CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1The two documents presented here are the result of an investigation into the life of Aimée Jean-Baptiste, a black primary-school teacher originally from Guadeloupe. She arrived in metropolitan France during the 1950s, [1] like so many women from the French Caribbean who, in the wake of départementalisation, crossed the Atlantic in search of a better life, or at least a different one. [2]

2The first document consists of an inspection report relating to her, dated April 1959:


I regretfully draw your attention to the case of Mlle Jean-Baptiste, Aimée.
This replacement teacher, originally from Guadeloupe (born in 1931) is of good education and good conduct, and her situation makes her worthy of interest: to my knowledge, she has no family in the Seine; if she has no employment, she therefore risks financial embarrassment.
Unfortunately, Mlle. Jean-Baptiste is incapable, through nonchalance, through lack of authority, of controlling a class: her lesson preparation is insufficient, and discipline is totally lacking.
In spite of their goodwill, the three headmasters and the headmistress who have employed her are of the opinion that she is unsuited to a primary school. Here, by way of evidence, is a single report from a very supportive headmaster. [3]
Mlle. Jean-Baptiste is at present on sick leave (since 10 April); I cannot receive her back into my district, and I am therefore requesting that she be appointed elsewhere (office).

4The school inspector had scribbled a postscript at the base of the report: this gives still further insight into how women from the Caribbean who wished to acquire posts in the French civil service were judged:


I have just received Mademoiselle Jean-Baptiste, whose leave has now ended. This young woman [cette jeune fille] is completely unaware of her failings; it is impossible for me to appoint her back into a primary class and I would add that she does not wish to go to a nursery school. There remains the solution of an office job… Mademoiselle Jean-Baptiste informs me that she has an uncle, a lawyer in Paris. Whatever the case, she is worthy of interest, and considering that she is of Guadeloupean origin, I will not suggest she be struck off.

6This period saw a marked increase in numbers of school pupils. [4] In order to cope with them, the French Ministry of Education recruited a large number of supply teachers – people like Aimée, who had not followed the hallowed route of the École normale (training college) and had to learn “on the job”, proving themselves in often very difficult conditions (overcrowded classes, cramped premises, and so on) [5] before achieving a stable position. [6] During professional inspections, candidates were exposed to a variety of judgments which revealed the way in which social relationships were seen. For example, Aimée’s method of working was thought to arise from characteristics commonly attributed to black people, among which was “nonchalance”, [7] resulting in the inability to “control a class”. As a Guadeloupean, Aimée was also perceived as a vulnerable person in need of help, since in France, a country already claiming to be postcolonial, former colonized peoples had now become citizens, and had to be integrated, Guadeloupe having become a département in 1946. This involved bringing such people to metropolitan France and allocating them a well-defined role. [8] It was thus precisely on account of her supposed vulnerable condition that Aimée had to be retained within the national education system, in accordance with a principle of social support based on acknowledgment of her lack of competence. The recommended solution, to which she was clearly opposed, consisted of sending her to the lowest level of the gendered hierarchy of educational employment: judged incapable of teaching in a primary school, Aimée could deal with an office job – where women were more numerous and invisible to the public – or cope in a nursery school, where her supposed incompetence would have less serious consequences; in contemporary thinking, nursery schools were seen to require “feminine” qualities. [9]

7The case of Aimée is probably only partly representative of the situation of most women who came to France from the French Caribbean during the course of the 1950s and who were directed by public institutions towards the most menial jobs. [10] But through the situation of Aimée, who came from a petit-bourgeois Guadeloupean family, we can glimpse something of the fate of other women who sought to maintain their social status in metropolitan France by aspiring to more prestigious posts in the middle echelons of the civil service [Fonction publique intermédiaire], of which teachers were a part. What marked Aimée out was the tenacity with which she clung to this possibility, perhaps due to the support she enjoyed, which included that of a lawyer uncle in Paris, mentioned in the document. Without this, she would doubtless have suffered the same fate as other primary-school supply teachers from the overseas départements and territories (DOM-TOMs) – colleagues who began teaching in the Paris region during the same period as she did, between 1956 and 1958. Most of their files, which we have consulted, turn out to be empty, having been closed just a few months after their recruitment, which appears to indicate that most of them quietly left the teaching profession without fuss, and therefore without leaving any traces. [11]

8What is striking is that the school’s perception of Aimée appears to have been shaped by the pupils’ parents. If we are to give credence to her employment file, these parents contributed in no small way to her ceasing to practise as a primary-school teacher. In January 1962, the mother of a child in her class complained to the school inspectorate and managed to have her replaced. In the letter sent to the inspector, she thanks him, “on behalf of all the mothers […] for understanding us”. In her view, Aimée’s dismissal had become a necessity:


We have had a great deal of patience with her being a black schoolmistress, but during this time our children have picked up deplorable habits because there was no question of education or even of instruction.

