Teaching and Commemorating Slavery and Abolition in France: From Organized Forgetting to Historical Debates

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 11:30 AM
Room 310 (Hynes Convention Center)
Nelly Schmidt , CNRS, and Université Paris IV-Sorbonne, Paris, France
After the abolition of slavery in the French colonies in 1848, forgetting and deliberated orientation characterized the memory of slavery in France. During the second half of the nineteenth century, a series of historical, political and economic myths were built (many of them alive today) obstructing a clear perception of historical facts and phenomena. This paper analyzes the different ways used during the twentieth century until today, to develop a specific teaching of slavery and its abolitions in France and its former colonies. The paper argues that teaching and commemorations were used to convey memory, becoming efficacious pillars of colonial propaganda. This orientation became a heavy burden for teaching programs, media and commemoration activities. The gap between historical research results and what is transmitted by the media and the school system is still wide. This paper is divided in two parts. The first part revisits the policy of forgetting and its consequences, by presenting the main characteristics of teaching and colonial propaganda until the 1950s. The second part analyzes the links between the past and the state of the memory of slavery in France today, including teaching, and the numerous commemoration activities as well as the impacts of UNESCO's “Slave Route” project. This analysis will allow the comparison between the French, European and international contexts. Between history and memory, today the transmission of scientific knowledge and the historical debates about the subject reveal persisting confusions, mistakes and “amalgamations.”
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