Nelson Mandela Foundation

Like many of my colleagues, I embraced a career working with youth because I wanted to become the mentor I needed when I was growing up. Like many of my friends who have families spread over two continents, I have always had one foot precariously set upon the shores of Guadeloupe, a territory still under French ruling. The other landing with uncertain gravity in Metropolitan France, the origin of the colonizer. This experience of navigating my own equilibrium against opposing historical identities has taught me the importance of knowing my roots to comprehend my own story. Meanwhile, French institutions did not ease my search for self-definition. It seemed impossible to learn about any racial or postcolonial frameworks in school curriculums. Generations coming-of-age before the internet were forced to follow “to the letter” the Universalist Republican discourse.

As a first-generation student, I aimed to pass the Sciences Po national entrance exam to access the prestigious teaching of a labeled Grande Ecole University. However, when Professors unequivocally praised the theses of Fukuyama and Huntington, elevated Napoleon as an uncontroversial national hero, and defined European colonization as a process of “discovery” of Terra Nullius, I quickly realized that the educational system that reproduced the political elites, as our Dean often referred to us, deeply lacked “other voices and experiences.”

Despite all its imperfection, the French system possessed two significant assets: education was free, and they offered generous scholarships to work abroad, an element that needs to be celebrated in our times of neo-liberalization of educational systems. Therefore, I could conduct fieldwork in Chile with a group of street children and collaborate with a Brazilian NGO that offered free tuition to favela students. These experiences in the field were both difficult and electrifying. I understood the courage of social leaders who organized communities, worked with youths and put their lives in danger to speak truth to power. The search for my roots became enmeshed with a hyperactive life combining projects in Art, Performance, Youth Work, and Training. 

In 2015, I decided to resume my studies. I started my Ph.D. in the US context, where I could gain greater access to racial and postcolonial frameworks. I was also excited to teach undergraduate students the texts I have discovered during my coursework period as a sort of positive revenge on life for my younger self, who craved to receive such an education. In my doctoral research at the NYU Cinema Studies Department, I examine the transnational circulation of narratives about racial justice and activist movements between Brazil, South Africa, France & overseas departments, and the US, emphasizing the memorialization of political assassinations and the spread of the legacy of assassinated anti-racist activists. I look closely at several anti-racist and feminist figures of resistance. Among them was South African anti-apartheid Dulcie September, who was appointed African National Congress Chief Representative in France when she was assassinated in Paris in 1988. September belongs not only to South African history but also to French one. Dulcie September organized communities to raise awareness around the crimes of the apartheid regime and fiercely denounced the abuses in the arms trade of the European Governments, which did not respect the embargo on the apartheid regime stated by the United Nations. Dulcie September belongs to French history.

During my days diving deeply into the French TV and institutional archives, I have read her correspondence with French activists and watched her performance in the protests and on television. I talked to many people who came of age at the age of her assassination and told me that her legacy was a wake-up call to understand better their roles in fighting racism. In a sad logical scheme, when South Africa was liberated from the Apartheid regime, France threw in the closet the ghosts of their complex relationships with the regime. They erased Dulcie September, who remained a name in schools, streets, and cultural centers but nothing about her intellectual production and incredible life story as an anti-racist and feminist activist. It validated what many scholars have defined as “epistemicide”: the quashing of people as knowing subjects. 

Therefore, my role as a scholar and professor is to illuminate these processes and collaborate with students to improve their representations. In 2021, I became a visiting fellow at the University of California Santa Barbara Black Studies Department. I was expected to teach a Black Diaspora film class. In the US, the resurgence of a right-wing and illiberal populism that sought to ban critical race theory and restrict transgender rights made the headlines days before the start of the term. I decided to engage my students in creating a media outlet that would serve as a methodology to understand the un-erasure of activist figures of resistance. 

In addition, thirty-three years after her assassination, Dulcie September’s relatives and friends, with the support of French lawyer Yves Laurin acted to petition the re-opening of the cold case. Excerpts of the excellent documentary Murder in Paris, directed and produced by Enver Samuel, were submitted as evidence in support of the case. The podcast we would create would not only push them to find their own words to unravel September’s life story from an American standpoint but would also serve as a piece to raise awareness about her case. Another important element is that their message will be directed not only to their Professors but also students of their age. I have always regretted that my students’ work remains in the dusty drawers of Universities instead of spreading worldwide and influence other students who might have little knowledge about their ideas. 

