Commemorating a Guilty Past: The Politics of Memory in the French Former Slave Trade Cities

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 12:10 PM
Room 310 (Hynes Convention Center)
Renaud Hourcade , CRAPE-CNRS, Université de Rennes, Rennes, France
For now a couple of decades, the memory of transatlantic slavery has become a subject of social practices and political debates in the French former slave trade cities. Putting an end to an era of uncomfortable “amnesia,” Nantes and Bordeaux have decided to “cope” with the past, organizing memory events, building museum and memorials. Local associations involving people of African or Caribbean origin have struggled for years against the silence that surrounded this page of both cities' history, asking Nantes and Bordeaux to officially acknowledge their role at the forefront of the European slave trade, and advocating the erection of public monuments dedicated to this history. If Nantes was among the first cities in Europe to launch an official policy of memory related to this history, Bordeaux remained silent until very recent times. A major difficulty for these two cities is their particular perspective as “perpetrators.” How to set up a consensual commemoration of slavery and slave trade in this context? How to manage guilt and the fear for stigmatization? What finally decided the cities to break the longstanding “public amnesia”? Those questions can be answered through an analysis of both cities' collective memory devices. The new display of Bordeaux's city museum, Nantes older exhibition rooms on the slave trade and the running project of a big memorial as well as both cities' official commemorations of slavery must be compared and interpreted. Looking closely how each city emphasizes specific aspects of the transatlantic slave trade reveals the political stakes linked to this memory in the present. Discrimination and citizenship are among the major ones.
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