Re-branding the Trauma of Slavery, or How to Pacify the Masses with Sites of Memory

Re-branding the Trauma of Slavery, or How to Pacify the Masses with Sites of Memory

Olivette Otele (Bath Spa University)

Finding new ways to involve the population in memorial projects was at the heart of the Understanding Slavery Initiative. Commemorating that history was achieved through the re-branding of sites of memory in 2007 for the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. The aim was to present a narrative deemed acceptable to a greater number of people. However, inconsistencies in the discourse highlighted how difficult it was to represent a past that is traumatic for part of the population. It even transpired that sites of memory dedicated to transatlantic slavery have become tools to evade delving into contemporary issues such as the changing features of European identities and questions about discrimination and cultural diversity.

Historian Pierre Nora has explored sites of memory in his multi-volume work on the national memory of France (Les Lieux de mémoire, published in 4 volumes between 1984-92). Nora suggests that memory and history involve different conceptions of time. Memory evolves but shows signs of instability. For Nora, sites of memory are broad because they are ‘where memory crystallizes’ rather than a specific place. They include museums, monuments, fraternal orders, books, etc.

Nora’s enterprise was met with scepticism because, allegedly, whereas history seeks the “truth” to understand the world, memory is a postmodern creation that focuses on controversies. Like Nora, I suggest that memory can be a multi-faceted tool that allows us to dissect hegemonic discourses as well as minority discursive fields of resistance. Understanding the ways in which the history of slavery has been represented in public spaces might prove to be useful in a current climate characterised by xenophobic stances and fear.

Aristotle’s volume On Memory and Reminiscence argued that memory needs time to form and what helps us remember also triggers the way we keep on remembering. In The Unconscious Freud, for his part, highlighted the importance of repressed feelings. Memory of events becomes traces kept into the sub-conscious. Triggers can bring them back to the conscious mind. After European abolition in 1867, few academic books were written about British slavery until the 1920s. What triggered the need to remember that aspect of history?

In 2007, for the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, Britain focused on key British abolitionists mostly ignoring Caribbean involvement in emancipation. Since Tony Blair’s emphasis on multiculturalism and with David Cameron’s focus on “Our Island Story”, acts of remembrance seem to have become tools to pacify the masses by appearing to bring communities to work towards one unifying goal. Britain’s approach echoes that of France. For the 150th anniversary of French abolition in 1998, a statue of a free black man was erected in the city of Nantes. The statue was destroyed the night after it was unveiled. Nantes had to wait until 2012 to have a less controversial monument: a meditative route.

These examples raise questions: who decides which stories to tell in order to bind communities together? Nora contended that entrepreneurs of memory (elected leaders, communities, etc.), select, classify and discard what is deemed unimportant. Yet, it seems that the presence of certain sites of memory related to slavery on European soil expose them to abuse.

Let us consider the House of Slaves in Gorée Island, Senegal. The site has become an example of “trauma site of memory”. The island of Gorée contains cells where enslaved Africans were kept before being transported across the Atlantic Ocean in the 18th and 19th century. Gorée Island has also become a commemorative stop for US presidents. In 2003, George Bush could not help waging his “war on terror” with its anti-Muslim overtone in a country where an overwhelming majority of people are Muslims. While on visit in Gorée in 1998, Bill Clinton evoked slavery, but also bilateral collaborations that were, allegedly, to bring wealth to Americans and Africans. During Obama’s visit in 2013, US aid was criticized in favor of supposedly equal trading partnerships. These ‘back to Africa’ visits have also made Gorée a geopolitical terrain. Gorée’s new functions may have weakened its primary aim as a place of remembrance for those who were sold into slavery.