Despite solid motivation, the experience took much more work than expected. I had almost only white students in my class who, for the majority, felt uncomfortable speaking about race. It became strange that I came from a country where I was not allowed to speak about race and postcolonialism to get to a space where I pushed white American students to speak about Black struggles for racial justice. Despite all this, what saddened me the most was the day when a student told me that I could not expect them to be creative because they did not know how to be creative. I thought of what Toni Morrison said about her teaching experience, “I tell my students, when you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, your job is to empower somebody else’. This project was not only a form of gratitude for the grants I have received to research but also an engagement for my student’s future, in a moment where many dreams about another world post-pandemic.

I changed strategies, expanded my syllabus, and added more weeks about South Africa. I wanted to clarify that the anti-apartheid history is complex and nuanced and deserves such a reading. Its ramifications throughout Europe and the US entangled South African history with other significant liberation movements. I will never forget this footage of Rosa parks, who participated in the march of support for the ANC and all the movements fighting for the liberation of South Africa, on 11 December 1984, thirty years later, the same day she refused to cede her seat during the segregation, connecting the future of Africa with its diaspora.

We discussed Enver Samuel’s film extensively and how he merged collective memory as a form of political advocacy. We watched other footage of the anti-apartheid struggles: The Black theatre companies playing in the townships, the boycott of the rugby games, the talks and conferences of the Nelson Mandela foundation; we read excerpts of the autobiography of Trevor Noah, the restless investigative work of Evelyn Groenink, and Jacqueline Derens’ literary tribute to Dulcie. We analyzed the successes and limits of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and the podcast Who killed Dulcie, and their fascinating soundscape to immerse the audience into the sound bites of Dulcie’s life. 

My students understood both the power of the image, its circulation, and the strength of transnationality. All these media makers excelled in creativity to fight for justice and raise awareness. Enver Samuel and Dulcie’s family sent them their blessings and much encouragement.

After several personal meetings with each group, the work started to take shape. A group looked at Dulcie’s US media coverage of her assassination and discovered that many articles did not mention her name. Another group would reflect on her torture in prison and her second “torture” – the forced exile far from her land. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, students achieved a podcast called Dulcie Lives On. They chose the art wall made by Chevron Boysen and exposed in September hometown as the cover of the podcast. They turned into a puzzle, each episode becoming a piece that the audience can rearrange in many ways, but also a piece of truth that they remediated during the term.

In an interview for Revolutionary Feminisms: Conversations on Collective Action and Radical Thought (Brenna Bhandar, Rafeef Ziadah, 2020), scholar and activist Angela Davis points out, “a consistent theme in my life has been the convergence of academic knowledge and knowledge generated in the course of actively struggling for radical change.” This convergence she refers to has guided me in teaching the class Black Diaspora Cinema and encouraged my students to create Dulcie Lives On to fight against historical erasures.

Dulcie Lives On exists to be completed, enriched, and to influence a new generation of scholars in their search for a successful convergence between academic knowledge and radical praxis. The multiple methodologies in these publications (textual analysis, archival exploration, interviews, and others) reveal the hybrid approaches necessary to speak truth to power. In December, French authorities decided not to allow the re-opening of the case and the archives. Still, this decision will not stop the defenders of Dulcie September from following their quest for justice. 

Justice is also the exercise of POWERFUL POETICS OF COLLECTIVE LIBERATION, and the podcast Dulcie Lives on did it. Thank you, Students; thank you, Dulcie September.

Leonard Cortana (Guadeloupe/France) is a PhD Candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University and an Affiliate Researcher at the Berkman Klein Center Internet and Society. Cortana is also a documentary filmmaker. His last documentary Marielle's Legacy Will not Die follows activist movements spreading the intersectional legacy of Afro-Brazilian activist and politician Marielle Franco in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His research examines the memorialization of political assassinations and the spread of the legacy of assassinated anti-racist activists.

A podcast about Dulcie September

"Dulcie Lives On" is a podcast designed by students to share the incredible life and intellectual production of Dulcie September. Above all, it is a methodology to re-open wounded historical memories, the ones that many would prefer to sweep under the rug and un-erase important figures of history. Among the many questions it tackles, one can reflect on how does one spread the legacy of human rights defenders many decades after their assassination? How does the new generation look at the dark times of apartheid and make connections to the present times?

Listen here: