my defense, as I did sixteen years ago, the precedent of Rousseau and his Confessions, it is with far less assurance, for I am now persuaded that no man living in this iniquitous yet indisputably modifiable—in at least a few of its most monstrous aspects—world we live in should be able to get in the clear by means of a flight and a confession. (65)

I am inclined to agree.


And still, as I read through it, Phantom Africa brought about (to my dismay!) moments of intense recognition and resonance. These moments centered on the text as a record of a first-time ethnographer’s experience—still fresh in my memory, being just a few years removed: the overwhelm; the beginner’s faith in the promise of ethnographic research as a mode of and means to definitive knowing; and—not unrelatedly—the sometimes unacknowledged personal agendas that can graft themselves onto this initial (and initiatory) experience.

For Leiris, part of the appeal of the mission was the methodical, scientific nature of ethnographic research, and its promise of rigor; rigor that could produce facts, and facts which could in turn help fight prejudice against blacks and Africans. But there was also the lure of dépaysement, that untranslatable French term for being out of one’s familiar context, losing one’s bearings, on which so much of the learning that happens in fieldwork is taken to depend. And its promise of greater clarity, both outwardly—onto the research subject, and inwardly—as if we are able to access a core, elemental version of ourselves once what is familiar is shaken off. The deep dive of fieldwork presented Leiris with the possibility of leaving parts of his self behind, the hope that “this long voyage in remote lands—and true contact, via scientific observation, with their inhabitants—would transform him into a different, more open man, cured of his obsessions,” as Leiris noted himself (59). Further, as Edwards points out, by undertaking this voyage in Africa specifically, Leiris also sought to satisfy his own fantasies of “the dark continent.”

Leiris was clear on his personal agenda for the voyage; it was a quest to forget. In my case, however, it was only a couple of years after completing my dissertation fieldwork—for which I had returned to Togo, my home country, to conduct ethnographic research after a twenty-plus-year absence—that I realized that subtending my research’s interrogation of the aesthetic and material renegotiation of Dutch Wax cloth designs’ “African-ness” as its manufacturer remade itself into a global brand was a personal interrogation of my relationship to Togo, of the extent to which it was still, could still be “home.” In Togo, Dutch Wax cloth designs are memory objects par excellence, commonly referred to as “our grandmothers’ cloth.” During a follow-up fieldwork trip to Togo after graduating, I wrote to my dissertation advisor:

I’ve been in Lomé for the past month. It’s been good work-wise, with lots of ideas and writing, and I’m finding being here much more manageable than I did during the dissertation research. I’ve been thinking a lot about how my research seems to be running parallel to some sort of quest to understand my own personal history better; that hadn’t been as apparent to me before as it has become during this trip.

And to a dear friend back in the United States:

[I’m realizing] that a big part of my wanting to come to Lomé is about not wanting to be afraid (anymore). As I think I mentioned, since my family left, Lomé has been shrouded in a lot of fear in my family. Mainly because of what the conditions were when we left, when the country was on the brink of a civil war, disappearances were happening left and right, bodies kept getting pulled out of the laguna by the dozens, there was a curfew, and incessant reports of arbitrary uses of violent, often lethal force. Clearly life has gone on, and things are nowhere near as tense as they were at that time, but the feeling of fear has remained, for me at least. And I think I’m tentatively trying to conquer it, to settle on a different story.

My personal agenda for this research, it turned out, was a quest to remember. And like Leiris’s, my personal agenda demanded, took over, space in my writing. I struggled with writer’s block when I was writing up my dissertation until I gave myself permission to incorporate more personal, memoir-type writing into the text.

Which leads me to my favorite part of Edwards’s new edition of Phantom Africa: the inspired decision to include excerpts from Leiris’s letters to his wife, Zette, back in Paris throughout the voyage. The juxtaposition of the missives with his journal entries made palpable (and immediate) Leiris’s vulnerability, his loneliness while in the field (“I no longer have the least affection for any of my companion and I feel so alone among them . . . The only thing that connects me to life is your letters,” he writes to Zette about five weeks into the mission [87]). The letters help to make him a more sympathetic character.

Anyone who has carried out fieldwork will attest to the crucial role that your community back home—friends, partners, graduate school cohort mates, dissertation committee members when you’re lucky (I was)—play in the fieldwork experience. They sustain you through the inevitable meltdowns, they give you a space to air out your frustrations, they anchor you. Further, the correspondence also allows you to process what you are seeing and experiencing in the field, to give voice to the emotional experience of it all. When I was leaving for dissertation fieldwork, my graduate school advisor encouraged me to keep track of the emails I sent to loved ones while in the field, and to return to them when the time for writing came; the casual and conversational nature of those exchanges can make for particularly insightful and sharp analysis. Indeed, in his letters to Zette, Leiris tended to take a more pronounced, reflexive distance from the project he was embarked on, and was most transparent about his own ambivalence about it all.


Despite these moments of recognition, I remain ambivalent towards Leiris and Phantom Africa. For if resonance there is between our experiences as first-time ethnographers, the points of disjuncture, centered on our respective situated positionalities as ethnographers in the field, our different historical contexts notwithstanding, are momentous. It might seem unreasonable to situate Leiris’s voyage in the 1930s and my own experience in the 2010s within the same time-space frame. But the account relayed to us in Phantom Africa are hardly ancient—or even distant—history. After all, a commission established at the sustained behest of African political and cultural actors is at this very moment examining the terms for returning objects taken during colonial era ethnographic expeditions like the Mission Dakar-Djibouti to their places of origin. The story is ongoing. Maybe the kono will find its way back.