10Because of her skin colour, Aimée was seen as having merited a little extra patience, as if, in the parents’ view, this characteristic instantly placed her in a separate category of teachers, to be treated differently, because they were potentially incompetent. [12]

11These documents, recorded in Aimée’s employment file, enable us to locate signs of racism and stereotyping with regard to the black population – which were expressed both by the hierarchy and by schoolchildren’s parents [13] and applied, in varying degrees, to all women from the Antilles seeking to enter primary education. Two ways of thinking were at work here: Aimée’s treatment by the educational inspectorate arose primarily from a “diffuse racialization” which associated Aimée with the negative qualities attributed to her geographical and cultural origin, i.e. Guadeloupe, while at the same time granting her right of access to an income and to incorporation in the Fonction publique, the intervention of pupils’ parents, on the other hand, was the expression of a “colourist racialization” [14] which made skin colour a handicap and a factor of incompetence.


13The second document forms part of the correspondence between Aimée and her husband, Bernard Garigue. We discovered these letters in a Paris flea-market in 2008. The following is an extract from a letter received by Bernard, Aimée’s husband – who was white – and written in the hand of his sister-in-law (his brother’s wife), a few weeks before their marriage in August 1961. This letter reveals a second social occasion in which a form of racism towards women from the Caribbean took place, namely encounters with family members: the sister-in-law refers to the way in which care was taken to keep Bernard’s mother out of the couple’s marriage plans, for fear that she might oppose the union.


My dear little Bernard,
[…] My telegram shows me that you have been wondering what is happening; you see, I’m doing what I can and you mustn’t hold it against me. But it’s a nasty job you’ve given me.
I’ve been trying to broach the question for four days now and yesterday I said exactly this to her [she is referring to the mother of Bernard and Jean]: “if Bernard were to get married would you like to be told in advance?” That sparked everything off. Hysterics, shouting, crying, and here’s the best bit: she wants to go and create a scandal and perhaps worse. Don’t say anything about it to Aimée, but personally I think she’s capable of anything. Jean [her husband, Bernard’s brother] and René [her adult son] think the same as me. So having given it much thought, there is only one solution. She must not know the place and date of your wedding. As a precaution, we’ve pinched her driving licence, but you never know, she’s in such a terribly worked-up state (after all, she didn’t expect you to get married and she’s making horrible wishes for it not to happen. That’s what scares me).
So if we all go off, she’s not stupid and she’ll follow. That’s why, my dear Bernard, we won’t be able to go to Paris because Jean takes priority over us. Fortunately he has had a letter from [illegible] and he’s going to pretend to go there by scooter. Meanwhile, I shan’t leave your mother’s side over those two days, so that I can keep a close eye on her, in case she should suspect anything. It [not attending the wedding] hurts me deeply I can assure you – this is why, right to the end, I was hoping to find a solution. But to go would certainly ruin – and God knows how –what for you should be a wonderful day. I would love to have been with you, and René would too. You know how much you mean to us. I can’t tell you how different these holidays are without you. […] And I have only one hope, which is that you can come back with your wife without anyone causing you problems. You must try to explain to her – without making her afraid – why we are not able to be with you. As soon as we return I will come and see you and bring you the present I would like to have given you (I think we had agreed on a black ceramic tableware set). If you are called up, Aimée will be welcomed in our home as Bernard’s wife, which means everything […].

15Although in the sociology of the family in France there has been a strong focus on matrimonial strategies showing that, during this period, social and geographical homogamy largely prevailed, [15] little attention has been paid to so-called “mixed” couples and the way in which white families viewed a spouse from another country or one with a skin colour that was not perceived as white. [16] The rare studies of this period therefore involve marriages between French people and Algerians or other European nationalities, [17] probably because of a specifically French difficulty in thinking of people from the French Antilles as parties to a mixed couple: in the egalitarian myth of the Republic, they have been represented as full citizens and their skin colour is supposed not to count.

