World in view, July-August 2020: Memmi’s century

July 1, 2020

From the July-August 2020 issue of News & Letters

by Gerry Emmett

The great Tunisian-Jewish French writer Albert Memmi passed away May 20. He was 99 years old. Memmi’s complex identity registered the tensions of his century. He described his situation as, “Native of a colonial country, a Jew in an anti-Semitic universe, an African in a world dominated by Europe,” and he expressed this beginning with his early autobiographical novel The Pillar of Salt (1953) and his editorship of the newspaper Afrique Action.

Albert Memmi (1982), Photo: Claude Truong-Ngoc.

Influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre’s writings, Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957) remains an influence. It stands alongside classic works like Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism (1955) and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961).


In attempting to recreate a humanism from under the experiences of colonialism, Nazism, and Stalinism, a new universal not separated from the particularity of Black, Jewish, or Arab identity, these writer-activists created a body of revolutionary literature that continues to speak to our time.

This is also a historic moment that remains unfinished—the questions they raised haunt Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America as well as the Balkans, Xinjiang, Soledad and Minneapolis.

Memmi’s own humanism struggled with the post-colonial situation and the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, from Portrait of a Jew (1962) to his stoicism-tempered late work like Decolonization and the Decolonized (2004). He left no easy road map. His thought will live on.

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