Further, in a recent article in one of anthropology’s flagship journals, five black, brown, indigenous, and queer female anthropologists (Maya Berry, Claudia Chávez Argüelles, Shanya Cordis, Sarah Ihmoud, and Elizabeth Velásquez Estrada) poignantly relate the ways in which their gendered and racialized embodiment has punctuated their field research (Berry et al. 2017). Despite existing writing on the specific challenges that female anthropologists face in the field, Berry et al. tell us, “the notion of engaging in fieldwork is often approached by activist anthropologists [and, I would argue, in the field more broadly] in a gender-neutral way, one that still assumes an unencumbered male subject with racial privilege, to whom the field means a space far from home that can be easily entered and exited” (539). Through accounts of harrowing situations they each found themselves in, the authors cast a light on the ways that inhabiting their black/brown/indigenous and female bodies rendered them vulnerable to the very power dynamics, the very violence, that their research as activist anthropologists sought to engage. Taking the field experiences of anthropologists who are not white men seriously, they contend, requires rethinking the premises of fieldwork and of its place in anthropological praxis. Here too, then, the story—and the work—is ongoing.

It might seem unfair to read Phantom Africa through the lens of the present, but the enduring relevance of place, history, race, and gender in anthropology today—from the ethnographer’s positionality in the field to the projects of knowledge production that ethnographic research is and has been complicit in—make it almost impossible not to.


Works Cited

Berry, Maya J., et al. “Toward a Fugitive Anthropology: Gender, Race, and Violence in the Field.” Cultural Anthropology 32.4 (2017) 537–65.

Leiris, Michel. Phantom Africa. 1931. Translated by Brent Hayes Edwards. New York: Seagull, 2016.

  1. Admittedly, Leiris is an expert and somewhat equal opportunity shade thrower, with plenty to spare for the Europeans with whom he interacts.

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    Brent Hayes Edwards


    Unexpected Returns (The Dialectic of Repulsion)

    Amah Edoh’s frank and meticulous response is a thoughtful reflection on the ways that Phantom Africa can trigger aversion as well as spark resonance. As she says, the book is a harrowing and at times infuriating deposition of the most egregious as well as the quietest violences of anthropology in the shadow of imperialism. Even as there are intermittent flashes in Leiris’s prose of disgust with the practice of ethnography and an avowal of its complicity with colonial domination, there are also discomfiting moments of self-indulgence, rationalization, and the tediously familiar repertoire of exotic stereotypes.

    And yet, Edoh finds herself conceding, Phantom Africa also affords “moments of intense recognition and resonance,” especially of the tribulations and anxieties of the first-time ethnographer in the field. Even as she notes the stark differences between her own experience of fieldwork as a female ethnographer returning to her native Togo and Leiris’s participation in the Mission Dakar-Djibouti, she is also struck by the parallels, especially in “the beginner’s faith in the promise of ethnographic research” and in the ways that “sometimes unacknowledged personal agendas” can come to “graft themselves onto this initial (and initiatory) experience.”

    Edoh’s commentary compels me to think more carefully about what one might call the dialectic of repulsion in reading Phantom Africa: the strange oscillation it seems to trigger between identification and rejection. Given that Leiris himself (in the Preface to the 1951 edition) admits ruefully that a “a certain Conradian taste for the great desperadoes of the farthest reaches” drove him to identify “in brief fits” with “the brutal colonial settler” (65), it is difficult in reading Phantom Africa not to be reminded of Chinua Achebe’s famous 1977 critique of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Starting with its very title, Phantom Africa looks like yet another entry in the extensive canon of modernist European literature that (as Anjuli Raza Kolb points out in her introduction to this dossier) traffics “in the coin of obscurity and obfuscation when it comes to Africa.” At the same time, however, it is worth emphasizing that Leiris is not simply a latter-day Conrad. Whatever its flaws, Phantom Africa is never so crude as to reduce Africans to “the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind” (to mention just one of the charges that Chinua Achebe leveled against Heart of Darkness).1 As irritable as Leiris can occasionally be, he is not liable to reduce the individuals he meets to stick figures.

    In my introduction, I mention the extraordinary entry of September 1, 1932, one of the most fascinating sections of the entire book (43). Leiris starts by confessing a growing “doubt” about his work with the zar in Gondar. It is partly that he is starting to suspect the poetry of the songs in the possession ceremonies may not be as “beautiful” or “profound” as he had wanted to believe (498). But it is also partly his “piercing sensation of being at the edge of something whose depths I will never touch, among other reasons because I do not have the power to let myself go—as would be necessary—this due to a variety of motives that are very hard to define, but among which there are first of all questions of skin, of civilization, of language” (498). As an “excellent demonstration of the irreducible gap between two civilizations,” Leiris recounts that