16In fact, in the early 1960s, marrying a black woman was not self-evident; far from it. The correspondence between Bernard and Aimée and the research we have conducted into it have enabled us to gain access to the way in which Bernard’s union with Aimée was perceived by Bernard’s family. In the above letter, the sister-in-law refers in very clear language to the fact that Bernard’s mother was opposed to the marriage and presented a threat to its actually happening, to the extent that its time and place had to be concealed from her. As for Bernard’s paternal grandfather, he also excused himself by letter, emphasizing his state of health; but he was anxious to state that “it is not disagreement with your mother on this subject that would have prevented me”. Although not all the family appear to have looked unfavourably upon Bernard and Aimée’s marriage, there nevertheless seems to have been considerable distancing: Aimée makes no reference to contact with the family in her letters to Bernard when he is called up to the army in Algeria, despite his repeated invitations to go and visit his sister-in-law. In another letter, the sister-in-law told Bernard that with them [Aimée’s family], she felt like “a bull in a china shop” and that “their pace [of life] surprises and disconcerts me”. Similarly, Bernard’s brother had only vague memories of this family, which he thought belonged to the Guadeloupean upper-middle class, judging by the clothes worn on the wedding day, whereas in fact everything indicates that it was actually a petit-bourgeois family. [18] Fifty years later, he told us that their mother did not want this marriage because Aimée was black; but added, as if to moderate his judgment of her, that when he and his brother Bernard were at school, his mother had seen no problem with her sons regularly mixing with the black children of the député Paul Valentino. [19] Two social principles thus appear to have intersected, to Aimée’s disadvantage: on the one hand, social prestige and gender could compensate for skin colour so that a powerful black man could be better tolerated than a petit-bourgeois supply teacher; [20] and on the other, tolerance was mainly applicable outside the private family sphere: being friendly with someone, especially a person from a former colony, was one thing, but marrying him/her was a different thing altogether, [21] because this implied establishing a lineage and therefore bequeathing a heritage and a family name.

17However, despite intensive research, no indication has been found of a racist attitude, however slight, in communications between Bernard and Aimée. Although their life as a couple was marked by social relationships that potentially drew strong dividing lines between ethnic categories, their own loving relationship was able to preserve a neutral ground.


19Taken together, these two documents cast light on two areas – work and family – in which Aimée was reduced to her skin colour and geographical origin and was treated in accordance with the characteristics commonly attributed to these categories. In both areas, she was challenging the established racial order and therefore the usual perceptions of those who had dealings with her: her in-laws, the hierarchy, and the parents of her pupils. Our research has enabled us to uncover other documents confirming this trend, such as the police file compiled following her death in childbirth in 1962. [22] This indicates that the relationship with the medical establishment – which referred to women from the Caribbean as “transplanted persons” [23] – was an additional site of racial prejudice against her. [24]

20Although, as has been said, this was not a representative case, it was precisely Aimée’s exceptional character – the resources on which she was able to draw in order to stay in her profession, coupled with her will to marry Bernard – which has brought to the surface of this archive the practices of racialization and discrimination that surely concerned a large number of women from the DOM-TOMs wishing to make a life for themselves in metropolitan France during this period. [25] The double biography we have devoted to Aimée and her husband Bernard should therefore be read as an invitation to the social sciences to write the history of people from the Caribbean and, more generally, from the French overseas départements, who migrated to metropolitan France, through the experiences they may have had in a society still largely dominated by ways of thinking and acting arising from its long colonial history.


