Edinburgh Centre for Global History

Mapping Memories of Slavery: Commemoration, Community and Identity in Contemporary France

This project examines how activist groups and cultural institutions located in France and its overseas departments are engaging with the history and memory of the transoceanic slave trades.

The project focuses predominantly, but not exclusively, on the responses of black communities living within the French Republic, who might be seen as part of a broader African diaspora whose ancestral history can be traced through slavery. The project aims to map the activist networks through which these communities are able to construct complex and creative responses that engage culturally and politically with the afterlives of the history of slavery and the slave trade.

Project dates

January 2013-ongoing

Aims and objectives

The primary aims of this project are:

  • To understand how post-colonial identities and memories are being constructed in multi-ethnic communities across the French Republic through links to the slave past.
  • To explore how emerging demands to recognize these identities are connected to social justice movements at local, national and international levels.

This research project is structured around a number of key themes, including:

  • Minority Identities in Diaspora: It examines the problematic construction of minority identities (particularly black diasporic identities) within a French republican context that remains broadly hostile to the idea of multiculturalism (pejoratively redefined as communalism).
  • Community: It not only considers how identities are being constructed within and beyond the nation state, but also how new communities and imaginaries of belonging are being constructed along alternative lines of transnational solidarity and through emerging social movements.
  • Human Rights and Transitional Justice: It engages with discourses of human rights and transitional justice by exploring the limits of the state’s commemorative and memorial activities and the demands for more radical forms socio-political change to promote ethic diversity and social equality.
  • Commemoration and Memorialization: It compares the different approaches taken by national and regional governments, cultural institutions and activist groups to the commemoration and memorialization of the history of slavery and the slave trade within the French Republic.
  • Memory and Identity: It questions the usefulness and possibility of constructing a ‘shared’ memory of slavery (in accordance with the republican model of universalism) and examines approaches to memory that both support and challenge French national narratives.

As such, ‘Mapping Memories of Slavery’ engages with the multiple forms of discrimination and disadvantage that continue to affect black communities living in the French Republic. By examining and comparing these multiple activities and their differing methods of approaching the slave past, this project sketches out a map that privileges the voices of activists and other committed individuals and communities. These voices speak as much about the past as they do about the challenges of constructing a meaningful post-colonial identity within and beyond the French Republic.

Outputs

The primary outputs for this project are designed for both academic and public audiences and users. The project has already produced a journal article in Modern & Contemporary France on reparations for slavery and a co-edited collection entitled At the Limits of Memory: Legacies of Slavery in the Francophone World (2015) . A monograph is due to be published in 2017. The project is also connected to a bilingual website (launch date: October 2015) that will provide an interactive map of political activism and cultural engagement across the French Republic. Finally, a government report will be submitted to the Comité National pour la Mémoire et l’Histoire de l’Esclavage (National Committee for the Memory and History of Slavery). The project is also connected to a forthcoming networking event on ‘Repairing the Past, Imagining the Future: Reparations and Beyond… ’ (5–7 November 2015), which is being organized in collaboration with Wheelock College, Boston, US, and sponsored by the Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies.

Acknowledgements

This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) under the Leadership Fellows Programme (grant reference: AH/L003937/2).