    Emawayish says in passing that she doesn’t wash her youngest son, out of fear that he will be struck with illness by Rahielo. But Rahielo is one of the principal zar that possess her mother. . . . In saying this, she really thinks that one of the spirits dwelling in her mother’s head is capable of causing the death of her child. But she doesn’t hold her mother responsible and bears no resentment against her—when they clash—except insofar as questions of family and self-interest are concerned. So everyone, then—Emawayish, her mother, Kasahoun the hunter (with the abbigam of the beast he killed), Abba Jerome, and myself—has his head peopled with little genies that in all likelihood are commanding all his actions (one for each category) without his being in any way responsible. This is what emerges from all my friends’ conduct and from everything they say. . . . An atmosphere as splendid as it is suffocating. Or for me, at least, as I am imbued with a civilization that compels me to give everything a moral, rather than magic, coloring. And that is the great step I will never be able to take . . . I can hardly believe, for example, that right now I’m not the one who is suffering and rambling, that instead I am undoubtedly in the grip of an evil genie—a succubus, perhaps—and that, in any case, we have no solid foundation: tomorrow, for example, if I am happy, there is no reason to take the words I said today into account, because tomorrow I will no longer be the same person; I will be inspired by a happier genie. Yet this is what any of my friends here would think of my present state. (499)

    The Africans are not “props,” here. Instead, Leiris is struggling mightily in the face of what he realizes is a radically different understanding of human subjectivity and agency held by the Ethiopians he considers his friends.

    One of the subtlest responses to Achebe’s takedown of Conrad is a short 1981 essay by the late Guayanese novelist Wilson Harris called “The Frontier on Which Heart of Darkness Stands.” While agreeing with Achebe’s analysis of the ways Conrad’s fiction is shot through with racism, Harris argues that we should understand Conrad as a sort of transitional figure, whose work pointed toward a critique of the monolithic, world-gobbling assumptions of imperialism, even if it could not fully attain that critique: Heart of Darkness in particular, Harris suggests, “stands upon a threshold of capacity to which Conrad pointed though he never attained that capacity himself.”2

    I want to revisit briefly one of the passages of that Amiel Bize quotes from Phantom Africa, because it seems to me to have to do with precisely this question. In August 1931, taken by the interpreter and assistant Baba Keyta to meet with a “sect of possessed women” near Koulikoro (in present-day Mali), Leiris spends a fruitless day trying to conduct an interview:

    The old woman barely speaks. She smiles maliciously, parries all my questions, and transforms everything into utterly harmless facts. It is almost as though she is recounting how she had been ill and, when healed, had herself become a healer. I discover over the course of the afternoon that the reason she is unwilling to say more is that the woman who preceded her as head of the sect was arrested fifteen years ago by the French authorities, beaten, imprisoned, and exiled in Kati where she died in horrible misery. . . .

    I leave these women, exasperated, and speak harshly to poor Baba Keyta. I come close to calling him a “bilakoro”!

    When I learn the reasons for the woman’s muteness, I am no longer angry with Baba Keyta, but now incensed with the administration, that iniquitous organization that allows such things to happen under the pretext of morality. (143–44)

    Bize writes that the passage is particularly “intriguing as an example of Leiris’s confessional style; Leiris does not hide his own initial annoyance, even as he later sees the refusal to have been justified. . . . And despite his ‘incensed’ response to a colonial abuse of power, Leiris does not seem to perceive his own wish to acquire information as a product of the same context.” It is hard to disagree with her analysis, although in fact Leiris does sometimes see the ways ethnographic desire is complicit with colonization, most notably in the passage about anthropologists being trained to “pillage the Negroes,” which as I noted in my reply to Justin Izzo is used as an epigraph to the Sarr-Savoy Report. The problem is that until his 1951 article “The Ethnographer Faced with Colonialism,” such a critique is sporadic rather than sustained: in Phantom Africa, Leiris still stands upon a threshold of capacity, to use Wilson Harris’s formulation.

    In his essay, Achebe argues that we should not absolve Conrad for the flaws and prejudices of his narrator Marlow in Heart of Darkness because Conrad “neglects to hint, however subtly or tentatively, at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters.”3 My point here is that, although he retains the damning evidence of his own presumptuous initial reaction (unloading his frustration on Baba Keyta), by explaining the reasons for the old woman’s reticence Leiris does provide an “alternative frame of reference” by which we can both judge him and make our own sense of the episode. The ambivalence one can feel in reading Phantom Africa, I would suggest, has a great deal to do with the way the book overlays these sorts of alternative frames of reference.

    As I mention in my introduction (16), Marcel Griaule’s influential but problematic work has been the target of a good deal of what George Marcus terms “restudy” and critique by subsequent generations of anthropologists who have revisited many of the locations he studied, questioning his methods and conclusions.4 Because the Mission Dakar-Djibouti was so thoroughly documented, it has also allowed later anthropologists to review Griaule’s archive of fieldwork notes, now consultable at the Bibliothèque du Laboratoire d’ethnologie et de sociologie comparative in Nanterre outside Paris.5

    One of the most interesting examples of the latter are the Malian anthropologists who have begun to work with Griaule’s archive over the past decade. At a conference in Nanterre in 2007, Aly Ongoïba, the director of the Archives Nationales in Mali, pointed out that access to the fieldwork notes of Griaule and his collaborators would be of particular interest to Malian scholars because so little European scholarship on African cultures is preserved in African archives (aside from the occasional items that filtered into documents related to colonial administration). Ongoïba espoused the creation of mechanisms for African scholars to provide “feedback” on the archives of European ethnographic practice from the colonial era: that is, strategies for the “sharing or circulation of ideas, experiences, and documents so that Mali would be able to fill its archival gaps, thanks to the collaboration with institutions, researchers, and archivists abroad.”6

