The footage was dramatic. The “Spiderman of Paris” quickly scaled four floors to save the four-year-old boy dangling from an apartment balcony. But the New York Times headline read, “Paris ‘Spider-Man’ Saves Young Boy. Cue Debate on Migrants.” The heroic actions of Mamoudou Gassama, a recent migrant from Mali—without papers—immediately placed migrants from West and North Africa at the center of a national conversation about what France owed its immigrants, what those immigrants owed France, and what they could or should expect from the people of France and their government. Gassama's courageous and resourceful act “began to play into Europe's fraught and polarized debate about outsiders, immigrants and refugees.”1 The shoe was suddenly on the other foot, because West Africans had dealt with the migration of Europeans and other “strangers” to West Africa for centuries.

Historians of West Africa have long noted the significance of “the stranger” to West...

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