Transnational Memories of Slavery

By adopting a transnational approach, from the United States to France, via England, Benin and Brazil, Ana Lucia Araujo revisits the memory of slavery by studying its modalities and their evolution over the long term.

The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 by a Minneapolis police officer sparked an unprecedented wave of protests on both sides of the Atlantic against police violence and, more broadly, against the persistence of racial inequality. We remember the spectacular forms taken by the protests, particularly in the United States, where many statues erected to the glory of men who defended slavery and white supremacy were targeted – smeared with bright red paint or covered with political slogans – before being, in most cases, toppled by local authorities. While a crane lifted the statue of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson into the sky of Richmond, the capital of Virginia, that of slave trader Edward Colston sank into the waters of the port of Bristol, England, where it had been thrown by protesters. On these symbols inherited from the past came to crystallize the anger of the present. Some cried out against an erasure of history, more or less deliberately maintaining the “confusion between the concepts of memory, history and commemoration” (p. 2); because it is indeed memory logics that are in question. We have never made so much history, in truth, as by debating the advisability of preserving statues in the image of this or that personality – Columbus, Colston, Colbert – and by questioning the continuities between colonial laws, slave practices and the contemporary racial order.

Ana Lucia Araujo’s book, although written too early to be included in the spring 2020 sequence, places current debates on the memory of slavery in the longue durée, showing that they have their own history. The Brazilian-born academic, professor of history at Howard University (Washington, DC), is the author of several notable books on these issues, including Politics of Memory: Making Slavery Visible in the Public Space (2012) and Shadows of the Slave Past: Memory, Heritage, and Slavery (2014). Very active on social networks, which she uses as a tool for public history, Ana Lucia Araujo carries out on Twitter in particular a valuable work of indexing online content on the history of the slave trade and slavery and the current events of their memories, gathered under the hashtag #slaveryarchive. Her approach is transnational, and that is what makes it so interesting: Slavery in the Age of Memory covers Benin, Brazil, the United States, England and France, while focusing on the last three countries. Based on the work of historians, sociologists and anthropologists, and on her own observations in the field, Araujo studies the “different modalities of the memory of slavery” (p. 6) – collective, cultural, public, official, historical – from one place to another in the Atlantic space. Statues and street names, commemorative monuments, museums dedicated to the history of slavery, memorial tourism on former plantations, works of art questioning racial categories: none of these mediations escape analysis, which reveals the multiplication and diversity of memorial enterprises, but also some of their limits.

Memorial battles

The memory of slavery, writes Araujo, is a “permanent battlefield” (p. 69). The historian devotes a chapter to some of these memorial “battles” that have seen the questioning, in England and the United States, of urban markers – statues, street names, buildings – associated with colonial history, the transatlantic slave trade and slavery. The study of the Colston case is particularly enlightening, because it contextualizes a removal too often presented as an act of thoughtless vandalism. We first take the measure of the omnipresence of the figure of Edward Colston in the toponymy of Bristol: Colston Hall, Colston Boys’ School, Colston Street, Colston Avenue… The urban space is dotted with references to this actor of the slave trade, celebrated until recently as “one of the most virtuous and enlightened sons of the city” (p. 76). Above all, we can see how the municipality has not been able – or rather, has not wanted – to pay attention to the demands of the local black population, who have been warning for over twenty years about the problematic nature of the Colston statue. With the necessary hindsight, its launching seems like a last resort in the face of the deafness of the authorities, in an international context of exacerbated tensions.

Also known for its past as a slave port, the city of Liverpool has made undeniable progress in terms of memorialization, with the opening in 2007 of the International Slavery Museum, a unique institution of its kind in Europe. But initiatives remain timid in terms of making the slave past visible in the urban landscape, which is entirely “shaped by white supremacy” (p. 83); as in Bordeaux or Le Havre, for example, many streets bear the names of shipowners involved in the triangular trade, without this being the subject of commentary (plaques, signs). To date, no monument or memorial has been built, and it remains possible for a resident or tourist to walk around certain emblematic sites of the slave trade without knowing anything about their history.