    The following year, another Malian anthropologist named Denis Douyon published a fascinating analysis of the Griaule fieldwork archive following an extended research stay in Nanterre. Although Douyon catalogues some errors of interpretation in the unpublished notes from Griaule’s work among the Dogon (most the result of mistranslation), his conclusion is notably measured, a call for further collaboration and increased access rather than simply a corrective. “My aim,” he explains,

    is not to judge the results of Griaule or his collaborators, but to understand—and eventually to explain—the reasons for the statements given by a given informant in a specific context, and perhaps to highlight the quid pro quos and the power relations or complicity between ethnographers and ethnographic subjects. But if this type of analysis or external viewpoint may throw new light upon the Griaule archives, these collections are equally likely to enrich or to orient the research of Malian scholars (on the condition, of course, that they are made easily consultable).7

    Interestingly, Douyon expressly rejects the prospect of the “restitution” of these sorts of ethnographic archives: “Produced by French scholars with the collaboration of Malian informants and interpreters, these archives do not have to be ‘given back,’ but it would doubtlessly be legitimate for them to be placed at the disposition of Malians as long as they remain an object or tool of study or a source of documentation.” Of course, as Edoh mentions, the situation is altogether different with regard to the African art and artifacts taken by expeditions such as the Mission Dakar-Djibouti.

    To return to my response to Justin Izzo, it is perhaps worth adding that among the objects listed as priorities for restitution in the Sarr-Savoy Report are a number that figure in the most egregious thefts and forced requisitions documented in Phantom Africa, including the paintings removed from the walls of the church of Abba Antonios in Ethiopia (465ff.); the mask of the “shoemaker’s wife” from Sanga that appears in one of the photos in Leiris’s book (200); the painted wooden “mothers of the mask” removed from Barna (196, 198); the tall “cross of Lorraine” mask from Sanga, also pictured in Phantom Africa (178–79); and the kono from Dyabougou (155).8 As Edoh writes, we are still very much in the middle of this history: “Maybe the kono will find its way back.”

    1. Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Massachusetts Review 57.1 (2016) 21.

    2. Wilson Harris, “The Frontier on Which Heart of Darkness Stands,” Research in African Literatures 12.1 (1971) 87.

    3. Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa,” Massachusetts Review 18.4 (1977) 787. Achebe made subtle revisions to this essay when it was republished years later. In this sentence, notably he changed “however subtly or tentatively” to “clearly and adequately.” See “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Massachusetts Review 57.1 (2016) 20.

    4. George E. Marcus, “The Once and Future Ethnographic Archive,” History of the Human Sciences 11.4 (1998) 54. Some of the more important critiques of Griaule’s work on the Dogon in particular include Walter E. A. van Beek, “Dogon Re-studied: A Field Evaluation of the Work of Marcel Griaule,” Current Anthropology 32.2 (1991) 139–67; Walter E. A. van Beek, “Haunting Griaule: Experiences from the Restudy of the Dogon,” History in Africa 31 (2004) 43–68; Gaetano Ciarcia, De la mémoire ethnographique: L’exotisme du pays dogon (Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS / Cahiers de l’Homme, 2003); and Andrew Apter, Beyond Words: Discourse and Critical Agency in Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

    5. See Eric Jolly, “Le Fonds Marcel-Griaule: Un objet de recherche à partager ou un patrimoine à restituer?” Ateliers d’anthropologie 32 (2008), available online at; Jolly, “Du fichier ethnographique au fichier informatique: Le fonds Marcel-Griaule: le classement des notes de terrain,” Gradhiva 30–31 (2001–2002) 81–103.

    6. Eric Jolly, “Introduction: Une revisite des archives Marcel-Griaule,” Ateliers d’anthropologie 32 (2008), available online at

    7. Denis Douyon, “Le regard d’un ethnologue malien sur les archives du Fonds Marcel-Griaule,” Ateliers d’anthropologie 32 (2008), available online at

    8. The Sarr-Savoy Report includes photographs and detailed information about these objects. See Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, “Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain. Vers une nouvelle éthique relationnelle,” November 23, 2018, 166–79; available online at



The Black Translator

in Pursuit of Phantoms

Recently I taught Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the classic 1941 collaborative experiment in documentary by writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans. In the midst of their unsparing and impassioned portraits of three white tenant farmer and sharecropper families in rural Alabama in the 1930s, there is a short chapter titled “Near a Church.” Agee and Evans had come upon a modest, rough-hewn, but breathtakingly beautiful country church and, in awe at “the subtle almost strangling strong asymmetries of that which has been hand wrought toward symmetry,” they decide to photograph it.1

Wanting to take shots of the interior as well as the exterior, they briefly consider forcing the locked door, but hesitate when they notice a young black couple coming toward them up the road. The man and woman glance at Agee and Evans, “without appearing to look either longer or less long, or with more or less interest, than a white man might care for,” and take in the scene of the two strangers lurking by the house of worship with their tripod and camera. Unceremonious greetings are exchanged, and the couple continues on their way. Without the slightest accusation, Agee writes, the couple “made us, in spite of our knowledge of our own meanings, ashamed and insecure in our wish to break into and possess their church, and after a minute or two I decided to go after them and speak to them, and ask them if they knew where we might find a minister or some other person who might let us in, if it would be all right” (36–37).

