EUROTAST went to Paris for its third network training initiative the intersections between science, concepts of race and the representation of slavery and its legacies. This collaborative event was hosted by the Alliance Française and organized by the Centre International de Recherches sur les Esclavages (CIRESC), in collaboration with the Unité de Recherches “Migrations et Société” (URMIS) and Mondes Américains (UMR 8168). The overall objective of the programme was to focus on the history of and legacies of racial categorization, and explore its implications for human genetic research linked to African people and their descendants in the transatlantic Diaspora. Furthermore the programme sought to reflect on public understandings of race and the memorialization of slavery through cultural heritage.
I. Symposium: “Recasting Categories: Race, Ancestry, Belonging”
The first day of the programme was dedicating to exploring inherited racial categories and understanding the complex ways in which they have been incorporated into concepts of identity, citizenship and belonging. The morning programme, which was closed for fellows, was led by Myriam Cottias (CIRESC), Véronique Boyer (Mondes Américains) and Odile Hoffmann (URMIS); and addressed these themes through anthropological historiographies and case studies discussing categorisation systems used in the French Caribbean, Amazonia, Brazil and Belize.
EUROTAST fellows Marcela Sandoval Velasco (a geneticist) and Sarah Abel (an anthropologist) also presented their own work as a case study for highlighting the ways in which cultural categorisation and identification is often at odds with biological investigations into ancestral origins in the field of genetics. This overall discussion was complimented by a group exercise for fellows on language, which sought to unpick the meanings and contemporary relevance of racialised terminology and their implications on scholarship connected to the history of the African Diaspora.
The afternoon programme was an open session and provided the public with an opportunity to engage with these issues through presentations from invited speakers. Jean-Luc Bonniol (Université Paul-Cézanne Aix-Marseille 3) and Pierre Darlu (Centre National de Recherches Scientifiques) together reflected on the ways in which genetic ancestry testing and research is being used to authenticate ties of cultural kinship and narrate biological memory. Anne-Marie Losonczy (Université Libre de Bruxelles) explored the stratification of ethnic communities in Colombia and the ways in which they are ordered in the context of nationhood – according to land rights, community, language and historical trauma. Patrick Abungu (National Museum of Kenya) and Samuel Nyanchoga (Catholic University of Eastern Africa) widened the discussion to the legacies of slavery in East Africa, linking the history and its physical memorialisation on the coast (for example at the Shimoni slave caves) with its complex implications for the descendants of enslaved people who struggle to proclaim autonomous Kenyan identity and citizenship because of the stigma attached to the status of their ancestors.
The symposium concluded with a poignant presentation by Dr Emmanuel Gordien, who spoke about the work of the community-focussed organisation Comité marche du 23 mai 1998; (CM98), which has sought to research and memorialise the histories and contributions of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the French Antilles. In particular Gordien narrated the process of developing a traveling memorial which has provided Antillians in France the opportunity to trace their genealogies on various islands using family names found in archival records by volunteer researchers.
2. Film Festival and Lecture: “Slaveries, Trades, and Their Heritages”
The second day of the programme was comprised of two aspects. The first part of the day was dedicated to the screening of several research documentaries by French and Brazilian filmmakers and anthropologists. Their themes included the relationship between memory and oral tradition, and the nature of Afro-Brazilian identity among African descendant communities in Rio de Janeiro. Two Brazilian films in particular were the subject of a public discussion led by historian Professor Jean Hébrard and included EUROTAST fellows. “Passados Presentes. Memoria negra no sul fluminense” by Hebe Mattos and Martha Abreu used the oral recollections from the descendants of enslaved Africans on a former plantation in Rio de Janeiro to tell the little-known history of African life and experiences after emancipation.“Mémoires périphériques” by Francine Saillant and Jacques d’Adesky, reconstructed the historical memory of a small town on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro using the photographs of children and testimonials from community residents who described their community both in terms of collectivity and economic exile. These voices framed a wider dialogue about the African freedom struggle in Brazil and the challenges of continuing political activism around equalities for the new generation of Black Brazilians.
The day’s themes were tied together in the evening keynote lecture on “Caribbean Slavery” given by historian Professor Phillip Morgan. The lecture provided a critical historical overview, which detailed the nuances of the slave trade in the Caribbean from 1st generation Native American slavery in the 16th century, through plantation slavery, to the manifestations of slavery in urban centres. The lecture spoke across the range of cultures in the Caribbean, highlighting the economic and social distinctions between islands and the unique influences of their European colonisers. Professor Morgan also demonstrated the ways in which island topographies and their cultivated products (Coffee, Sugar, Spices, Cotton, Indigo, Mahogany etc.) impacted the labour experiences of enslaved Africans in distinctive ways.
3. Visit to the Mémorial de l’abolition de l’esclavage in Nantes
The Paris programme concluded with a day trip for fellows to Nantes – the former epicentre of the French slave trade – where they explored the ways in which the history of slavery has been embedded into the city’s heritage landscape. The day began with a guided tour of the Musée de Bretagne, which tells the history Nantes as a fortified city and port of trade. The museum narrative included a large display on the French slave trade and contained unique and rare artefacts. Our visit coincided with the national commemorative activities for the abolition of slavery and therefore fellows were also introduced to museological and teaching techniques for representing this history to school groups, educators and the general public. The museum visit was followed by a tour of the city where fellows were shown how the history of slavery can be found in the remaining architecture and overall topography of the environment.
The walking tour culminated in a visit to the Mémorial de l’abolition de l’esclavage, which is the largest memorial of its kind in Europe. Commissioned in 1998 for the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in France, and inaugurated in March 2012, the memorial has become a touchstone for discussions about the part played by Nantes, and by France in general, in the transatlantic slave trade. Situated on the city’s old slaving port, this important visit provided a physical experience that encouraged fellows to think critically about the personal and political processes involved in remembering of slavery in the heart of old colonial metropolises.