Decolonize the Family: A Conversation with Amandine Gay

May 25, 2022   •   By Grégory Pierrot

I MET AMANDINE GAY, a French filmmaker, afrofeminist activist, and scholar, during a lull in her short but intense tour of US campuses. Alongside her partner, sound engineer and co-producer Enrico Bartolucci, with whom she also runs the independent film production and distribution company Bras de Fer, Amandine was screening her two films, Speak Up (2017), a documentary depicting life in France for Black women through 24 testimonies, and Une Histoire à soi (2021), a powerful documentary about transracial adoption. Gay also recently authored Une Poupée en chocolat (2021), an autobiographical essay and theoretical reflection on matters of identity, family-making, race, and the need to revolutionize them. 

Author photo by Nathalie St-Pierre.

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GRÉGORY PIERROT: Your tour went to campuses all over the United States. How has it been so far?

AMANDINE GAY: Touring US campuses is always quite interesting! There’s almost an ethnographic side to it. I just came back from Bloomington [Indiana University]: to French people, this kind of campus is almost exotic. But I like it. I don’t think other people necessarily have this glimpse of America; if you come as a tourist, you’ll never see that. I like meeting all the people, the students, you get a perspective on what young people today are interested in, maybe traumatized by also. You can really feel that the Trump election, COVID, the antivaxxers, the attack on DC have been a lot!

What have your audiences been like?

It’s been hard to get African American students to come to my events, whether they be screenings or lectures. Black students who showed up were mostly from the Caribbean and Africa. In Indiana, where we screened Speak Up, two Black girls from the US told me at the end: “I recognized myself in all the things that were said, and I’m going to tell my friends to watch it!” I was happy that they were curious; once they made it to the screening, it was interesting to them. But I was told by professors that they didn’t really know how to market me to a Black American audience. That’s surprising to me. It happens only in the US. It’s sad to me that African American students might think we have nothing in common because I’m French and I talk about adoption. If they came, they would know we have so much in common!

But also, this has to do with COVID: these are often the first in-person events happening in a long time, so it can be hard especially for freshmen. For the next tour, I’ll reach out to sororities, Africana departments, etc., myself.

Your new film, Une Histoire à soi, weaves together interviews with five transracial and/or transnational adoptees. This is a topic very close to your heart. Could you tell our readers a bit about your background, and why you decided to approach these topics in your film? 

I’m a transracial adoptee myself; I was adopted in France in the 1980s by a white family living in the countryside near Lyon. I was adopted under a law in France that allows women to give birth anonymously. I had no information on my birth parents growing up. I had an experience similar to all adoptees of color growing up in a rural area where everybody including your family is white. I couldn’t really see myself anywhere; in 1980s France, the only Black people you would see on TV were in American series: the Cosby Show, basically, and then more actresses and singers, the Whoopi Goldberg/Whitney Houston era — but they were quite far from my personal experience. The first Black adoptee I ever saw on TV was Surya Bonaly, the ice skater. She was the first girl I could identify with, and hers was also the first family: quite often, her white mother was at her side. I had never seen this kind of family portrayed on the screen, and I was already quite interested in TV and cinema. It was sort of forbidden to watch TV in my family; my mom was a teacher, and she was really strict on screen time. But the less I could watch, the more interested I was!

At school, I was the only Black child in my classes. By the time I went to university — I did my first master’s at Sciences Politiques in Lyon — there were 200 students in my class, and I was the only Black student. This has been a regular aspect of my life within French institutions.

I managed to catch up with Black culture and people through playing basketball, and through random incidents: one of my mom’s friends was a deacon from Guadeloupe; a friend of mine in my town was the daughter of an African American professional basketball player. I spent a lot of time with this family, and then from the age of eight I started playing basketball, which allowed me to spend time with Black and North African people. But most of my life was spent in extremely white circles. This is a kind of hybrid Blackness, where you’re perceived as Black but you are not raised in a Black family, you don’t master all the elements of Black culture. Sometimes Black people would insult me, call me Oreo — it was not untrue!