The couple had advanced about fifty yards down the road, and Agee hurries to catch up with them. The man and woman notice him following them: “they turned their heads (toward each other) and looked at me briefly and impersonally, like horses in a field, and faced front again; and this, I am almost certain, not through having heard sound of me, but through a subtler sense” (37). He tries to wave at them but they turn away so quickly they do not notice. A few seconds later, impatient, and realizing that he is not advancing fast enough to overtake them, Agee breaks into a trot. He writes:

At the sound of the twist of my shoe in the gravel, the young woman’s whole body was jerked down tight as a fist into a crouch from which immediately the rear foot skidding in the loose stone so that she nearly fell, like a kicked cow scrambling out of a creek, eyes crazy, chin stretched tight, she sprang forward into the first motions of a running not human but that of a suddenly terrified wild animal. In this same instant the young man froze, the emblems of sense in his wild face wide open toward me, his right hand stiff toward the girl who, after a few strides, her consciousness overtaking her reflex, shambled to a stop and stood, not straight but sick, as if hung from a hook in the spine of the will not to fall for weakness, while he hurried to her and put his hand on her flowered shoulder and, inclining his head forward and sidewise as if listening, spoke with her, and they lifted, and watched me while, shaking my head, and raising my hand palm outward, I came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they, closely, not touching now, stood, and said, still shaking my head (No; no, oh, Jesus, no, no, no!) and looking into their eyes; at the man, who was not knowing what to do, and at the girl, whose eyes were lined with tears, and who was trying so hard to subdue the shaking in her breath, and whose heart I could feel, though not hear, blasting as if it were my whole body, and I trying in some fool way to keep it somehow relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear; and of my horror and pity and self-hatred. (37–38)

It is an indelible portrait of the visceral terror of what it meant to be African American in the US South in 1936, when the most innocuous interaction could suddenly turn life-threatening. Agee’s wrenching, drawn-out rehashing of his own guilt at finding himself implicated in such a dynamic (“The least I could have done was to throw myself flat on my face and embrace and kiss their feet,” he agonizes pathetically) only serves to underline the precariousness and horror of the racial regime: an ever-present, silent undercurrent of potential violence that could erupt into bloody view at the slightest provocation.

There is no question that, not unlike—although not identical to—the volatile racial climate in Alabama, colonized Africa in the 1930s was suffused with systemic terror to a degree that affected every register of human interaction, from the most official and “impersonal” protocols of governance, to the fundamental civil institutions of work, worship, and learning (as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o once put it, as a schoolboy in colonial Kenya even his relationship to the English language “was based on a coercive system of rewards and terror”),2 to the most mundane, everyday encounters among individuals. And, as reassuring as it might be to pretend otherwise, if to write a history of the present means to confront “the incomplete project of freedom, and the precarious life of the ex-slave, a condition defined by the vulnerability to premature death and to gratuitous acts of violence,”3 then we must revisit—and indeed, insist on revisiting—the bibliography of that terror, whether that means returning to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, or Nervous Conditions, or Phantom Africa.

In addition to documenting the terror of the colonial context in Africa of the 1930s, however, Phantom Africa teaches us something else, too. Even in a situation where terror is systemic and all-pervasive—a cauldron of subjection that operates below consciousness: a stirring in the bowels, a tension in the sinews—the most remarkable thing of all is that the affective palette available to the terrorized is not circumscribed by terror. It is not all panic, distraught bawling, and cowed genuflection.

We might describe this uncircumscribed affective palette as a product of an anoriginal dereliction, a fugitivity that exceeds and, more importantly, precedes and anticipates the modes of regulation that would constrain it. In Foucault’s famous formulation, “it is not that life has been totally integrated into techniques that govern and administer it; it constantly escapes them.”4

What do we do with that unruly, unclassifiable range of response inventoried in Phantom Africa—that proliferation of unpredictable and sometimes enigmatic interactions where Africans refuse to be reduced to terror? The children on the beach at Ngor, sailing little toy pirogues and running after the ethnographers’ car yelling “Sunday! Sunday!” (83). Or the two smiling young women who come up to the vehicle as they depart and launch into “a few dance steps, clapping their hands,” leaving Leiris puzzled as to the “exact meaning of this display of coquetry” (86). Or the lamido of Ray Bouba, in northern Cameroon, who receives Griaule’s team with a ludicrously extravagant feast (277–79). Or the inhabitants of Kita (in present-day Mali), who tell the ethnographers that a nearby mountain is teeming with “dangerous and sinister devils,” possibly in order to keep them from stumbling across the many grottoes filled with graffiti of unexplained origin (126). Or the Shilluk men the team encounters at a Syrian trading post by the Nile in Sudan who, when the ethnographers try to photograph them, “move away or turn their faces with expressions like little girls simpering” (332). Or the “elegant” balambaras Gassasa, head of customs at the border in Gallabat, who receives the Mission Dakar-Djibouti wearing “a big revolver on his hip” (356) and obstructs their passage into Ethiopia with an endless stream of paperwork. Or the alternately imperious and ingratiating Malkam Ayyahou, “cackling with laughter” as she singes the hair off Leiris’s forearms and eyebrows with an exuberant explosion of gunpowder during a ceremony in Gondar (475). Or the “dandy” (267) Toucouleur interpreter in Poli (Cameroon), who regales Leiris with “comic imitations of a schoolmaster satirizing a dunce” (268). There are too many to catalogue: indeed, the texture of the book as a whole is this diverse litany of ambiguous human interaction.

