Translating Slavery into Words
Why has slavery recently become the subject of intense and heavily mediatized public debates and initiatives? The collective memory of slavery, which, for a long time, did not exist or was insignificant, or even officially denied, gained momentum only in the 1990s. First promoted by civil society and activist initiatives, often publicized by the authorities, it has since turned global to the point of sometimes being hypermnesic.
When memory surfaces
During the summer of 2020, claims to memory even grew paroxysmal and triggered an iconoclastic shock wave. Following George Floyd’s death during a police check in Minneapolis and boosted by the US-born movement Black Lives Matter, a campaign was launched to dismantle or vandalize the statues of individuals associated with slavery, colonialism, or racism in the United States and Europe (United Kingdom, metropolitan France and French overseas departments, Italy, Belgium, and Portugal).
We therefore decided to question the past, starting from this current pressure and urgent demand, precisely because this liberation of “wounded memories”’, underpinned by indisputable stakes of justice and dignity, is entangled in an emotional relationship to history, hence caricatured or used to settle scores with a present time being interpreted as a mere repetition of the past.
In keeping with the historical approach, we wanted to forgo reductionism and simplistic interpretations and focus instead on the complexity of the phenomenon, by opposing facts to approximate interpretations and rigorous contextualisation to anachronism.
Back to History
Since the end of Atlantic slavery in the Americas (the last abolition, in Brazil, dates back to 1888), historians have been writing and rewriting the history of that institution, first seen as benevolent and paternalistic, then as violent structural exploitation. In these narratives, slaves were represented in turn as happy children, anonymous victims of oppression, or individuals capable of being active agents of their lives, and even of their own liberation.
Slavery has generated so much writing that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between representations and ideological exaggerations. Our glossary proposes an updated and documented synthesis. Despite its small size, it nevertheless aims at being fairly exhaustive. Based on a thoroughly renewed historiographical approach, it centers upon four key ideas.
First, beyond the shared situation of enslavement, we insist on the complexity of the world of slavery and on the great inequality of conditions. Depending on territories, time periods, or roles in the production process, situations were extremely diverse, a far cry from the accepted traditional imagery disseminated by literature and films.
What did slaves toiling on plantations or in mines have in common with skilled slaves enjoying a form of autonomy and able to save some money and even, sometimes, to purchase their own freedom? Or what did the ‘Bossale’, born in Africa and forced to perform the hardest chores, and the Creole or ladino, already far advanced in the process of acculturation (religion, language, social codes …) have in common? Incidentally, the extent of these hierarchies and divisions alone can account for the limited number of slave rebellions in American societies as a whole.
The second key idea, as opposed to the early historiography which postulated the impossibility of writing the slaves’ history, focuses on slaves as individuals. They are no longer perceived as mere cogs in a system but as historical subjects. Their agency enabled them to act and to devise strategies.
Despite oppressive circumstances, they were able to maintain their humanity, build lives, resist, and produce a specific culture. Hence, our particular focus on slaves’ daily lives, on families, on the gendered dimension of slavery, on the different modalities the enslaved devised for resisting the system (insurrections, running away, marooning…), as well as on the biographies of those women and men who achieved posterity, generally after a belated process of heroization.
Our third guiding line focuses on the Transamerican and Atlantic dimension of slavery, taking advantage of the new historiographic perspectives developed since the 1980s. The American colonies, previously studied only in relation to their respective metropoles, are now apprehended through inter-American relations, through the connections existing between the various colonies, and through the exchanges between the two sides of the Atlantic, in a global perspective that generates new meaning.
This accounts for our emphasis on the territories of the three continents involved in the slave system from the 16th to the 19th centuries: from the European commanding metropoles to the (Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English-speaking) American societies receiving the enslaved, through the African slave pool and the role African kingdoms played in the slave trade.
Fourth and last, the glossary focuses on contemporary issues. It highlights the place African Americans have in the societies of the Americas, on their cultural legacies, and on the memory of slavery.
