And what if that’s what we were always speaking about…?

Interview with Gerty Dambury and Bouabacar Boris Diop, by Sylvie Chalaye

Limoges, 1999
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The Guadaloupean Gerty Dambury, author of numerous plays, including Lettres indiennes, and the Senegalese novelist and script-writer Boubacar Boris Diop, who recently published Le Cavalier et son ombre, both participated in the « Liberté sur Parole » event organized by the Limoges Festival in 1998, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, during which both were commissioned to write a dramatic text about slavery. They – an West Indian and an African – chose to give this interview together.

The subject of slavery and the slave trade is very rarely addressed, or is even occluded or evaded, particularly in the theatre. Were you already tempted by this subject before taking part in the « Liberté sur Parole » project?
Boris Diop: My first novel, Le Temps de Tamango, which retraces a slave revolt on the western coast of Africa, and narrates both a military victory and a political defeat, is precisely about slavery. Having said that, I admit that the subject is not often dealt with in Africa. There are a number of reasons for this, including, probably, the victims’ difficulty in admitting their own faults, as one of the things about slavery is that you both are a victim and an accomplice at once. It’s quite a complex phenomenon, which is hard to deal with in black and white terms. After all, even though White people came to buy slaves, it was the Africans who sold them. From a historic point of view, the struggle for Independence after three centuries of colonization has forced us to select events which mobilized our forces from our History.
Hasn’t the Africans’ responsibility as collaborators been exaggerated, especially given that there have always been collaborators in all dramas? Hasn’t this African responsibility been exaggerated to lessen the Europeans’ guilt? We manage to convince people that they talk about the issue too much, when in fact they rarely speak about it at all.
Gerty Dambury: This is indeed something which is all the more obvious in this commemoration of the abolition of slavery. If you look at the way things are going, there is now an effort to shift the blame away from those primarily responsible, i.e. the white colonists, no matter which country they were from. As a result, the Africans’ initial collaboration has been accentuated in a certain number of events, including Spielberg’s film Amistad. This film is significant. It starts out with the Africans who sell their brothers, and ends up with the Whites freeing the Blacks. The effect this has on the reaction of the West Indians who see these films – West Indians used to a certain type of official discourse on Africa, notably France’s – is unstoppable: « I’m happy that they’ve show that it really was the Africans who sold us ». Negritude and the Afro-American movements tried to go beyond this discourse, and began a movement back towards Africa. Today, on the contrary, we are witnessing an inverse movement which, amongst a certain number of West Indian intellectuals, amounts to the negation of the part of Africa within each and every one of us, an openly embraced negation. They try to say today that we are different from the Africans, and that beyond slavery, we have an extraordinary, extravagant culture… which is again a way of separating the two families. Tidiane Ndiaye, a Senegalese author living in Guadeloupe, has carried out a fair amount of research, financed by the Guadeloupean Conseil Général, which compares slavery in Africa and slavery as it was practiced in the islands. It was impossible for the Africans who stayed in Africa to imagine what form slavery took across the Atlantic.
Boris Diop: Saying that the Africans share a degree of responsibility comes from a desire for intellectual honesty, and from a refusal of a certain kind of infantility. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the notion that the whole slave trade was our fault. I think that recognizing our responsibilities puts us in a more comfortable position morally to say to the West that they have the main share of the responsibility. But people try today to make Africans believe that, deep down, at the end of the day, everything that happened to them was well and truly their own fault. That’s a historical imposture.
There’s also nearly always a desire to relate discussion about the slave trade to contemporary phenomena. I was quite surprised in Liberté sur Parole, for example, to see that instead of revisiting History and undertaking the so very necessary process of memory, people skipped the issue, saying: « Right, let’s speak about contemporary slavery »…
Boris Diop: Exactly, exactly…
Gerty Dambury: In my text there are precisely two characters. One character, who is a shadow, a ghost, a former slave who comes back, and speaks to a character today. After a while he says to him: « It isn’t worth beating the drum to remind me again. For I have heard that there’s no way of going back, of speaking about the past again. So, I ask you to stop beating the drum. No point in reminding me again. » I was part of a group of a dozen people who signed a manifesto which says no to celebrating the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. But, you always get caught out… and I shouldn’t have wound up in this kind of event. At the same time, I realized that my voice was important at that time in order to say no to this masquerade, which consisted of confusing the slaveries, in order to say: « No, the little young servant girl in Paris at Mr So-and-So’s who isn’t allowed to go out, and who hasn’t got her passport, is not the same thing as all those people who were deported, whipped, tortured… It isn’t the same thing at all! »
It is sometimes claim that this subject is all the more easily evaded because there are no representations of it, because it is a tragedy with no images.
Gerty Dambury: I don’t agree with that. There are many dramas without images which we nonetheless easily accept. There are no images of the Armenian genocide, and that hasn’t stopped people speaking about it. In a way, we are not yet free of the idea that Blacks are not humans. Consequently, the notion of guilt has not been accepted, and the notion, amongst the victims, of the other’s guilt is not accepted either. Somewhere deep down in ourselves we continue to think of ourselves as inferior.
Do you think that an event such as Liberté sur Parole was a necessary excuse to get authors to write about the subject?
Boris Diop: Yes, it provided the initial impetus. But maybe we would have spoken without it, because deep down, that’s all we do, but not under such a narrow, such a closed angle.
Gerty Dambury: What interests me is touching our soul, that is, recalling that what you do today in your life comes from that. At one point in my text, the character from the present says to the other: « I forbid you to treat me like a slave, otherwise… » and the other answers: « Otherwise what? You’ll kill me? You can’t kill me anymore because I am already dead. Do you want me to tell you about all the murders there are in this country? The story of the father who kills his son, or the son who kills his mother, or the sister who kills her brother?… Or the mother who thrusts her child’s hands into boiling oil?… Where do you think that that violence comes from? » When a society is built on a foundation in which faults are punished by cutting off hands, or ears, by ripping out tongues, or whipping, how can we expect those things to have disappeared from people’s consciences one hundred and fifty years later? It is about these traces of violence, fear, cowardice, hesitation, self-misunderstanding, which are permanently present in West Indian society, that I want to speak about. Not about the business of creolity… the differences there might be between a Black woman, a Mixed-race woman, a Black man… that doesn’t interest me. What interests me is that whatever we may be, mixed-race, black, high-yellow, or whatever, we have grown out of that society, that violent history which constantly inhabits us: it’s that little day-to-day existence I want to speak about!
Perhaps we get the impression that this history isn’t present enough in African, and even island, literature because it isn’t expressed in the way in which the Western conscience, which is used to a certain conception of History, expects. Perhaps, on the contrary, it is at the heart of Black writing, and it inevitably expresses itself the whole time, immanently.
Gerty Dambury: That’s exactly what I told them. When Monique Blin asked me if I wanted to write a text on slavery, I said to her: « If you ask me to write a text on slavery today, it means you’ve never read what we have been writing for years, you have never seen the slavery present in the texts of Roumain, Césaire, Frank-Etienne, Condé, Schwartz-Bart… So, you have never heard us ».
Boris Diop: No surpassing has been possible. The conditions of liberation are perhaps partly at cause. The slaves were not freed by a military victory which would have enabled them to rewrite their history, to record the facts, and to nourish their memory. Quite the opposite to a brutal confrontation, it was the master himself who adapted slavery to the prevailing conditions. From slavery, we moved on to colonization, without there being a real change. In a certain sense, slavery has survived itself under different forms. Hence the difficulty of writing our own history.

///Article N° : 5403

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