BETWEEN RESISTANCE AND THE STATE: Caribbean Activism and the Invention of a National Memory of Slavery in France

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Author: Itay Lotem
Date: Summer 2018
From: French Politics, Culture and Society(Vol. 36, Issue 2)
Publisher: Berghahn Books, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 9,275 words
Lexile Measure: 1710L

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ABSTRACT: Between 1998 and 2006, the memory of slavery in France developed from a marginalized issue into a priority of the state. This article examines the process in which community activists and state actors interacted with and against one another to integrate remembrance and the commemoration of slavery and its abolitions into a Republican national narrative. It focuses on a series of actions from the protests against the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in 1998 to the creation of the 10 May National Memorial Day to Slavery and Its Abolitions in 2006. Basing its analysis on oral history interviews and various publications, this article argues that "memory activists"--and particularly new anti-racist groups--mobilized the memory of slavery to address issues of community identity and resistance within the context of twenty-first-century republicanism. In so doing, they articulated a new kind of black identity in France.

KEYWORDS: abolition, anti-racism, blackness, colonialism, memory, republicanism, slavery

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In June 2014, the newly appointed president of the Comite national pour la memoire et l'histoire de l'esclavage (CNMHE), Myriam Cottias, spoke about the organization's history and future plans in an oral history interview. For her, one of the most pressing goals of this state organization was to direct the growing interest in the commemoration of the history of slavery away from the "simplification ... of memory" to the "complexity of history." She believed that "cette phase de la memoire s'est achevee et les gens maintenant veulent de l'histoire. Il faut bien aussi que ca se normalise."1 This view represented a growing concern of French state actors that the recent politicization of memory--and the memory of slavery in particular--had fractured French society and given too much space for particular group identities. Indeed, from the late 1990s into the 2000s, the struggles of Caribbean activists turned the national conversation toward France's involvement in the enslavement of Africans. The development of a memory culture about slavery (2) was thus (re-)becoming a defining feature of the relationship between the French state and Africanheritage communities living in the Hexagone. (3)

This article examines the national debate and increased politicization of the memory of the slave trade in French public discourse. In particular, it explores how grassroots associations and state actors interacted to integrate the memory of slavery and its abolitions into France's national postcolonial narrative through a series of actions from the protests against the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in 1998 to the creation of the 10 May National Memorial Day to Slavery and Its Abolitions in 2006. It studies these interactions within the context of the emergence of a new type of "memory activism" in France, where new activist groups focused their struggle on achieving official state recognition of their particular narratives. In so doing, they redefined the meaning of community identity and resistance within the context of twenty-first-century republicanism. This particular case illustrates the way new anti-racist groups mobilized the memory of slavery to articulate a new kind of black identity in France.

This article therefore...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A556229995