In rereading Phantom Africa, I have come to realize that in my introduction I was too dismissive when I wrote that Leiris “has little to say” in the book “about the Africans who served as translators for the Mission” (44). On the contrary, some of the most nuanced portraits in Leiris’s journal are his discussions of the African interpreters who accompanied the Mission Dakar-Djibouti. They are not intimidated or subservient, but complexly human, sometimes mercurial or truculent, and often erudite. Leiris dwells for instance on the “warm and light-hearted” atmosphere in their compound one evening when their Senegalese interpreter and assistant Mamadou Vad, a former railroad mechanic who worked on the expedition for four months in the summer and fall of 1931, “rises with his freshly shaven head from the mat where he has been stretched out and scrupulously records some good story (in Wolof, transcribed not only into French but also into Arabic script) in the little notebook Griaule gave him” (138). Earlier that day, in the car, Mamadou Vad tells “dazzling” and humorous anecdotes: “In Kayes, going to fetch some milk, he surprised a man copulating with his cow; ever since, when he runs into him he asks: ‘How’s your wife?’” (137). Even in this minor example over the course of a single day, what is notable is the complex dynamic between “work” and “play”; if some of the stories Vad records and translates for the team might fall under the instrumental task of collecting information for ethnographic purposes, some clearly do not.5

There is obvious affection in the way Leiris habitually describes the interpreters and informants working with the Misson Dakar-Djibouti, men such as Mamadou Vad, Dousso Wologuem, Ambara Dolo, and Ambibe Babadyi. At times they are resourceful, at times they are disinterested, and at times they are capricious or recalcitrant. In November 1931, on a day trip to Yougo, Leiris records that one of their principal Dogon contacts, Ambara Dolo, “who is sporting his ever-present earrings, forage cap, black frock coat with green buttons in the back, breeches, and umbrella, refuses to carry anything but our storm lantern and the big bundle of personal effects he is wearing slung over his shoulder bandolier-style, like a peasant returning from the fair in Fouilly-les-Oies” (207).

When another interpreter, the idiosyncratic former telegraph operator Baba Keyta, a “bearded giant with completely albino legs and forearms” (131), joins the team in Mali, Leiris is enthralled by his charismatic personality and his “sumptuously garbed” appearance (133). One day Baba Keyta turns up wearing “white sandals, an impeccable white suit with a high collar, officer-style, a colonial helmet a bit too large for him—which he adjusts using strips of paper torn from an old issue of La Dépêche Coloniale—and, to complete the image, a narrow-waisted European winter overcoat and a freshly shaven head” (134). Leiris tells his wife that he finds Baba Keyta “comical,” but “deeply moving,” too, because (as Leiris puts it) Keyta possesses “true candor, true fantasy” (135). There is certainly obfuscation in Leiris’s invocation of “true fantasy” here—just as in his effusive descriptions of Africa as an “ocean of poetry” (as I discussed in my response to Kaiama Glover)—and yet there is a quality in the detail of the description of Baba Keyta that goes beyond the instrumentalism of stereotype.

It may be worth reflecting on the fact that so many of the enigmatic interactions in Phantom Africa involve the African translators on the Mission Dakar-Djibouti. As both Kaiama Glover and Amiel Bize discuss in some detail, Leiris and his fellow ethnographers encounter a good deal of hedging, prevarication, and misdirection on the part of the Africans from whom they attempt to extract information. Leiris remarks at one point that “the natives often pass off as casual amusement something whose religious purpose they wish to conceal” (123). Bize comments, “Leiris regularly encounters refusals but only on a few occasions does he recognize them as such. Such moments clarify both the form and the limits of his ability to see the project in which he is involved.” Even if Leiris remains oblivious to their full implications, these moments in Phantom Africa are traces of overt resistance, where the only available strategy for a “native informant” conscripted into the information-gathering drive of colonial anthropology is silence and opacity. But there is something else going on when the resistance is coming not from the “native informant” but instead from the translator—that is, emanating from the very factotum who is meant to ensure the linguistic transparency of the “native” to the anthropological understanding. As I mentioned in my response to Glover, Leiris is particularly annoyed when faced with this impedance (a resistance within the mechanism of mediation). Given how often it happens in Phantom Africa, we might even need to consider the way the book stages the specific opacity of the translator.

There are even corollaries to this question, such as the intriguing fact that a number of these assistants and translators are so young. Leaving the Dogon region in November 1931, the team says farewell to their “best friend among the children,” the eleven-year-old Abara. Marcel Griaule gives him a watch as a present, but the boy is not satisfied: “I want to go with you, monsieur . . .” It is “impossible to take him,” Leiris comments; “he is too weak and small, but we’ll be back again. If he learns French well, he’ll be our head interpreter.”6 As the car drives away, Leiris writes, “we look back and see the child, who after a moment’s hesitation has turned around, weeping as he trudges back to Sanga” (215).