  • [1]
    Her life-story and that of her husband, Bernard Garique, are recounted in Deshayes & Pohn-Weidinger 2017, which is reviewed in the French edition of this number of Clio.
  • [2]
    Darius 1987. In 1946, Guadeloupe became an overseas département of France. [Tr.]
  • [3]
    Archives du Rectorat de Paris, 1235 W 7 (1957-1962): personnel file of Aimée Jean-Baptiste.
  • [4]
    Prost 2004 [1981].
  • [5]
    Berger, Benjamin & Sivadon 1961.
  • [6]
    Berger & Benjamin 1964.
  • [7]
    NDiaye 2008; Cognet 1999.
  • [8]
    Germain 2016; Londinière 2012; Pattieu 2016.
  • [9]
    In this regard, even though the teaching dispensed in nursery schools has given rise to much thinking (notably in child psychology) on the subject of children’s needs and the contributions made by play, the inspector appears to convey a stereotype in which “the female nursery school teacher is sometimes considered as someone less trained, and indeed paid less that a man teaching in a primary school” (Plaisance 1986: 128). Berger, Benjamin & Sivadon (1961) also suggest that primary-school teaching is intellectually more demanding than that of a nursery school, when they write that “teachers, with the exception of nursery-school teachers, move in a world of books and ideas” (our italics).
  • [10]
    Ega 1978.
  • [11]
    Administrative files of supply and trainee primary-school teachers without permanent posts born between 1900 and 1960, Archives du Rectorat de Paris, 1236W1-692 (1956-1958). Only one person in this sample (n=19) subsequently entered the Fonction publique in Paris. The others left the service or taught elsewhere than in Paris, without this being noted in their files. In two of these files, (male) primary teachers who later left the profession had grave disputes with their hierarchy: in one case, the evidence points to judgments that were experienced as racist and, in the other, to lack of discipline and command of the French language. A study has yet to be made to ascertain whether these very short careers were more frequent than the average in the cases of staff coming from the DOM-TOMs.
  • [12]
    This case has been analysed in detail in Deshayes & Pohn-Weidinger 2020.
  • [13]
    To our knowledge, there is no representative study of the experiences of racism undergone during this period by persons from the DOM-TOMs. However, a study of “mental illnesses” in primary teachers of the Seine département refers to such experiences: “With regard to racial differences, these clearly almost always concern relationships between French people in metropolitan France and ‘the French from Overseas’ […] In other words, it is particularly these ‘French from Overseas’ who suffer from certain kinds of discrimination”. Berger, Benjamin & Sivadon 1961: 38.
  • [14]
    Pattieu 2016: 112.
  • [15]
    Girard 1964.
  • [16]
    See Frantz Fanon’s thinking on this (1952)
  • [17]
    Michel 1962 and 1964.
  • [18]
    The professional files of Aimée’s separated parents indicate that her mother was a primary-school teacher and her father a tax inspector. The parents’ birth certificates and inheritance tax declarations do not suggest an elevated social status.
  • [19]
    Alphabetical list of pupils at the Lycée Voltaire (1953).
  • [20]
    Jaunait & Chauvin 2012.
  • [21]
    On this issue, a study of “race relations” highlighted the fact that in the 1960s, 70% of French people who had a very positive image of Algerians would also be very disappointed if their daughter married an Algerian (Michel 1962 and 1964).
  • [22]
    Death record for Aimée Jean-Baptiste, file closed without further action (Archives de Paris, 1752W 51, file no. 15 613).
  • [23]
    Champion 1958.
  • [24]
    Deshayes & Pohn-Weidinger 2017: 253-298.
  • [25]
    For example, in an opinion poll of students from the Antilles and French Guiana in 1965, 20% said that they would warn a new arrival from these regions of “the paternalism, egoism, racism and prejudice of the French”, Fédération antillo-guyanaise des étudiants catholiques (1965).

The two documents we present here stem from the personnel records of a primary-school teacher from Guadeloupe (1957-1962) and from her correspondence with her husband (1961-1962). These documents highlight the racism black women from the French overseas territories (DOM-TOM) might face when they migrated to metropolitan France in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in two contexts: at the workplace when in contact with the general public, and within mixed couples. Our commentary underlines the complexity of the processes of racialization and calls for more research on the trajectories of the men and women who migrated from the overseas territories to metropolitan France, in particular with reference to their integration in the workplace.

  • French Antilles
  • race relations
  • racism
  • women
  • black population
  • France 1945-1970
  • workplace
  • intersectionality

Une institutrice antillaise aux prises avec la société métropolitaine (1950-1960)

Les deux documents présentés sont issus respectivement du dossier de carrière d’une institutrice guadeloupéenne (1957-1962) et de la correspondance privée de celle-ci avec son mari (1961-1962). Tous deux éclairent le racisme auquel ont pu faire face les femmes qui ont migré des DOM-TOM vers la métropole dans les années 1950-1960 au sein de deux espaces sociaux différents : le travail en contact avec un public et les relations familiales au sein des couples mixtes. Notre commentaire met en lumière la complexité des processus de racialisation à l’œuvre dans ce cas et plaide pour un renouveau des recherches sur l’immigration des personnes originaires d’Outre-mer en métropole qui s’intéresseraient spécifiquement à leur intégration au monde de travail.

