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Book description

The Haitian Revolution may have galvanized subjects of French empire in the Americas and Africa struggling to define freedom and 'Frenchness' for themselves, but Lorelle Semley reveals that this event was just one moment in a longer struggle of women and men of color for rights under the French colonial regime. Through political activism ranging from armed struggle to literary expression, these colonial subjects challenged and exploited promises in French Republican rhetoric that should have contradicted the continued use of slavery in the Americas and the introduction of exploitative labor in the colonization of Africa. They defined an alternative French citizenship, which recognized difference, particularly race, as part of a 'universal' French identity. Spanning Atlantic port cities in Haiti, Senegal, Martinique, Benin, and France, this book is a major contribution to scholarship on citizenship, race, empire, and gender, and it sheds new light on debates around human rights and immigration in contemporary France.


'Semley seeks to understand the intersection of citizenship, race, and gender within the 19th- and 20th-century French Atlantic empire. She does this through a series of engaging and well-researched chapters centered on important imperial events where the local and imperial intersect and where imperial subjects see themselves within both French and local identities. … As a whole, the work illustrates the complexity of race, citizenship, and gender in that they often worked together while they were also at odds. Many of the figures described in the book embraced the larger revolutionary ideals of citizenship, but then had to negotiate them within their local contexts. Finally, even as slaves became free and freed men became citizens, women had to wait. … Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above.'

T. M. Reese Source: Choice

'Semley combines outstanding archival research from three continents with insightful analysis and engaging prose. She consistently shows her ability to tell a good a story in an intriguing location. To Be Free and French is full of surprises and fascinating individuals who actively sought to define themselves within the context of French imperialism. Like her subjects, Semley refuses to fall into the simplistic dualities of colonizer and colonized, French or not-French, and white or black.'

Michael G. Vann Source: World History Connected

'… this book responds brilliantly to a decades-old call to better represent Africa, Africans and their diaspora in Atlantic history. In doing so, Semley provides us with an exemplary model for grounding broad historical concerns in close readings of primary evidence from disparate and connected places. I field-tested this book in an upper-division undergraduate course. To Be Free and French received high praise from young people in need of nuanced analysis and innovative methods to critique racialized and gendered inequities in their own complex and globalizing worlds.'

Sarah Zimmerman Source: European History Quarterly

'Lorelle Semley’s work ambitiously integrates the fields of African diaspora and Atlantic studies with the history of citizenship, French empire, gender, law, transnationalism, and urban studies. … Semley’s work offers a praiseworthy contribution to the existing literature on French empire and colonial citizenship as well as an important foundation for understanding contemporary debates about citizenship in France.'

Elizabeth Heath Source: The American Historical Review

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  • Prologue: Citizens of the World
    pp 3-23

  • Archives Nationales du Bénin, Porto-Novo, Benin (ANB)

    • 1E 1 – Traités

    • 1E 3 – Cercle d’Allada

    • 1E 8 – Dahomey

    • 1E 14 – Cercle d’Ouidah

    • 1E 16 – Cercle de Porto-Novo

    • 1 F – Police, Surêté

    • 1 M – Justice

    • 4E – Politique Musulmane

  • Bibliothèque National du Benin, Porto-Novo

  • Archives Départementales de Gironde, Bordeaux, France (ADG)

  • Archives du Sénat, Paris, France (AS)

  • Archives Nationales de France, Paris, France (ANF)

  • Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer, Aix-en-Provence, France (ANOM)

    • AFFPOL – Affaires Politiques

    • SLOTFOM – Surveillance de la Presse

    • Dépôt Fortifications Colonial, Gorée and Saint-Domingue (DPC)

    • Dépôt des papiers publics des colonies (DPPC)

    • État Civil, Gorée 1777–1824

    • État Civil, Le Cap, 1786 –1787

    • Série CC, 9B – Saint-Domingue

    • Série EE – Personnel Colonial

    • Série Géographique – Martinique

  • Archives Départementales de la Martinique, Fort-de-France, Martinique (ADM)

    • Série Géographique – Martinique

  • Archives Nationales du Senegal, Dakar, Senegal (ANS)

    • 1 A – Arrêtés et Ordannances du Senegal 1829–30

    • 3E – Conseil d’Administration, Senegal

    • 3 G – État Civil, Senegal

    • 8 G – Dahomey

    • 17 G – Affaires politiques, Afrique Occidentale Française

    • 22 G – Statistiques, Senegal

    • 23 G – Naturalisations

    • K – Esclavage et captivité

    • M1 – Justice

    • FMA – Repertoire du Fonds du Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres, 1963–1967

    • Centre de Documentation, Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres

  • Institut Fondamentale d’Afrique Noire, Université Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar

  • Eslanda Robeson Collection, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University (ERC, MSRC)

  • John Carter Brown Library, Providence, Rhode Island (JCBL)

  • Papers of Dorothy West, ca. 1890–1998. Editing and work by other writers, 1926–1949. MC 676, folder 9.23. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Accessed electronically.

  • Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library (SC)

  • W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries (UMass SCUA), Accessed electronically.

  • Bulletin des Lois

  • Journal Official de la République Française (JORF)

  • Journal Officiel du Dahomey (JOD)

  • Le Guide du Dahomey

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