These ‘black Americas’, cherished by Roger Bastide, share a lot of common characteristics, as highlighted by the comparative method we have adopted throughout our study. On the one hand, the majority of Afro-descendants occupy a low-ranking position in all of them and have been subjected to more or less vicious forms of discrimination, including legal segregation which was the rule in much of the United States until the 1960s.
On the other hand, since the second half of the 20th century, black activist movements have developed on the American continent, although much more recently and in weaker forms in Latin America than in the United States, where institutional segregation, generally reinforced by a ban on interracial marriages, hardly left any escape from the black condition.
The second common characteristic underlined in our glossary is that all the New World societies have been enriched, at various levels and in many fields, by African American cultural contributions. We can cite, among others, the African linguistic legacy still present in all the continental creole languages; the vitality of the Afro-Latino-American literature and, still more, of the Afro-North-American one; the carnivals celebrated throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, Louisiana, and even French-speaking Canada. African Americans have set in motion all these cultural spheres and have remained the key actors of this specific culture.
One should also mention the African culinary contributions which are the cornerstone of the cuisine of the American South (Louisiana, South Carolina), of the Caribbean (Venezuela, Colombia), of Pacific Peru, and of the Brazilian Nord Este and Minas Gerais; or again, the major influence of African dances and sound which gained recognition and legitimacy right after the second World War, to the extent of being incorporated into ‘white’ music.
Last of all, one cannot neglect the three major African-born religious traditions introduced during the colonial period and which remain influential in the Americas. They evidence the slaves‘ amazing resilience against all odds, despite the permanent denial of their humanity. While Santería (Cuba) and Candomblé (Brazil) share many similarities stemming from their common Yoruba background, Voodoo (Haiti), deeply shaped by the Fon religion from Benin, has kept many of its specificities.
History: A Tool to Understand the Present
In our glossary, we have paid careful attention to the current memorial ferment, present throughout the continent in a variety of forms. Whether in the Americas or in Europe and, to a lesser degree, in Africa, it has led to an explosion of “lieux de mémoire”. These topographic, monumental, or symbolic memorials showcase the tragedy of enslavement and/or celebrate slaves’ resistance and cultural contributions to American societies.
Following UNESCO’s pioneering initiatives for an “International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition,” in 1998, similar remembrance days have been established almost everywhere. As early as 1983, France adopted a law commemorating the abolition of slavery and establishing a public holiday in its overseas territories.
In 2006, the 10th of May was declared a “National Day of Memory for the slave trade, slavery, and their abolition”. In another form, the Taubira law, named after its proponent and adopted in 2001, pioneered in characterizing the slave trade in the Indian Ocean and slavery perpetrated since the 15the century in Europe, the Indian Ocean, the Americas, and the Caribbean as “a crime against humanity”.
Since 2000, the Netherlands has also commemorated every year the abolition of slavery in their former colonies of Surinam and the Dutch Caribbean. In the United States, Harriet Tubman Day has been officially held every 10 March since 1990 and, since 1976, the country has officially instituted the month of February as the Black History Month, a tradition initiated in the early 20th century. The United Kingdom, Canada, and the Republic of Ireland have followed suit. In February 2020, for the very first time, seven African countries celebrated an African American History Month.
It is in Latin America, however, that the memory of the African legacy is the most important, particularly in Brazil. In this subcontinent, the International Afro-descendant Women’s Day has been celebrated every 25 July since 1992.
These memorials, and many others, are to be found in our glossary. Without straying from the scientific method, we aimed to establish a close relation between past and present, so as to provide our readers with a more adequate vision of the slave past of the New World nations. We also meant to help the readers better understand and interpret the increasing number of memorial initiatives.
Although we have not been able to address as many of the issues as we wanted to, our hope is that our glossary will at least help readers understand the complexity of a system which has defined the Americas over four centuries and perpetually affects their history and memory.
Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: all rights reserved Adèle Huguet.
Image credits in CC : Flaticon Freepik, Pongsakorn Sarunsatta
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Nathalie Dessens et Richard Marin (2022, 24 octobre). Translating Slavery into Words. Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 22 février 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/u9lq