Of course, my first culture is white culture: I had to learn Black culture, and having to learn it like that means I don’t quite master it as well as I master white culture, you know? The first part of my life was maybe more about having no power or agency regarding those elements. I think that’s what drew me to wanting to share my perspective. Through writing, scholarly work, activism, and art (which came last, but allowed me to make a synthesis of all that’s happened to me), I was finally able to explain it to other people. With time I realized that mine was a very specific type of Blackness; on a continuum, I’m at a sort of weird place for what it means to be Black. But then a lot of people who did grow up in Black families still face issues with their Blackness: they might not speak their mother tongue, they might not be completely fluent in their culture of origin, etc. Realizing this made it easier for me as an adult to address those issues in art, because however extreme my situation might feel, the issues I faced are quite common within Black communities. 

So much could be written about the specificities of growing up Black in the French countryside! 

And when you think about, in France, the representation of Black people in the media always shows them in the city. But it’s not accurate. France is a big country of 66 million people, and quite a few of us grew up in the countryside, where our families were the only people of color … like Kamini, the Marly-Gomont guy! He made a comedy out of his story, but it did happen! This is what Joohee [one of the interviewees] talks about in Une Histoire à soi when she says: at least when you come from an immigrant family, first you have your family for support, and then, if you live in a big city, you have your community as a whole. You’re going to face racism no matter what, but say, if you’re Asian and you live in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, you have a very strong community to fall back on. If you’re Asian, growing up in a white family, and you live in Boulogne-sur-Mer, which was the case for Joohee, your options in terms of accessing Korean culture, of having people around you who understand anti-Asian racism, people who will validate your experience or give you strategies to deal with everything white supremacism will throw at you, are almost nonexistent.

I always wanted to share the experience of Black people in the countryside but — and this is one thing that really pisses me off about the French cinema industry — if I want to tell that story, it will not get funded. The stories they understand are the ones about living in the banlieues, and even those have to be framed according to certain conventions. If you get away from drugs, hip-hop, the evil Muslim patriarchy, it’s going to be hard to get your film funded. So, I try to bring these layers back in the public space.

When you grow up away from Black culture, your people no longer recognize you. Immigrant parents often think they have enough of a strong relationship to their countries of origin to pass it on to their kids, but it’s always a mistake. Your children spend most of their time in school, not with you. On top of that, what you bring is a part of your culture that is frozen in time; your country of origin moves on without you. You can pass this on to your children, but of course they won’t be recognized when they go there, even if they go every summer. And then parents don’t necessarily understand their children’s experience, as they are socialized with white children in ways their parents often were not. But it’s even more so the case if you’re the one Congolese family in the North of France — which was the case for Kamini, I believe. I think it’s interesting for us as Black people to have access to these experiences.

Une Histoire à soi is your second film. Your first film, Speak Up, came out in 2017, a watershed year for Black political expression in France spearheaded by Black women. This was the year of the scandal around the afrofeminist Nyansapo Festival, and a year before Aïssa Maïga and a group of French Black actresses spoke at the 2018 Cannes Festival and presented their collective book Noire n’est pas mon métier (Being Black Is not My Job). In 2020, Maïga hosted the César Awards ceremony and called out racism in the film industry. How do you see yourself fitting in this moment?

While we were crowdfunding for the film, we showed an excerpt of it on YouTube in which I was asking participants if they could name five French Black actresses. Most of them couldn’t name anyone but Aïssa Maïga. The video made the rounds; it started a conversation with Rokhaya Diallo and others, and it inspired the book Noire n’est pas mon métier. I could never have done something like that because I’m not famous enough. Actresses usually have the least power in the industry, but by the time this came about, it had become less dangerous to take a stand because a public conversation had started. Speak Up was a sort of catalyst for it, but all the elements were already there in 2014 when I started writing the film.

