4 January 2021

Ousmane Sembène's La Noire de... | Black Girl (1966)

Ousmane Sembène, who is perhaps better known as a writer – particularly of Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (1966) – than a film director, certainly intended his film La Noire de... to mean more than the English version Black Girl*. The 'de' can mean 'from', as in 'from Senegal', but possession is surely indicated here? The black girl (and even the word 'girl' is demeaning) belonging to... who? A nameless white couple of slave drivers in fact.

The illiterate Diouana has sought work as a housekeeper or nursemaid in Dakar, where the white family was very reasonable to her and her main task was looking after the children. Obviously she welcomed going to work in Antibes for them with open arms: a chance to see the former mother country, to live on the Côte d'Azur!

Unfortunately things don't work out at all as planned, and – the children presumably being away at a boarding school – she is expected to be a maid, making all the meals, doing the washing up, the washing and the laundering, obeying her employers' every whim, not even being allowed the chance of seeing anything of the environment she's in: she knows no one, can't communicate her problems, and is treated as a slave, held prisoner to the couple who present her to friends as an exotic toy. Her employers have no conception that they are destroying her, call her lazy and don't understand why she is unhappy. She must be ill.

Diouana is definitely ill, although her illness is entirely caused by her employers. She chooses to end her life by slitting her throat in the bath. She becomes a brief 'fait divers' in the local newspaper, and on the husband's return to the bidonville where Diouana's mother lives, the reception he receives is very cold.

'La Noire de...' was originally published as a short story in the magazine Présence africaine in 1961, and the following year by Présence africaine publishers in a collection of the author's short stories called Voltaïque.

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