Head of the Unesco « Slave Route » programme

Interview with Doudou Diène, by Olivier Barlet

Paris, 26 January 1998
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The « Slave Route » aims at two objectives: universality and the historic truth about the transatlantic slave trade; and the silencing of the memory and cultural interactions of slavery.
The Unesco member states acknowledge that what the historian Jean-Michel Deveau calls « the greatest tragedy in human history in terms of amplitude and duration » is practically absent from mankind’s collective memory and the history books, even the African ones. Given that the fight for human rights and democracy is also a fight for memory – indeed all collective human tragedies that are not assumed tend to repeat themselves – Unesco considers it both necessary and fundamental to re-examine the transatlantic slave trade, to highlight its underlying causes, and its modalities.
Today, the slave trade emerges as the underlying factor explaining most of Africa’s current problems: development, violence, ethnic conflicts. The slave trade would not have lasted so long if it had not been accompanied by an ideology of moral justification, and a judicial framework organizing it. The ideology is none other than the intellectual construction of racism: the cultural denigration of the black man and Africa allowed the sale of human beings as commodities. A thinker such as Voltaire did not hesitate in affirming that the Black epidermis was suited to slavery! Even though the slave trade is now over, the ideology behind it continues to wreak havoc. The fight against racism thus also requires a re-examination of the slave trade. The judicial organization was assured by the « black codes », infamous texts, hidden from the judicial and historic memory of the West.
Moreover, the slave trade represented the greatest displacement of people in human history, engendering interactions of such an amplitude that a vital stake of the third millennium is perhaps being played out today in the American and West Indian melting pot: cultural plurality, that is the capacity and potential for peoples, races, religions, and cultures of different origins to cohabit. The forces of life have prevailed over the tragedy. Unesco thus wants to highlight this plurality which is not just diversity, but also the acceptance of diversity.
The slave trade is often presented as an African and an American issue, and the consequences in Europe are completely erased…
European History needs to face up to the « Black Holes » slavery and colonization represent. This would enable Europe to know itself and its strengths and weaknesses better, helping to fight the prejudices engendered by certain episodes of its history. It is also vital that Europe understand that its fight for human rights is also a fight for the memory of their massive violations. Finally, by assuming, like President Chirac, its role in African history concerning the slave trade, Europe would be able to protect itself better against the Afropessimism born out of the old slave and colonial ideology, which tended to castigate Africa in order to justify its foreign interventions. Moreover, Europe has to recognize that the cultural pluralism dynamic of American and West Indian society contributes to, and enriches, its culture. The vitality of artistic forms in the suburbs and major metropolises, born out of the interactions of the slave trade in the Americas and the West Indies, such as Rap in the musical domain, raises the question of cultural plurality in Western societies.
As for Africa, the re-examination of the slave trade allows it both to give a universal character to this tragedy, and also to understand its current problems better thanks to the long memory of the profound and lasting upheavals of the slave trade. It is also the opportunity for Africa to rediscover the extraordinary vitality of its culture. African slaves indeed resisted the violence of the slave trade through the vital force of their culture, gods, myths, values, rituals and rhythms, all the things that they had tucked away in their heads, and which the slave traders, who were only interested in their bodies, did not have access to.
How does the Unesco project intend to go about highlighting the specificity of the slave trade?
Slavery is a universal phenomenon. The Greeks made it an art of living. But the transatlantic slave trade was specific in three respects: its duration (about 4 centuries), its racial character – the black African as the prime figure of slavery – and its judicial organization: the Black Codes.
Isn’t there a risk of tending to deny the cultural specificities?
No, because the real plurality lies in the recognition of specificities’ wealth, as well as the mechanism of their interactions. We want the commemoration of the abolition to be the opportunity for a profound reflection on the tragedy of the slave trade, its modalities, its consequences, and its universal character. The violence of the parliamentary debate and the political reactions following the French Prime Minister’s declarations on the Dreyfus Affair and slavery show the extent to which the question of the slave trade is an open wound, an inhibition in the West’s historic consciousness. We would like to turn the commemoration into a wide-ranging and deep debate concerning all levels of European, African and West Indian society, and into a time of moral catharsis. The notion of a « route » implies that the re-examination of the slave trade is an undertaking shared by the historic partners of the the slave trade tragedy: the Europeans, Africans, Americans and West Indians.
The heart of the debate will thus focus on the reasons for the silence…
Yes: the silence about this immense tragedy has fed the « fertile womb out of which the foul beast came », as Brecht put it. The fight for human rights is a fight for memory, as all ill assumed, denied tragedies may be reproduced in other forms, such as modern slavery. But it is also the opportunity for a reflection on Africa, whose problems cannot be explained without going back to the unprecedented drain which the slave trade represented (several dozen million of the strongest people), as well as a reflection on the racism which « justified » the slave trade, and on multicultural dialogue, which is also an offshoot of the slave trade. It will thus ultimately be a reflection on the identity process, the result of an interaction, of an alchemy between the genius of a people and all it received from the exterior, even violently, as was the case with the slave trade. It will thus be a matter of promoting cultural plurality, just as the scientists do with biodiversity, of understanding that it is a factor of life and of solidarity between peoples and different cultures.
This is why the question of the slave trade constitutes a profound inhibition as much in history, as in the consciouses of the people concerned. Beyond the legitimate emotion stirred by the slave trade, Unesco therefore wanted to give a rigourous scientific character to the works and research it is coordinating, under the « Slave Route » project, on the slave trade’s underlying causes, its modalities and consequences.
We have set a kind of collective catharsis in motion, which tends to move away from the tragedy, to life. It is about getting Europe, Africa, the Americas and the West Indies to move together towards a joint return to the future.

///Article N° : 5299


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