I speak about this in my preface to the 2015 French translation of bell hooks’s Ain’t I a Woman? Ms Dreydful, the first contemporary French Black feminist blog, started in 2012 and many more popped up afterward, including mine; the afrofeminist collective Mwasi was started in 2014 by three women of Congolese descent. That year, I also started writing on racial politics and afrofeminism for Slate to try and disseminate those ideas in the mainstream media. I also started thinking I needed to make my own film. I wanted to make a narrative film at first, but I could never get that project produced, so I thought I’d make a documentary about Black women. I wanted to leave France, so I thought this might be something I could show in Canada, but also a trace I could leave in France.

I have kind of an anarchist approach to revolution; I don’t believe in leaders. But if enough people meet, something will happen. With Speak Up, I see myself participating in a political tradition — the whole Ella Baker thing. While we were shooting the film, we organized pizza parties so that the women in the film could meet — most of them were online and had never met in person before the film. It allowed us to organize collective Black events. That year we demonstrated against Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B installation, writing in papers, etc., there was a rise in collective action. We had public events around Speak Up, panel discussions with Black women. For example, we spoke at one event about the Coordination des Femmes Noires [a Black feminist organization created in 1976], and after that the editor at Cambourakis asked me if I wanted to write the preface to the bell hooks book. I organized events where associations and political groups could show their work to people, so if you wanted to get involved you could. Sawtche, an afrofeminist collective from Lyon, was born after a screening of Speak Up.

People come to activism for many reasons — political reasons of course, but also because they’ve been hurt, they need to prove themselves, etc. So, to me, activism is part activism, part social services, and I’ll be transparent, I’m not interested in that part. But I’m interested in pedagogy. That’s what I’m doing by giving lectures, going to classes, etc. In France, there’s this idea that activism has to be part of a group, so you join a union or a collective. Of course, a group can leverage power more easily than just one person, but if you’re in a party, you need a line, and if there’s a line, you have to toe it. That’s where my anarchist side comes out: my thing is liminal spaces. If I see a line, I’m like, okay, who’s on the other side? What is the line? Is there a line? This is how my brain works.

I like to stir shit up at the beginning and see what happens! You don’t really know what’s going to come out of it; after a while, it’s no longer in your hands: it takes on a life of its own, and you can move on to something else.

In your book, you also mention your love of archives, which seems directly connected to your idea of leaving a trace.

I think we have a problem in France with the transmission of previous struggles. Of course, now we have the internet, digital cameras, technology that makes it easier and cheaper to record. But if you look at the afrofeminist movement from the ’70s and ’80s, there are barely any traces left. The only book is Awa Thiam’s La parole aux négresses [a 1978 book translated in 1986 as Black Sisters, Speak Out: Feminism and Oppression in Black Africa], then you have a few of the leaflets from Coordination des Femmes Noires. There’s a huge issue in France when it comes to archiving Black women’s struggles. The stories of Black feminists have not been transmitted by white feminists. So, we need our own archives.

We’re becoming better at working together: for instance, when the French Black feminist filmmaker Sarah Maldoror died, I couldn’t understand why two months later there still had been no commemoration. She lived in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, and I have a working relationship with cinema people there — they screen films by local filmmakers. Annouchka De Andrade, Maldoror’s daughter, heads the Film Festival of Amiens and had invited me to it. So, I made a group email asking if they would be doing anything to celebrate Maldoror. They were already working on something at Palais de Tokyo, but then it became this whole thing with exhibitions and events. I think now we have the means to bring our ancestors to the forefront.

In your book, you speak of growing up listening to punk rock, etc. And there’s a distinct DIY spirit to your endeavors. But then when I think of DIY in filmmaking specifically, I think of Melvin Van Peebles, or Sarah Maldoror, and a whole Black radical tradition of making do with less.

