Alyssa Sepinwall's picture

*X-Post from H-France*

Nicola Frith and Kate Hodgson, eds., At the Limits of Memory: Legacies of Slavery in the Francophone World [Francophone Postcolonial Studies, New Series, Vol. 6]. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015. viii + 256 pp. Illustrations, notes and index. 75.00 UK (hb), $120.00 U.S. (hb). ISBN 9781781381595.

Reviewed by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall
Published on H-France Review 17 (March 2017), No. 48

As an American scholar of French slavery and memory, I have learned to be cautious in making small talk with white non-academics about my work, whether in the U.S. or in France. The gap between what Michel-Rolph Trouillot has called “historicity 1” (what happened) and “historicity 2” (what is said to have happened) is simply too great on the topic of slavery, which can prompt awkwardness or far worse.[1]

And yet… when I visited Liverpool in 2013, I realized I was not in Kansas (or any other U.S. state) anymore. My cab driver drew me into conversation about what had brought me to his city. At first he assumed that I was a typical American visitor, on pilgrimage to the lieux de mémoire of John, Paul, George and Ringo. But he switched gears easily when I explained that I was in Liverpool for a conference at the International Museum of Slavery. Speaking in ways I did not expect from gray-haired, working-class white men at home, he lamented that the beautiful buildings adorning his city had been built with blood money from the slave trade. Later, while sightseeing, I asked another white-haired gentleman for the names of the elegant buildings in front of me. After identifying them, he described the Gorée Warehouses that stood there previously. He spoke of their place in the slave trade, which he denounced passionately. What was this place? How was it possible that even white men of a certain age were conscious of--and volunteered their shame regarding--the role of slavery in their city’s prominence?

I have come to realize that the recovery of memory regarding slavery is more advanced in Great Britain than in the U.S. or in France, and that Liverpool is a particularly well-developed site in this memory explosion. In the last ten years, Liverpudlians have embraced the mission of acknowledging the dark parts of their city’s history alongside its glories. In Great Britain more generally, the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 prompted a flurry of exhibits and commemorations.[2] Certainly, France has acknowledged its history of slavery more since 2001, when the Taubira Law recognized slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity, than previously.[3] And in the United States, new scholarship, along with powerful depictions of slavery in recent films, has increased consciousness of slavery’s horrors. Nevertheless, neither country has acknowledged the centrality of slavery to its national past in the same way as Great Britain. In metropolitan France and its overseas departments and territories, despite the new museums and committees devoted to slavery, the topic is little taught in schools. In the United States, though slavery is acknowledged in curricula, there is neither a national day of remembrance nor a single government museum on slavery.[4]

It is therefore not surprising that Liverpool University Press--and those involved in its Francophone Postcolonial Studies series--have been on the cutting-edge of slavery and memory studies. With slavery’s memory well established in Liverpool and other British cities, the scholars involved in the Society for Francophone Postcolonial Studies can move beyond identifying silences and amnesias. Nearly a decade after the British bicentennial and fifteen years after the Taubira Law’s passage, they have also moved beyond cataloguing increases in the memorialization of slavery. Instead, they are able to consider limits and absences in how memories of slavery are being constructed. Rather than rehash existing arguments about silences in French colonial history, as the book’s title might suggest, Frith, Hodgson and their contributors thus offer fresh and fascinating approaches to the study of memory and slavery in the Francophone world. Though most of the volume’s contributors are British, the authors include two North Americans as well as two French pioneers in memory studies, Christine Chivallon and Françoise Vergès.

Read the rest of the review at: http://www.h-france.net/vol17reviews/vol17no48Sepinwall.pdf.