  • Antillais
  • relations interethniques
  • discrimination
  • racisme
  • France 1945-1970
  • intersectionnalité
  • populations noires


  • Berger Ida & Roger Benjamin. 1964. L’Univers des instituteurs : étude sociologique sur les instituteurs et institutrices du département de la Seine. Paris: Éditions de Minuit.
  • Berger, Ida, Benjamin, Roger & Paul Sivadon. 1961. Maladies mentales & profession. Contribution à l’étude sociologique des troubles mentaux dans le milieu des enseignants [Rapport pour la MGEN].
  • Champion, Yves. 1958. Migration et maladie mentale. Essai de synthèse des recherches en matière d’épidémiologie et de pathologie mentale concernant la mobilité géographique des populations. Paris: Librairie Arnette.
  • Cognet, Marguerite. 1999. « Trajectoire de la difference » des groupes ethnicisés, des « Auvergnats » aux « Antillais ». Revue européenne des migrations internationales 15(2): 167-187.
  • Darius, Fanny-Françoise. 1987. Femmes antillaises en France : de l’oppression à l’immigration, de l’impact de l’immigration sur des trajectoires féminines dans la minorité guadeloupéenne et martiniquaise. Doctoral thesis supervised by François Raveau, Université Paris 5.
  • Deshayes, Fabien & Axel Pohn-Weidinger. 2017. L’Amour en guerre. Sur les traces d’une correspondance pendant la guerre d’Algérie. Montrouge: Bayard Éditions.
  • Deshayes, Fabien & Axel Pohn-Weidinger. 2020. Racisme et ressources sociales. Enquête biographique sur une institutrice antillaise dans la France des années 1950-1960. In Parler de soi. Méthodes biographiques en sciences sociales, ed. by CollectiF B. Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS.
  • Ega, Françoise. 1978. Lettres à une noire : récit antillais. Paris: L’Harmattan.
  • Fanon, Frantz. 1952. Peau noire, masques blancs. Paris: Le Seuil.
  • Fédération antillo-guyanaise des étudiants catholiques (ed.) 1965. Ce que sont, pensent, veulent, les étudiants antillo-guyanais en France. Paris: Alizés.
  • Germain, Felix F. 2016. Decolonizing the Republic: African and Caribbean migrants in postwar Paris (1946-1974). East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.
  • Girard, Alain. 1964. Une enquête psycho-sociologique sur le choix du conjoint dans la France contemporaine. Paris: Brodard et Taupin.
  • Jaunait, Alexandre & Sébastien Chauvin. 2012. Représenter l’intersection. Les théories de l’intersectionnalité à l’épreuve des sciences sociales. Revue française de science politique 62(1): 5-20. [available in English on Cairn international: Representing the intersection in France and America. Theories of intersectionality meet social sciences, translated by Claire Morel]
  • Londinière, Garry. 2012. Les coulisses de l’émigration antillaise organisée : le CASODOM ou la gestion des migrants spontanés. Master’s dissertation supervised by Danièle Fraboulet, Université Paris XIII.
  • Michel, Andrée. 1962. Tendances nouvelles de la sociologie des relations raciales. Revue française de sociologie 3(2): 181-190.
  • Michel, Andrée. 1964. Mate selection in various ethnic groups in France. Acta Sociologica, 8(1/2): 163-176.
  • NDiaye, Pap. 2008. La Condition noire. Essai sur une minorité française. Paris: Calmann-Lévy.
  • Pattieu, Sylvain. 2016. Un traitement spécifique des migrations d’outre-mer : le BUMIDOM (1963-1982) et ses ambiguïtés. Politix 116: 81-113.
  • Plaisance, Éric. 1986. L’Enfant, la maternelle, la société. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, coll. L’Éducateur.
  • Prost, Antoine. 2004 [1981]. Histoire générale de l’enseignement et de l’éducation en France, vol. IV : L’école et la famille dans une société en mutation, depuis 1930. Paris: Perrin.
Fabien Deshayes
Fabien Deshayes is maître de conférences in Educational sciences in the Département de Carrières sociales, IUT Ville d’Avray-Nanterre. After his thesis at Université Paris-8 Saint-Denis on reconfigurations of child protection schemes, he conducted an inquiry for the Caisse Nationale des Allocations Familiales. As a post-doc, he joined the SATIE team in the Faculty of Psychology and Educational sciences in Geneva. His research – covering questions of education, the family and poverty in the context of change in contemporary welfare states – is particularly concerned with the relations between institutions and those who make use of them.
Axel Pohn-Weidinger
Axel Pohn-Weidinger is maître de conférences at the Institut de sociologie, University of Strasbourg and associate member of the Centre Georg Simmel (UMR 8131 ; EHESS, CNRS). Following his thesis “Écrire dans les plis du droit social :une sociologie du dossier”, he took part in a comparative research project on the itineraries of employees of multinational companies in France and Germany, funded by the ANR. His research combines study of the sociology of the law, the welfare state and labour, focussing on the combination of research methods. Recent publications are on administrative justice and everyday encounters with the law.
Translated by
Rosemary Rodwell
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 08/07/2021
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