Yes, and when you look at DIY and punk, these are also histories that have been heavily whitewashed. Like Tina Bell, who was so central to grunge but has been mostly forgotten until recently … It keeps happening! Laina Dawes wrote about her experience as a Black woman in the punk and metal scenes in rural Ontario. She’s also a Black adoptee; that’s what prompted her to write the book — people would always tell her that she only liked punk and metal because she was adopted by white people. But to me, this whole argument has always been weird: my dad was really into classic rock ’n’ roll — Little Richard, Chuck Berry, etc. — so to me rock ’n’ roll was always a Black thing. As I got more involved in Black communities, people were into hip-hop and they’d say rock ’n’ roll is a white thing, but it’s not! We invented that stuff. Then I was like, okay maybe I’ll give you grunge: but even that’s not white!

You can find essentialism in Black communities and activism as a kind of defense mechanism. We are so attacked that we try to recreate a strong Black identity, but of course in the process you may exclude all the odd things that also make Blackness interesting. Blackness has always been about migration and creating new cultures and new music, and if you don’t accept that, you participate in the erasure of a lot of people in your community. When you look at the beginning of rock with queer Black women like Sister Rosetta Tharpe — or even before her, queer blues performers like Gladys Bentley — I think we’re stronger with the Rosetta Tharpes of the world.

And this also informs the way you approach adoption activism by way of art.

I’ve been in a few collectives and so I know this is not the space in which I thrive. But I believe in creation and documentary filmmaking — and that’s not just me, it’s the people in the film, the people I bring together. We also organized parties at home for the adoptees in Une Histoire à soi. When we met Céline [one of the adoptees in the film], she was absolutely not involved politically; now she’s a member of La Voix des adoptés, and they’re gathering Sri Lankan adoptees to see if they’re going to sue the French government because of the 1980s trafficking scandal

That’s something I identified as an activist: quite often, people who are already activists think that anybody can mobilize, and I think that’s a fallacy. To mobilize, you need to understand that what is happening to you is political. But if you’re in survival mode, if you’re extremely isolated in the countryside, if you’re not part of a family that’s already political, it can be very difficult. I had a political upbringing — my mom was a member of a teachers’ union, I always went to demonstrations as a kid, etc. — so it was easy for me to become politicized, but most people don’t have that.

I like writing, sharing what I know, offering a perspective. I like to be that person in the struggle who helps people feel less lonely. I like to show all different perspectives so that people know they are not alone, that what is happening is wrong and its legitimate for them to think it is, and that there might be issues, and one of the ways to fix them is to organize collectively.

I keep doing this work in various media — and my favorite is cinema because it’s most accessible; you don’t need to know how to read, etc. Creation is an individual practice, but cinema is a propaganda tool. But I also like theory. My autobiographical essay is really heavy on sociology because I think it’s important to try to move forward intellectually, especially in Francophone spaces where we need to emphasize themes like reproductive justice or family regulation instead of talking about social services. Social services really are how the state and police get into families, and that’s not even a conversation in France right now, and that to me is baffling. I want to bring reproductive justice to the forefront, talk about family regulation and how the state and police are infiltrating Black and North African families. It doesn’t start with racial profiling on teenagers; that follows 10 years of racial profiling by social services. Whose kids get taken away, by whom? Who works in social services? It’s always white middle-class people, Catholics often, so they have a very specific outlook on communities they think need to be educated and civilized. I don’t understand why it’s not a concern, so I will be stirring that pot until it becomes something in the Francophone sphere.

Your film and your book Une Poupée en chocolat (A Chocolate Doll) pack a double punch: the personal journey to activism you describe in the book informs the film. One thing you say in the book that felt both self-evident and a profound revelation is when you mention how transracial adoption only goes one way — it’s always white parents adopting children of color, and you rarely if ever see it the other way around. In fact, wasn’t there a film about this with Aïssa Maïga? 

