Emmanuel Kayembe discusses cultural diversity Thursday during a Great Falls Forum held virtually. Screenshot from video

LEWISTON — Emmanuel Kayembe told a virtual audience Thursday it is time to rethink what cultural identity means.

Using French and Francophone migration history in America as a backdrop to his Great Falls Forum discussion, Kayembe said the prevalence of French-speaking communities — including African immigrants driving a resurgence in Maine — should not be interpreted as cultural resistance, but rather a tool for “cultural dialogue.”

Kayembe, who holds a doctorate in French language and literature from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, went on to teach there before moving on to teach French language, literature and culture at the University of Botswana.

Kayembe is now a fellow of Franco American studies and a French instructor at the University of Southern Maine.

He said Thursday that diversity as a concept has had its failures over time, but that Americans should build a new world together, a “third place, outside of polarization,” by sharing aspects of each other’s identity.

Despite current conflicts over race, he said a recent Pew Research poll found 58% of Americans believe increased diversity makes the country a better place, which is about 22 percentage points more than 10 other countries polled.

He said that shows America can find that “third place,” where, according to Kayembe, there is a “cultural between” not belonging to a specific race or people.

“We need to accept that identity is something that is changing all the time,” he said.

During the discussion, he pointed to ways cultural identities in America have led to conflict.

Using French colonization as an example, he pointed to attempts by French, Spanish and English settlers to claim land. Naming a place and mapping it was an act of ownership, he said, and many colonial place names sought to “delete” memories of others — most often at the expense of Native Americans — while keeping alive the identity of a particular heritage.

Kayembe said the concept of “identity resistance” is the idea that “we don’t want to become the other and we don’t need the other to become us.”

That needs to be rethought, he said, along with “what it means to belong to a community, a territory or a country, because no one can be called an absolute ‘autochthone,'” or aborigine.

But, he said, this idea can work alongside maintaining individual heritage. When asked about French-speaking African immigrants creating a sort of Francophone renaissance in Maine, he said it’s an opportunity to bridge two distinct cultures that share some common identity.

Kayembe said it provides a chance for Maine to join the International Francophone Organization, and possibly establish more French programs at schools.

Marcela Peres, director of the Lewiston Public Library, said the next Great Falls Forum, set for November, is expected to feature two Bates College professors discussing this year’s presidential election.


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