A less controversial site of memory could allow us to comprehend the articulation between memorialisation and multiculturalism. Canada’s links with Atlantic slavery is supposedly a success story that has been popularised by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Various studies showed how Beecher Stowe reproduced the racial stereotypes current at the time. The legacy of the novel is equally negative in popular culture. Being an “Uncle Tom” means being a black person who seeks white people’s approval to the point of subservience. Beecher Stowe’s novel was based on the true story of Josiah Henson, a runaway slave who found refuge in Canada. In 2007, I became the European collaborator for The Promised Land Project. It looked at the history of Black Canadians and their relationship with Europeans. I was surprised to discover that Henson’s home was now a heritage site called, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. From the autobiography to the novel then to a physical site, the memory of slavery has been kept alive despite the controversial question of representation and the negative connotation attached to Uncle Tom.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not part of the UNESCO Slave Route, but Goree Island is. Both places attract thousands of tourists every year thus qualifying as examples of the world cultural heritage. Slave tourism comes under the label “Thanatourism” (Dann and Seaton, 2002; Foley and Lennon, 2010). Scholars were concerned with ethical questions related to heritage politics: for example how could one make money out of atrocities? What about “the dissonant discourses” i.e. inconsistencies in the narratives? Whose history is told? Indeed, how can one promote Southern plantations’ architectural beauty while exposing the abuses of plantation life in the USA? Sites of remembrance constructed around a heritage project as defined by UNESCO, seem to have conferred an aura of respectability to each project thus rendering them efficient tools to soothe local populations and “thanatourists”. Paradoxically, sites of memory related to slavery tend to avoid questions about race and discrimination that are, however, considered to be part of the legacies of slavery.

Let us turn to a site of memory where questions of race and discrimination are more explicit: black bodies as sites of memory. French MP and Justice Minister Christiane Taubira spearheaded the law about France’s recognition of slavery as a crime against humanity (2001). In 2013, far right newspaper Minute showed a photograph of Taubira headlined: “Cunning like a monkey, Taubira has her ‘banana’ back”. To “have the banana” means to grin. The pun also equated Taubira to a monkey. Recently Front National politician, Leclere posted an image of Taubira on a Facebook page where a baby chimpanzee supposedly represented the MP at a tender age. The image also raised questions about racism and free speech in France. Magazine Charlie Hebdo, drew a cartoon showing a monkey with Taubira’s face. The cartoon was allegedly mocking the racists’ and the nation’s disproportionate focus on the slur.

The discussion was reminiscent of 18th century debate about the physical resemblance between black people and apes. For British historian Edward Long, Dutch physician Petrus Camper and later on the fathers of “scientific racism”, there was a correlation between apes and blacks and between facial measurements and attributes such as beauty and intelligence. 21st century debates about Taubira drew on a racist tradition that benefit from the cooperation of various institutions and intellectual communities to produce and spread specific forms of knowledge. Nowadays ,the debate about slave sites focuses mainly on competing memories about painful histories.

Let us conclude this idea of competing memories. Should we compare pain as liberally as controversial French comedian Dieudonne has done when referring both to the Holocaust and the Atlantic slavery? One tends to avoid comparing the pain of French people humiliated by Nazi soldiers during German occupation with the ordeal of men, women and children starved and executed in Dachau and Auschwitz. These comparisons blatantly deflect from the topic, which is the way the Nazi regime tried to erase a whole part of mankind. So, the answer to our previous question is that despite shared experiences of pain, be they at Buchenwald, Selma, Setif and Guelma, or less known My Trach (carried out in 1947 by the French army on Vietnamese villagers), the way we apprehend suffering is unique. That is the reason why each site of memory is important, not in order to pacify the masses but because each life does indeed matter.


Further Reading and References:
Eichstedt, Jennifer L. and Stephen Small 2002. Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums (Smithsonian Books).
Dann, Graham M. S. and A. V. Seaton 2002. , Slavery, Contested Heritage, and Thanatourism (Routledge).
Foley, Malcolm and John Lennon Dark Tourism (Cengage Learning, 2010).
Halbwachs, Maurice 1992. On Collective Memory (University of Chicago Press).
Ricoeur, Paul 2006. Memory, History, Forgetting (University of Chicago Press).


Olivette Otele is senior lecturer in History at Bath Spa University and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Her publications include ‘Resisting Imperial Governance in Canada: From Trade and Religious Kinship to Black Narrative Pedagogy in Ontario’ in Reid-Maroney, N., Wright, H and Ebanda De B’béri, B, eds. The Promised Land : History and Historiography of the Black Experience in Chatham-Kent’s Settlements and Beyond (University of Toronto Press, 2014), Histoire de l’esclavage britannique: Des origines de la traite aux premisses de la colonisation (Michel Houdiard, 2008) and Does Discrimination Shape Identity? Identity Politics and Minorities in the English-Speaking World and in France: Rhetoric and Reality (Routledge, 2011).

Image Credit: Bridgeman Education