The confrontation with France’s slave past

A visit to a museum in a French port city, brings up questions about how slavery is remembered.

Michael B. Jordan plays Killmonger in "Black Panther" (Still from Black Panther via Marvel/Disney).

In one of Black Panther’s memorable scenes, Erik Killmonger, the cousin of Wakanda’s new king, views an exhibition of African art at a fictitious British museum. When the guide describes the mask in a glass case as Beninois, the film’s anti-hero objects, corrects her, questions the museum’s display of stolen objects, and eventually rescues the artifact from its colonial captivity. It is a scene that crosses my mind every time I visit a European museum, which I did several times this summer. While the fraught history of museums is being addressed through initiatives to decolonize museums, my experience at three different European museums was a reminder of the tremendous amount of work left to be done. Even museums that have launched expensive initiatives to re-frame their colonial heritage from a more critical perspective are complicit in performing erasure, lacking context, and making a spectacle of suffering. In the midst of debates about the re-institution and repatriation of African art, these exhibitions put the problems with memorialization of a violent and traumatic past on prominent display.

At the Aquitaine Museum in Bordeaux, which re-opened earlier this year after a ten year renovation project, slavery is acknowledged primarily as the source of economic wealth for the French port city. The enslaved people whose lives were sacrificed to amass this wealth are mere lifeless objects. The section in the first of four rooms trumpets the “black presence” in Bordeaux. Portraits of mixed race people of color include a paintings of an enslaved woman with a white child. As Denise Murrell’s groundbreaking exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, Le modèle noir, brought into great relief, black subjects have been rendered invisible in paintings throughout art history. These paintings depicting life for the Bordelais bourgeoisie are certainly no exception. The enslaved people in the frame of the painting function as objects signaling the wealth of their owners. No details about their identities are included.

Among the artifacts presented are replicas of ships, maps of colonial Saint-Domingue and the French Antilles, shackles for hands, necks and ankles. These objects evoke the violence of slavery without calling it into question. Much of the exhibition focuses on the commercial aspects of the transatlantic slave trade, emphasizing slavery as first and foremost linked to capital. The written descriptions are especially troubling. For example, the continued use of “la traite nègriere,” which translates from French to the “trade of Negroes.” This repetition is dissonant with concerted contemporary efforts to use “enslaved people” rather than “slaves” as a way to center the humanity of the victims of the slave trade.

Another description reads:

The triangular trade involved the shipping of products to the African countries where they were exchanged for slaves. Nearly a hundred different products were in demand in Africa, including cotton cloth, silk, bar iron, manufactured goods, guns, ammunition, alcohol, cowry shells (used as a form of currency) and tobacco. The slaves were then sold or bartered in the American colonies in exchange for colonial products—sugar, tobacco, indigo, cotton, etc—which were shipped back to Europe and sold.

Missing from the text is how the products were procured—through the devastating labor of the enslaved people forced to work on the plantations in the Caribbean. The absence of this connecting point emblematizes the erasure that the museum repeatedly performs.

There are also several references to slavery as a common practice with a long history that dates back to medieval times, as well as its widespread use on the African continent. As one student and I discussed, the plaques with these descriptions operate as implicit disclaimers seeking to justify the French involvement in the slave trade. Furthermore, that no distinctions are made regarding how slavery was transformed because of racism undermines any efforts to honor the descendants of the slave trade.

Another disturbing feature is a short film documenting scenes of the enslaved Africans being forced onto a ship’s hold, where the captives remained in inhumane conditions while enduring the Middle Passage.

While some French scholars have argued that the changes in the museum have been appreciated by people of African and Antillean descent who are pleased “to see their history on display,” for me and my students the encounter and non-encounters with the slave trade were remedial at best, and often jarring.

Overall, the Aquitaine Museum was a huge disappointment. Still, the questions that the Aquitaine Museum introduced are worth taking seriously. In the midst of a French debate over the “restitution of patrimony” and the need to return objects taken under colonial rule back to their countries of origin, how should the history of enslaved people be accounted for? What does the repatriation of objects held in museums mean for the descendants of people who were also held captive, first in ships then on plantations? As Crystal Fleming points out in her book Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France, part of the difficulty of grappling with this racial past is that it must be done in the context of a French society that purports to be color-blind. As the lived experience of racism that Black- and Arab-French people continuously decry attests, France’s color-blind ethos is at best a myth and at worst a pernicious cover-up.

In Noirs d’Aquitaine: Voyage au Coeur d’une presence invisible, Bordeaux-based academic Mar Fall examines the black past and present in order to ask questions about the future. Throughout the book he interviews a number of Black Bordelais scholars, activists, politicians, and civilians on the question of blackness in the port city. In my view, the hope that he expresses in the conclusion for people to be “libres d’envisager leur present et leur future dans le monde” [free to imagine their present and future in the world] begins with confronting the past. As it is today, the Musée d’Aquitaine is an example of what it looks like when that confrontation barely scratches the surface.

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