Yes, it’s called Il a déjà tes yeux (He even has your Eyes) … That movie made me so angry: we haven’t even started discussing this seriously, and you’re making a satire? Had there been a conversation about the power dynamics of transracial adoption, fine, but it’s not funny. When the trailer for this film came out, I saw quite a few Black couples commenting on social media that this really is no laughing matter, when you tried to adopt for years. The film erases the experience of all the Black couples barred from adopting, not legally, but because services don’t let Black couples adopt white children. They’re told orally sometimes, “We don’t think that a white child would be a good fit for your family…” It’s illegal to keep ethnic data in France, so we can’t prove when people are discriminated against.

When it comes to adoption, the only type of discrimination I’ve been able to prove is regarding gay couples. In France, adoption for same-sex couples became legal the same time as same-sex marriage [in 2013]. Once a family has gotten an agreement to adopt, when a child becomes adoptable, a family council [an ad hoc commission made up of elected officials, representatives of family organizations, social services, and health professionals] decides who can adopt them. In 2019, Léa Filoche, then a member of the Paris family council, revealed in a public letter of resignation that the council had never picked a gay couple and she didn’t want to keep participating in blatant discrimination. This was the first time we were told how and where the process stopped. From what I’ve heard — but cannot prove for lack of data — this is also what happens with Black couples: they get the agreement because refusing it would be blatant discrimination, but they never get a child — because the people working in these administrations think that Black parents should not adopt white children.

There is also discrimination in medically assisted procreation. In France, because until recently the option was only for mostly white hetero couples, part of the procedure was to find a donor looking as much as possible like the parent. When people of color in France started getting into those procedures, they were denied white donor sperm because of this idea that the child would then not look like them. So, it’s a problem for couples of color to have mixed-looking children, but not for white couples? Why? So much for French colorblindness …

To me, all those subjects are not tackled because there is a taboo around race, no official numbers, but also because sometimes we have a very narrow way to look at discrimination, even within minority groups. I get a lot of backlash for this, but I’ll keep saying it: there are way more Black people dying in France because of racism in the health industry than because of police racial violence. Police killings are nothing compared to doctor killings. At least we hear about police killings because they’ve become very public. But that older Senegalese man who didn’t get treated for diabetes in time because he was scared of doctors who talked down to him and told him he was exaggerating, who got his insulin too late and died: How many like him are there out there? The hospital that burned in Guadeloupe in 2017 and still hasn’t been rebuilt? Why aren’t we as Black people in France more outraged? In terms of systemic violence, it’s not the police killing us, it’s the health system.

Many of the issues you raise in relation to adoption have to do with heredity, its impact on health. They bring to the forefront matters of blood often problematically related to race. Do you think this explains why people might be reluctant to discuss these issues?

Many arguments, if not deployed well, may be used as far-right tools, so topics have to be approached carefully. People in France are not used to analyzing things through the lens of race. We saw a bit of it with COVID: the number of people who died in the Seine-Saint-Denis area [in the suburbs of Paris] is horrific, and most of them were Black and North African. This should have been an outrage. There were studies and a few articles got published in scientific journals and newspapers arguing that social health inequalities are racial inequalities. That’s the first time I’ve seen anything like that in France, and only because COVID has had such a blatant impact on communities of color.

The first time I said that, as an adoptee, I oppose anonymous donors, lesbian groups called me a lesbophobe. When this happens, I have to make my perspective understandable. I have to ask: what are they missing? So, for instance, the legal fiction of adoption [by which a child’s natural parents legally become strangers and adoptive parents their official parents] is not a right lesbians should aspire to; it was given to heterosexual couples for the wrong reasons, and it should be destroyed for everyone’s benefit. What is important in the conversation about anonymous donors: the symbolic relationship to a sperm donor, parental rights for this person? Or is it the well-being of the person conceived, who might have health issues later? If I share my story, and what it meant for me not to have access to my family medical history [Amandine suffered uterine fibroids, a condition that ran in her biological family, information she could not obtain for a long time because of adoption regulations], then you don’t really have an argument.

