According to Philippe David, « the native villages made a positive contribution to the slow and clumsy mutual understanding of peripheral peoples »*. In his book, Villages noirs et visiteurs africains et malgaches en France et en Europe (1870-1940), (Khartala, 2001), David and co-authors, Jean-Michel Bergougniou and Rémi Clignet, try and relativise the impact of « native villages » to « better comprehend the exchanges that took place before the independences ».
It is not without reservation that we have decided to include this text. According to some, the theories expounded here are nothing less than « revisionist », in the sense that they would belittle historical reality by only selecting its positive aspects, in order to exonerate those involved during the colonial period. The quarrel between historians that took place in a series of articles published in the reputed French monthly newspaper, Le Monde Diplomatique, is, in our opinion, too important to go unnoticed. It is, in our opinion, a perfect example of just how difficult it is for us to look back on the colonial period.
The historians at the ACHAC (association for the recognition of the history of contemporary Africa) have published numerous texts on these exotic villages, otherwise classified as « human zoos » and we have also included their articles in this dossier. We have also supported a series of conferences on « Human zoos, colonial memories » organised by the Chair at the Institut du Monde Arabe and the CNRS (French national centre for scientific research) than ran from October to December 2001.
It is our opinion that this approach to history, which focuses on the « genesis and long-term repercussions of the gaze upon the Other »*, is fundamental and it coincides with the essence of our own work. However, it is also the source of much contention. In the November 2001 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique, the historian Samuel Tomei questions a « duty to remember » with a moral basis. In suggesting that the duty of remembrance has a tendency to focus on certain revealing facts, or dissimulate others, he writes that « we condemn the mystifications of the republican memory far less in order to try and uncover the truth than to shake the principles of the Republic »*.
But are we discrediting the Republic by bringing such contradictions to light? Distorting republican values in order to legitimise the colonial adventure is not simply a thing of the past. There are still very strong traces of this in the modern attitude towards France’s immigrants. In this respect, the « native villages » (that were essentially nothing more than human zoos) were an exotic tool like so many others (if more powerful than some) used to generate a view of the Other founded on a racist opinion of the world. By updating these clichés, which are all imaginary representations born of the theory of the races and the colonial relationship, we may in some way contribute to deconstructing them, and France could do with that.
We have chosen to include Philippe David’s text because it is important to show both sides of the debate. We consider our readers intelligent enough to work out the contradictions and read between the lines.
However, we also strongly feel that nothing is all black or white, right or wrong. There is no single « right answer ». The fact remains that the native villages, even if they were not much more than human zoos, also made their contribution to encouraging contact and progress – much in the same way that slavery paradoxically contributed to a blending of cultures that the entire world has benefited from. Nevertheless, this still does not justify their existence. We feel we should also be able to say this.
Lastly, these very French squabbles between very French historians seem to be missing the point of view of those – the Africans – at the heart of the issue and therefore most apt to validate the term « human zoo ». What of African research into these issues? What of life-changing experiences that were narrated to the children of the men and women who were depicted as animals under the false pretence of gaining a better understanding of them. Such living information is hard to gather. It is our intention to attack this task in the near future.
* Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.///Article N° : 5267