Remembrance of the slave trade: a stepping stone towards equality for Black people in Europe

On the 23rd of August we celebrated the International Day for the remembrance of the slave trade and its abolition. Beyond “mere” commemorations, what’s at stake for European societies or, put differently, why does remembrance become such a hot topic when it’s about the fate of Black ethnic minorities and People of African descent in Europe?
Is it a prejudice to say that French intellectuals have a special gift for crafting concepts that generate deep debates which we most likely would not even have thought about, had those philosophers not been there to point them out?
A typical example of this is the issue of “concurrence mémorielle” (which could be translated as ‘remembrance contest’) – in the context of remembering some of history’s darkest chapters in the hope of avoiding a repetition of similar mistakes now or in the future.
It is also well known that collective memories – on which commemoration and remembrance ceremonies are based – are social constructs. Their instutionalisation results, among other things, from power relationships between competing interest groups and communities over time.
It took more than twenty years after the end of WWII for Jewish and anti-racist activists to get European societies to recognise the Holocaust as a pivotal event in mankind’s history, worthy of commemoration in the hope that the industrial genocide of a whole people would never ever happen again. More than twenty years! It crystallised when the surviving witnesses of this tragedy began to pass away and at a time when memories were already fading.
70 years down the line, the remembrance of the genocide of Roma and Sinti during the same war (Porajmos) has still not gained full legitimacy. Consequently, it is not self-evident for many Europeans to connect the violence faced by Roma communities throughout Europe today with the tragic outcomes of racism they faced during WWII. It goes without saying that this has a severe impact on majority population’s degree of acceptance of expressions of anti-Roma sentiment. Disappointingly but unsurprisingly, their response to anti-Gypsism is rather lenient in general.
The claim for remembrance and apology for the slave trade emerged just over a decade ago and has been increasingly gaining ground in public discourses in Western European societies. And it’s no coincidence that the term “concurrence mémorielle” was coined around that time – or at least started to proliferate – in public discourses.
From an activist anti-racist perspective, it says a lot about European societies and their uneasy relationship with anything to do with being Black or African.
The commemorations of the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide have increasingly gained ground within the remits of the “politically thinkable” (to hijack some of Mohammed Arkoun’s concepts) without any credible voice raising the issue of “concurrence mémorielle”. It is therefore revealing that European societies can suddenly no longer cope with the various memories of their multiple communities when the remembrance and the request for apology (not to even mention compensation) for the slave trade is the topic of discussion.
The idea that potential “concurrence mémorielle” could be a danger for the cohesion of European societies actually seeks to undermine the validity of such a claim supported by Black ethnic minority people, People from African descent, and many anti-racist NGOs throughout Europe from the outset. It undermines and, as a consequence, marginalises the issue and its proponents outside the realms of legitimate political debates and policymaking – subtle but efficient.
Insisting on the need for remembrance is therefore a political statement against the implicit hierarchisation of memories, and for the right to be part of universal history fully as a subject and not only as an object, and against the implicit hierarchisation of suffering between communities. It is therefore a clear rejection of the divisive feelings that such a concept instils between communities.
Yes, I am personally convinced that European societies are strong and bold enough to take all the memories of their communities on board because they do not in fact compete against one another, but rather challenge the majority narrative about European identity, values, cultures, dominant history telling, etc. If European societies would decide to take on this challenge upfront, European history and collective memory would be enriched by the contributions of the hundreds of communities and subgroups – recently established or not – in Europe.
But beyond this, remembrance and commemoration of the slave trade are only a stepping-stone on the long road to racial equality in Europe.
Indeed, too often, the impact of slavery on the construction of Black people in European mentalities is overlooked. It is the only human group who was declared to be without a soul by the highest Christian authorities of the time in order to circumnavigate the moral condemnation entailed by trading human beings – theologically born equal in God – except if one is not fully human.
By doing so, religious authorities actively participated in de-humanising an entire group of people. As a result, 150 years after the abolition of the slave trade, Black people are still perceived and constructed as second class citizens in European societies and seen as not being fully human – not necessarily at conscious level, but certainly in deep layers of the substructures of European cultures (see E.T. Hall for an exploration of this concept). [1]
This negation of Africans’ and Black people’s humanity continues to have a detrimental impact on Black ethnic minority people and people of African descent even in trivial daily interactions. For instance, when (White) Europeans take public transport and automatically, without even thinking about it, unconsciously choose not to sit next to a Black person, but rather next to a White person if offered the possibility.
Hundreds of years of dealing with Black people as if they were less human than White people have resulted in a deeply ingrained distrust, fear and rejection of Black people – the intensity of which varies from one individual to the other, depending on the context, the specific history of the area, etc. But it’s no exaggeration to state that no White European has been left unimpacted in his/her deepest self by this dramatic history of domination – anti-Black prejudices have been planted extremely deeply.
Black people trying to raise awareness about this situation and the racism they face daily – when they feel comfortable or courageous enough to dare – are mostly confronted with a complete lack of understanding from their White European counterparts for whom racism means violent behaviours. They therefore fail to perceive the presence and impact of this ingrained, structural, cultural racism against Black people in our societies.
Interestingly, many think that since the slave trade has been banned, European societies have moved on – forgetting that colonialism followed, introducing other (more or less subtle) forms of domination and power relationships between White and Black people. Most people don’t know that their parents or grandparents might even have visited a human zoo showcasing specimens of the “good savages” of “our colonies” a few decades ago. The over 2 million visitors of the last human zoo showcased in Paris were instructed not to throw food at the exposed “natives” as they were taken care of by the zoo authorities. In these outrageous places, the ideology of the hierarchy of races and the “natural” domination and supremacy of the White over the Black was enacted, given to be seen, felt, tested and internalised by the average White man on the street.
Strangely enough, most young people are unaware that such massive de-humanising exhibitions took place only two generations ago. Maybe as a result of late humanist guilt, obliteration of the existence of such abominations is now prevailing with a double perverse effect: it prevents from understanding and remembering how Western European societies came to organise such events on the one hand, but also from addressing the massive psychological impact – at the level of a whole society and its descendants – of attending such exhibitions, via sound debates and relevant educational practices.
Such a long history of de-humanisation, domination, minimisation, and exclusion, leading to ongoing racism and discrimination, has its roots in the slave trade. Remembrance and commemoration are therefore crucial steps on the long road leading to the recognition of its impact on the shaping of century-old negative cultural and social representations of Black people and People of African descent in European societies. Such recognition will help us to move beyond victimisation and towards healing and social and economic justice for all.
[1] Incidentally, but that could be the topic of another blog post as this is a side debate, this is where the backfire that a few chauvinistic Western intellectuals are trying to ignite by equating the European slave trade, the Arabic slave trade and the collaboration of a number of African individuals/groups/people in both trades with the view to deflect the responsibilities of European interests in dooming the future of Black ethnic minorities and Africans for centuries misses the point entirely. For the last two groups never theorised and applied the massive de-humanisation and subsequent inferiorisation of Africans and Black people, avoiding to some extent the disastrous impact this approach had in Europe, which was later even deepened by Darwinism – but that’s another story.

Published originally at: http://www.enargywebzine.eu/spip.php?article225&lang=en 

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