Or one might point to another of the Mission Dakar-Djibouti’s young assistants, the thirteen-year-old Mamadou Keyta, who joins the team in Bamako in August 1931 as an interpreter, against the wishes of his father (144–45). Impressed by his language skills and his enthusiasm, Griaule tells the boy that he wants to make “a great ethnographer out of him” (!), and they start actively training him and letting him participate in the fieldwork (157). Mamadou Keyta travels with the team for six months, but Griaule eventually concludes that he does not have the necessary aptitude for the profession and sends him back home in February 1932. Keyta is “crushed” by the news that he is being dismissed, Leiris writes, and the boy leaves devastated.

To return to the issues raised in Amiel Bize’s response, here is yet another sort of ethnographic desire. If one wanted to think about the complex and unarguably pivotal role of the African interpreter in the history of French colonization, in other words, Phantom Africa would not be a bad place to start. In fact, the first chapter of Justin Izzo’s forthcoming book is an eye-opening comparison of Leiris’s travel diary with the extraordinary work of Amadou Hampaté Bâ, the towering Malian writer and ethnologist whose writings are in part a profound reflection on his own training in the field during the colonial era.7

The historical character in Phantom Africa who has stuck with me the most is one mentioned by none of the respondents in this dossier: Leiris’s most important African collaborator during the Ethiopian portion of the Mission Dakar-Djibouti, the Eritrean diplomat, former priest, librarian, teacher, and linguist Abba Jerome. Two decades older than Leiris, Abba Jerome was a highly accomplished yet self-effacing intellectual whose career has been lamentably eclipsed because he published very little during his lifetime. He played a crucial role as a representative of Haile Selassie after World War I during multiple diplomatic missions to Europe, helping especially to negotiate the conditions under which Ethiopia would be admitted to the League of Nations in 1923. After the end of the Italian occupation, he was appointed conservator of manuscripts of the National Library of Ethiopia, where he served until his retirement in 1964, when he was asked to join the faculty of the Ecole Nationale des Langues Orientales in Paris, where he taught Amharic until 1977. (Amazingly, Leiris and Abba Jerome renewed their acquaintance when the latter moved to France, and even returned to their collaboration on some of the research they had pursued together on the zar in Gondar more than three decades earlier.) Abba Jerome died in Cannes in 1983, at the age of 102.8

There is not space here to reflect in depth on their collaboration, or to provide a full portrait of Abba Jerome himself. I will only include a few words from Leiris’s tribute to his old colleague, written for a Festschrift edited by the scholar Joseph Tubiana just before Abba Jerome’s death.9 Without Abba Jerome’s role as an “initiator” and “go-between” during Leiris’s research with Malkam Ayyahou’s possession cult, Leiris admits, the zar might have remained nothing more than a “cold object of study” to him. To Leiris the women and men around Malkam Ayyahou became less ethnographic “informers” than “friends or relatives to whom I was attached (at least in some cases, and going by my own, perhaps unilateral, impressions) by a strong affective bond.”10 He describes the time he and Abba Jerome spent living largely at Malkam Ayyahou’s house as “research that was less a procedure undertaken in a scientific spirit than an impassioned attempt to find out what was going on in the heads of these people (women, for the most part) whose words and modes of action fascinated us.”11

Reflecting on Abba Jerome, Leiris writes:

A figure too protean for it to be possible to sketch his silhouette for once and for all, this tightrope walker without a wire or a balancing pole—whose dress, free of any exoticism of country or era but slightly haphazard, was that of a European of the period—seemed to take pleasure as much in adopting (with the aid of his black beard and sparkling eyes) the expressions of a comic opera Mephistopheles, as in taking on the mysteriously grave allure (while he confided some piece of learning, whispering in your ear) of some hermetic philosopher.12

In one of the entries in Phantom Africa, Leiris remembers, he had described Abba Jerome as “a man with a poetic instinct for information, which is to say, a feeling for the apparently insignificant detail that puts everything in context and gives a document its stamp of truth” (466). Looking back fifty years later, Leiris muses that “the praise I gave him then strikes me now as all too timid: it still considered him from the angle of ethnographic practice rather than that of poetry.” Abba Jerome was a man with a deep “literary” sensibility, Leiris concludes, in a way that went deeper, and beyond, the practicalities of his collaboration in the research:

Beyond the tasks imposed on him by his official role as my translator and scribe, he seemed to find a keen satisfaction in pinning on paper (without thereby transforming them into dead butterflies) the words worthy of attention that we heard in the course of a discussion or that he simply caught out of the air during a ceremony or interview session with one of the possessed among whom we were working . . . I remain profoundly attached to Abba Jerome, a man whose character borders on the phantasmagorical, and who allowed me to discover the mythical world of the zar in a more vibrant way than I could have dreamed.13

Although I am not an anthropologist by training, I recognize in my own relationship to Phantom Africa as a translator the strange and at times troubling dialectic of repulsion that Edoh describes. Having spent so much time with the book, I’ve thought a great deal about what it means for an African American translator to render this particular volume into English. As a scholar whose work focuses especially on the emergence of black radical thought in circuits of exchange and translation among African diasporic intellectuals and artists in the Americas, in Europe, and in Africa, I’ve also pondered the significance of translating a renegade classic that is the inimitable product of the fraught interface between European anthropology and colonialism.