In the shadow of the Founding Fathers

The former plantations of the American South, which attract tens of thousands of visitors from around the world each year, also bear witness to the difficulty of truly confronting slavery in places that would not exist if human beings had not been exploited and abused there for decades. Certainly, we are far from the vision that prevailed a century ago, at the height of the myth of the Lost Cause, when the sordid reality of slavery was at best euphemized, at worst erased. At Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation, some of the buildings where slaves lived have been rebuilt, and a memorial has been erected in what once served as a cemetery; since 2016, the exhibition “ Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon ” is offered to the public. The visit to Mount Vernon, however, remains focused on the opulent home of George and Martha Washington, which visitors are invited to visit as a priority, and according to a restricted itinerary. The question of slavery is not addressed there. As for the one-hour guided tour entitled ” The Enslaved People of Mount Vernon “, it is not included in the entrance ticket (which is expensive, since Mount Vernon is a private entity): you have to pay a supplement to be able to participate. Slavery is in fact “disconnected” from other aspects of the history of the site (p. 143).

Similarly, many of the representations that are supposed to evoke the memory of the men, women, and children enslaved by the Founding Fathers and restore some of their individuality perpetuate the very patterns they seek to subvert. At the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DCwe find an imposing statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of a brick wall: on each of the bricks is the name of one of the people enslaved by the author of the Declaration of Independence on the Monticello plantation. Not only is the meaning of this installation not obvious because the names are so difficult to read, notes Araujo, but the device pushes the men and women whose memory it is about to honor into the background, making the oppressor the focal point of the work.

Slavery at the museum

The same ambiguities are found in other museums, particularly French ones, which have made room for the issue of slavery. After tracing the history of the memorialization of slavery in France, from the centenary of its abolition in 1948 to the Taubira law in 2001, Araujo offers two tours through the Nantes History Museum (in the Château des ducs de Bretagne) and the Aquitaine Museum in Bordeaux. The dual approach of the Nantes History Museum seems fruitful: several rooms are devoted to the place of the former slave port in the transatlantic slave trade and colonial trade, but specific signage draws attention to the works and objects which, elsewhere in the collections, highlight the city’s slave-owning past. The pitfall of “disconnection” is thus avoided. The museum, however, struggles to convey the experience of slaves in all its complexity: we learn more about the physical abuse inflicted on them than about the attempts at rebellion or the ways in which their capacity for decision and action was exercised. The “perspective of enslaved subjects” is lost sight of, and nothing is said about the contemporary legacies of slavery in Nantes (p. 104). Araujo makes a similar observation about the Musée d’Aquitaine: the memory of the slave trade and slavery on display there “remains that of the elites of Bordeaux,” and despite some attempts in this direction, the museum “does not fundamentally disrupt the supremacist narrative associating the city’s past greatness with its slave-trading activities” (p. 112).

This is an essential lesson of Slavery in the Age of Memory : the memorialization of slavery is not just a matter of revealing and highlighting what was previously invisible. A demanding memorial policy cannot do without a reflection on the modes of representation, involving, among others, artists concerned with these issues, to whom Araujo devotes the last chapter of his book. It also involves the active participation of those, descendants of slaves, who are intimately concerned by this history. In this respect, the statue of Modeste Testas, located on Quai des Chartrons in Bordeaux, is an original and important marker. Inaugurated in 2019, this monument created by the young Haitian sculptor Woodly Caymitte (known as Filipo) skillfully subverts the codes of urban statuary, by depicting a woman rather than a man, and by freeing itself from the pedestal on which so many statues have been erected, now toppled. Modeste Testas, an African woman sold to two Bordeaux merchants and deported to Santo Domingo at the end of the XVIIIe century, appears erect – and not kneeling or prostrate as is the case in the visual culture of slavery and abolitionism –, draped in a scarf that she holds with one hand – and not half-naked –, her gaze raised towards the horizon. The chains of slavery are there, but thrown at her feet, visible only in a second moment. Fully inscribed in the city, the statue neither victimizes nor heroizes its subject, but represents Modeste Testas “in all her humanity” and dignity (p. 112).

Rich in the material it covers, Ana Lucia Araujo’s book curiously ignores overseas territories, where alternative representations of slavery have existed for a long time (statues of Louis Delgrès or the mulatto Solitude in Guadeloupe), and where it is now the statues of white abolitionists that are falling, as we saw in the spring. The ACTe Memorial in Pointe-à-Pitre is also not mentioned in the chapter on museums. Slavery in the Age of Memory remains nonetheless an essential work for anyone interested in memory issues. It provides a critical, but always informed, look at a memory still largely caught in the nets of racism that slavery engendered.