I’m not telling you that you should have a man in your lesbian couple; I’m not telling them donors should have a relation with your children. I’m just saying you should have means to contact this person, and this person should be able to contact you. A healthy sperm donor in his 30s can develop diabetes later; the donor should be able to contact the couple and say, “I’m 42 now and here are my health problems.” If a child needs, say, a bone marrow transplant and their parents are not compatible, they’ll be happy to have this contact. It’s really a practical matter. Sometimes activism is not just about big ideas, the patriarchy, etc. Donor or birth parents’ access is a health issue. This was a conversation worth having within the lesbian/bi community — the issue of what is at stake with the donor in terms of health for the child to be conceived.

These days, I’m looking more and more into adult domination, because activists tend to be really bad at looking at things from the perspective of children. Many mistakes are made, and I don’t think because you’re Black, queer, or whatever you’re automatically better at thinking about the best options for children — this whole thing about anonymous donors proved it to me. You’re clearly not thinking about the child’s well-being first.

Adoption is a profoundly colonial institution that still uses colonial networks and racist values. In your book, you evoke alternative family formations and outlooks — othermothering, collective child raising, etc., mostly non-Western practices that show how families can have little to do with blood relation. For you, what might the decolonial family look like?

It is about the circulation of children. First, it would be about thinking whether you really want to have children. To this day, I’m still surprised by how many people want to go into this thing, only to regret it when they’re pregnant, say this isn’t what I thought it was going to be … Well, you know, you don’t have to do it. If we could just start by getting rid of the idea that everyone needs to produce children. And then be really clear about what you want; for me it was really clear I’m not interested in babies. Someone who cannot speak for themselves, that’s a power dynamic I’m not comfortable with. And that was it. But that didn’t mean I didn’t want children: I was quite happy to be able to join a family that was perfect for me, meeting my partner’s child, who was seven at the time, in a situation where they could choose whether they wanted me as a parent or not. That was the ideal approach for me.

And I think if we were able to be clear with that, it would be so much easier for children whether we produce them or meet them along the way. I don’t think you’d see as much post-partum depression if cisgendered women were to ask themselves if they really want to bear a child. It should be okay to not want to, or to only want older children. It’s about denaturalizing all aspects of it. It should be okay to say: “I’m quite happy to have a child but I don’t want to be a parent full-time,” which was also my position — I was lucky because life brought the perfect configuration: four parents, great! I can work on my art.

I also need to know what a child needs. I had parents who really wanted to be parents, who had so much love and so much time focused on me. I know that I can’t give this kind of time to someone; if I’m working on a film, a book, or whatever, I don’t have the time, and children need that. But I can be a good co-parent; I can be there and bring stuff to the table. If adults were approaching parenthood like that, it would make children’s lives so much easier. We are the problem! Whatever’s wrong with the child, it’s us.

What’s next for you? 

We [Bras de Fer Production] are facing a growth crisis here. This is the first year we started getting commissioned work. I don’t know if we’re going to take the projects — I can’t reveal what they are, but they’re very exciting. If they happen, they would have to happen between April and June, which would postpone the documentary we’re currently working on, on hegemonic masculinity, which would close this triptych of political films around France, race, gender, etc. We’d really like to start working on fiction next: a classic romcom, but with a Black couple and a Black cast. That should be interesting in a French context, we’ll see how that goes …

To conclude, we always ask the following questions. If you could, what would you decolonize?

The family.

What would you defund?

The police.

What would you abolish?

Prisons.

What should be free for all?

Education and health. 

What is the soundtrack to your struggle? Please pick three songs.

Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue.”

Skunk Anansie’s “The Skank Heads.” Because it’s really angry!

Monique Seka’s “Okaman.” I don’t know what the lyrics mean, but it’s a really happy love song.

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Grégory Pierrot is a writer, translator, and professor of English.