In 2016, the writer and translator John Keene published a much-discussed manifesto on Poetry Foundation blog Harriet titled “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” in which he makes a forceful argument that “we need more translation of literary works by non-Anglophone black diasporic authors into English, particularly by U.S.-based translators.”14 I wholeheartedly agree, and I would say that this has been the driving commitment behind much of my other work as a translator (of works by writers including Aimé Césaire, Edouard Glissant, Sony Labou Tansi, and Monchoachi).

But I feel strongly that we need to be able to stake a claim to the core of the Western literary tradition as well, especially when it is a matter of monumental works by white writers grappling so directly with the place of Africa and Africans in the world. Given the triangulation that brought Leiris from a dilettante’s fascination with African American jazz in Paris of the 1920s to the Mission Dakar-Djibouti and the African continent,15 it seems only appropriate that an African American translator should bring Phantom Africa into English. Turnabout is fair play.

Although none of my generous interlocutors for this dossier have mentioned it, the element of Phantom Africa where I feel that this self-consciousness about my role as a translator had a palpable impact on the form of the English version is something I discuss in the section of my introduction called “Traces of Translation” (43–50). Translating the book, I sensed a resonance between my labor and that of the African interpreters who played such a key part in the entire Mission Dakar-Djibouti. Their scrupulous mediation preceded mine and, in a sense, formed the foundation of the entire enterprise. I was determined throughout to listen for their presence as they patiently ferried language not their own. When I realized that Leiris—in his obsession with immediacy—repeatedly elides the presence of the African interpreters around him with a sly grammatical contortion (using passive formulations such as lui font dire or “have it said to him,” without specifying who is doing the telling) (46), I decided both to describe the effect in my introduction and to keep, wherever I could, the translators in view in the English version, adding brief contextual phrases (e.g., “I have it said through the interpreter…”) (247) to highlight the agency of linguistic mediation. It’s a small thing, admittedly—another pursuit of phantoms. But it was my quiet way of doing justice to the legacy of black translators: my way of keeping Dousso Wologuem and Abba Jerome from slipping out of sight.

Abba Jerome, Emawayish, and her son Guietatcho in the camp of the Mission Dakar-Djibouti on the grounds of the Italian consulate, Gondar, Ethiopia, August 1932.

  1. James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941; reprint Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 36. Subsequent page references will be given parenthetically in the text.

  2. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “Translated by the Author: My Life in between Languages,” Translation Studies 2.1 (2009) 18.

  3. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 (2008) 4.

  4. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1978), 143. It should be evident that I am alluding here to the argument that Fred Moten has been developing for some time now that “blackness is ontologically prior to the logistic and regulative power that is supposed to have brought it into existence.” See Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” South Atlantic Quarterly 112.4 (2013) 739. One of the places where Moten discusses the Foucault quotation is Moten, “Knowledge of Freedom,” CR: The New Centennial Review 4.2 (2004) 273–74.

  5. A wealth of biographical information about Mamadou Vad and the other interpreters and assistants employed by the Mission Dakar-Djibouti has been gathered by Eric Jolly (the historian and director of the Institut des mondes africaines) for A la Naissance de l’ethnologie française: Les missions ethnographiques en Afrique subsaharienne (1928–1939) (2017), a useful website devoted to the history of French anthropology in the first half of the twentieth century. The page regarding Mamadou Vad is available online at

  6. In fact, Abara Dolo did end up working as an interpreter for the subsequent French ethnographic missions in the region in 1935 and 1937. See

  7. Justin Izzo, “Ethnographic Didacticism and Africanist Melancholy: Leiris, Hampaté Ba, and the Epistemology of Style,” chapter 1 in Experiments with Empire: (Durham: Duke University Press, forthcoming 2019). For an introduction to Amadou Hampaté Bâ’s brilliant work on the role of African interpreters under French colonialism, one might start with the second volume of his memoirs, Oui, mon commandant! Mémoires II (Arles: Actes Sud, 1994), as well as his masterful portrait L’étrange destin de Wangrin; ou, Les roueries d’un interprète africain (Paris: Éditions 10/18, 1998), the latter of which is available in English: The Fortunes of Wangrin, trans. Aina Pavolini (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2000).

  8. For an overview of Abba Jerome’s life and career, see Jacques Mercier, introduction to “Encens pour Berhané,” in Michel Leiris, Miroir de l’Afrique, ed. Jean Jamin (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), 1065–66. I also discuss his collaboration with Leiris in researching the zar in my introduction to Phantom Africa (39–41).

  9. Michel Leiris, “Encens pour Berhâné,” in Guirlande pour Abba Jérôme: Travaux offerts à Abba Jérôme Gabra Musé par ses élèves et ses amis, ed. Joseph Tubiana (Paris: Le Mois en Afrique, 1983), 1–5. This essay is also collected in Miroir de l’Afrique, 1067–71, although I will quote from the original publication (due to slight discrepancies in the latter version).

  10. Leiris, “Encens pour Berhâné,” 1.

  11. Leiris, “Encens pour Berhâné,” 1–2.

  12. Leiris, “Encens pour Berhâné,” 2.

  13. Leiris, “Encens pour Berhâné,” 4–5.

  14. John Keene, “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” Harriet Blog, April 28, 2016, available online at

  15. I am thinking of the famous passage from Leiris’s 1939 autobiography Manhood that I discuss in my introduction to Phantom Africa (6).