‘Yellow Negroes’ Draws the Plight of Undocumented Lives

The liminal state between immigrant and citizen becomes the permanent experience of undocumented people.

Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures
Yvan Alagbé
New York Review Comics
Apr 2018

Immigrant stories often fall into narratives of assimilation told from the vantage of the host nation. Contemporary political discourse often frames immigrants in binaries of good citizens or criminals, members of the workforce or leeches draining the economy, protectors of cultural values or those who want to remake the nation in their own culture. Yvan Alagbé presents another narrative, one of people isolated from both their native culture and the one into which they have moved.

In short narrative sequences, Yellow Negros and Other Imaginary Creatures explores the relationship of identity as a fluid, existential understanding of culture as an ordered environment. Within this environment, he places both culturally protected characters Claire, a white French woman, and Mario, a retired French-Algerian policeman, as they interact with undocumented Beninese immigrant siblings Alain and Martine.

Readers meet Claire as she talks to her father who wonders why he never sees her or her new boyfriend. In an offhand remark, he asks, “What, is he black!?” When he realizes his daughter is in an interracial relationship, he seems to panic. Alagbé doesn’t follow the predictable narrative of racial intolerance or family torn apart by bigotry. Instead he cuts to four panels of Claire and Alain engaged in an intimate moment. This tactic returns throughout the collection. An emphasis on a cultural situation is juxtaposed against a moment of human interaction, subtly showing a cultural context disconnected from the individual’s lived experience.

France’s colonial past and postcolonial present constructs a reality for contemporary African immigrants in France, and the character Maurice “Mario” Papon embodies the fractured reality of colonial patriotism and the myth of the paternal colonizer. He becomes obsessed with involving himself in the lives of the immigrants and trying to involve them in his. He promises an easy path to citizenship, to employ them, and asserts the dysfunctional claim that they are his children. While Mario raves, the immigrants see him as a crazy and dangerous man.

Mario cannot stop himself from telling the story of his life. It isn’t clear if he’s validating his past or imposing his narrative on his listeners. He views people as fillers for his empty life. He tries paying, begging, or threatening others to serve as his family and his lovers. Mario exists isolated in the confused reality he organizes through commerce, and through the “gift” of money or the threats of police involvement, he wants to enact a life that gives him connections to others and a social purpose that otherwise seems limited to the confines of his thoughts and profound loneliness. Even when he hires a prostitute, he cannot bridge his fantasy with reality.

Family as an institution becomes problematized as cultural and economic elements permeate the fabric of the immigrants’ lives. A family dinner that includes the interracial couple devolves into a plan by the matriarch to allow them to live with her and share the mortgage. Personal economics become the only focus of the immigrants in their new country as it is imposed at both the personal and governmental level, erasing their ability to live as people born in the society.

“Dyaa” gives us sequence where Martine’s interiority plays out in an escalating sense of self transforming into a product of her current standpoint. Alagbé uses extremely spare artwork to create an impression of mood through broad black lines and silhouettes pocked with empty white space. Martine’s place has been created when the man she intended to marry returned to Africa. Her dreams were not aligned as much with being in France as they were to be in a relationship. Through the scene, her dramatic monologue uncovers her fragility and strength as she confronts her own thoughts, expectations, and experiences.

(New York Review Comics)

The collection progresses and other characters and stories take over: the idea behind the book is the story of the migrants, those who exist outside of society, those who have died trying to migrate, those murdered when politics have made them scapegoats. Under panels that include a rough drawn Donald Trump posing with an executive order, Alagbé writes,”Telling tales is the business of survivors. Tales of phantoms. Masks. Words. Flesh.”

“Postcard from Montreuil” is the detached overview of an organized strike located at a temporary employment agency where many groups interacted at times with the mostly undocumented Malian protesters. The final comics are more directly political and disconnected from the main stories. “Postcard from Montreuil” is the detached overview. “Postcriptum” highlights how Thomas Sankara has been excised from French history while carrying significant meaning for the immigrant plight. In “Sand Niggers”, Alagbé ruminates over the harsh realities that meet immigrants and the coldness of the political affect that both labels and incites a violent resistance in different times and places.

Immigration is often talked about in the context of needs, resources, criminality, or accomplishments. In the US media, it has devolved to terms like “DACA”, “a chemistry professor”, and “bad hombres”. What doesn’t get talked about is the existence of individuals disconnected from their homes and from the society where they live. Alagbé illustrates a disturbingly human portrayal of being an immigrant, the non-person who tries to live in a culture where the social and political structure of the new country doesn’t offer the ritual passing from “immigrant” to “citizen”. Instead, the liminality of the undocumented immigrant becomes persistent. Without any governmental structure to allow them to pass, the liminal state between immigrant and citizen becomes the permanent experience of undocumented people.

Alagbé presents the migrant experience where individuals with free will act within the limitations imposed by those who frame both their experience and identities through a mediated worldview. Unlike a lot of academic discourse that counters or challenges postcolonial rhetoric from the national or cultural level, Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures teases out the contradictions through scenes of interpersonal communication. Its citizens embody the frayed myths of the past and migrants’ struggles, because no one can see their humanity through the delusions of civility.

RATING 9 / 10