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the Complete Review
the complete review - essays


The Tears of the Black Man

Alain Mabanckou

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To purchase The Tears of the Black Man

Title: The Tears of the Black Man
Author: Alain Mabanckou
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 70 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Tears of the Black Man - US
The Tears of the Black Man - UK
The Tears of the Black Man - Canada
Le sanglot de l'homme noir - Canada
The Tears of the Black Man - India
Le sanglot de l'homme noir - France
El llanto del hombre negro - España
  • French title: Le sanglot de l'homme noir
  • Translated by Dominic Thomas

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Our Assessment:

B : succinct, but interesting points

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Devoir . 3/3/2012 Lise Gauvin
L'Humanité . 19/1/2012 Muriel Steinmetz
Publishers Weekly . 25/6/2018 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Entre l'essai et l'autobiographie, cet ouvrage est un témoignage lucide de la part d'un écrivain qui affirme que «l'émigration a contribué à renforcer en [lui] cette inquiétude qui fonde à [s]es yeux toute création»." - Lise Gauvin, Le Devoir

  • "Ce livre n’est pas tout à fait un essai sur la condition noire, ni un ouvrage proprement historique, mais plutôt la réflexion itinérante d’Alain Mabanckou qui se déplace en permanence entre la France, l’Afrique et les États-Unis où il enseigne." - Muriel Steinmetz, L'Humanité

  • "(S)lender but intellectually dense (.....) Mabanckouís challenging perspective on African identity today is as enlightening as it is provocative." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Tears of the Black Man is a slim collection of twelve short essays by Alain Mabanckou in which he relies in particular on his own experiences as well as literary examples in considering issues of race and colonialism. Each of the chapter-titles is taken from the title of a French book, and often builds off it -- beginning with the first piece, which also lends the collection as a whole its title, a variation on Pascal Bruckner's The Tears of the White Man; other books Mabanckou uses include Bound to Violence, by Yambo Ouologuem, The Suns of Independence, by Ahmadou Kourouma, Michel Leiris' Phantom Africa, and works by Montesqieu.
       Mabanckou's background situates him in three different cultures:

     Born in Africa, in the Congo-Brazzaville, I spent a good part of my youth in France before settling in the United States. Congo is where my umbilical cord is buried, France is the adopted homeland of my dreams, and America is a corner from which I can observe the footsteps of my wanderings.
       Among the interesting biographical detail Mabanckou presents is in writing about 'The Foreign Student' -- beginning with the fear that, of the limited opportunities to study abroad when he was a promising student in Congo-Brazzaville in the late 1980s, it basically came down to France or the Soviet Union -- and how students like him feared being sent to the Soviet Union, which was neither as challenging, academically, nor as prestigious. Mabanckou did get a scholarship (of sorts -- the government rarely actually provided supporting funds), not to the dreamed-of Sorbonne, but to law school in Nantes -- where one of his first lessons was how descendants of those born in then-still-colonies of France could claim French citizenship, a quirk of French law ("before they tightened naturalization laws") that he mentions several times and passed on to surprised fellow Africans.
       National -- and especially 'French' -- identity is a prominent issue in this collection. Mabanckou describes a variety of encounters and conversations where he avoids identifying himself as from a specific African nation, or claiming to be French or not French -- amusingly describing how others seek to draw him out into defining himself one way or another and how he won't play along. He notes that in the US he is readily seen as 'French', whereas in France he finds people continue to (try to) distinguish (white) France from its colonies. The question of what (and who) is 'French' comes up repeatedly, leading also to some interesting discussion of the linguistic issues -- including the observation that, when he first came to France, he and his fellow students from the former colonies were shocked that:
People in France no longer used the imperfect subjunctive ... For us, this remained one of the most cherished tenses ! The language spoken by the natives therefore seemed impoverished to us, corrupted by terrible laziness.
       (In the babel of languages of Mabanckou's Congo-Brazzaville, French was very much a school- and textbook-language, literature- rather than everyday-conversational-based -- so the imperfect subjunctive (basically found only in written French) was just another familiar (and essential) part of French, whereas to the French speaker in France it sounds completely archaic.)
       In 'Literature of the Stomach', Mabanckou also considers the question of what language 'African' authors write in -- a useful brief contribution to the fascinating debate (and one of several examples where one wishes he had expounded on it at greater length). Meanwhile, as he also points out, the black community in France is of such heterogeneity that it hardly makes much sense to speak of or consider it as a single "community".
       Mabanckou also notes how 'African' identity has changed, as:
     Africa is no longer only in Africa. Africans are dispersed all over the planet and have created other Africas.
       He also is uncomfortable with what he sees as a widespread cop-out of placing all the blame for contemporary African problems on colonialism -- and then an idealization of the pre-colonial, as if everything was fine back then, and that that should be what contemporary Africa should look to (as opposed to acknowledging and building on the contemporary situation, locally and globally -- moving on, if effect, rather than indulgently glorifying a lost past).
       The mix of personal experience and more theoretical discussion works quite well here, but The Tears of the Black Man really is a very slim collection of assorted (if not quite disparate) pieces. There is some overlap of material and examples, too, but -- aside from the clever chapter-title approach and the main arguments -- the collection feels a bit tossed together rather than a coherent, mapped-out whole. Mabanckou raises a variety of interesting issues, and there's something to be said for the concise, just-the-gist approach, but almost all of these examples and arguments warrant considerably more discussion.
       Still, despite its brevity, there's a lot that is raised here -- and some great examples, personal and otherwise, are engagingly related. Sharply provocative, The Tears of the Black Man does make for a lot of food for thought.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 August 2018

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The Tears of the Black Man: Reviews: Alain Mabanckou: Other books by Alain Mabanckou under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Alain Mabanckou is from Congo-Brazzaville. He was born in 1966 and currently teaches in the US.

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