By Alexandra Grenier
A Little Treatise on Racism is a non-fiction essay by Dany Laferrière published by Boréal in 2021. In 213 pages, Laferrière paints a portrait of racism in North America, and particularly in the United States, from the days of slavery to the present day.
Dany Laferrière needs no introduction. A prolific author and a member of France’s prestigious Académie Française, originally from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, he has won numerous literary awards and is also a talented visual artist. He himself created the cover design for this book.
If you’re not familiar with what a treatise is, the Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a written work dealing formally and systematically with a subject.” We can think of it as equivalent to a school textbook; but this is not the case for A Little Treatise on Racism. It’s a bit of a mix between a poetry collection and an essay.
The book is a fast read, even though it is sometimes troubling and overwhelming. The author makes us face our own contradictions as Whites, as well as injustices committed towards Blacks, and he does it all with a great deal of skill.
In the book’s preamble, Laferrière explains to us what he bases his thinking on. He insists on the importance of nuance: “We once again have to remember that the word Black doesn’t include all Blacks, in the same way that the word White doesn’t include all Whites. It’s only through nuance that we can advance on a field so full of land mines.”
In The News
Even if we know that slavery has long been abolished and that Laferrière concentrates on racism in the U.S., we can draw several parallels to the news here in Quebec. Recall that Quebec Premier François Legault refuses to admit that systemic racism exists in the province and that it’s a subject still open to debate today.
A Little Treatise on Racism (In the original French, Petit traité sur le racism) was published in 2021, so Laferrière could mention certain events in the news – notably, the death of African American George Floyd, killed by a police officer in Minnesota in 2020. Laferrière doesn’t treat the matter with kid gloves: “I’m wary of this America that claims it’s a historic day because a policeman was convicted of involuntary homicide, because I don’t see where it was involuntary.”
The author writes in the first person throughout the book. He gives his opinion. He recounts anecdotes and often injects humor. It gives a lighter tone to a very heavy subject. Some passages are difficult to read, such as when Laferrière describes the death of a 23 year old man who was confused with a fleeing robber. The sentences are cutting; you cannot remain unmoved after having read them.
A Little History
One of the most attractive aspects of this book is how it shines a light on historic Black figures in history that have become forgotten. He writes about the authors Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) and Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), to name just two. Laferrière puts their works into context and explains their importance to the community.
The author also deals with the American Civil War; the history of lynching; certain discriminatory laws (like the interdiction against looking a White woman directly in the eyes, for example); the Black Panther party (the revolutionary African American freedom movement;) and many other pages of the history of Blacks in America. He doesn’t go into great detail, but it’s a marvellous starting point for anyone wishing to learn more.
In conclusion, A Little Treatise on Racism is an upsetting book. But it is a very useful, and a pleasant read. Take note that some subjects can be shocking to the unprepared reader. The book is full of references to death and violence. But it is an accessible work. It opens our eyes to the reality of Blacks still experiencing a great deal of oppression and injustice.