The painful quest for lost humanity

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How can we consider slavery as having been abolished when, every day, people suffer from the persistence of racial inequality in representations?

Ensure that all people feel good about their skins: this article is missing from the Declaration of Human Rights!
Philippe Dewitte
Regards Blancs et colères noires,
Hommes et Migrations, nº 1132, p 13.

Ten years before the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s « discovery » of America, Todorov published a book entitled La Conquête de l’Amérique (The Conquest of America, Editions du Seuil). By thus playing on words, Tzevtan Todorov operates a veritable subversion of meaning, substituting the word discovery, which suggests the geographical, with conquest, which puts the accent on human relations. Without wanting to suggest that Todorov is exhaustive, or identifying the conquest of America with the nebulous problem of slavery, these few thoughts come under that Todorovian approach. The aim, here, is not to celebrate abolition itself – even if we must not underestimate the abolitionists’ titanic efforts in bringing about the end of what Borgès called an incomparable rogue1 – but to try to show how, after a hundred and fifty years of abolition, the relation to Black people is still (to a certain extent) experienced through the prism of slavery, so much so even that some people still question whether or not Black people should be considered integral members of the human race.
As a slave descendant himself, Edouard Glissant appears to have undergone the bitter experience of that arrogance during his travels in the Southern United States, as the following passage of his penultimate essay, which is on Faulkner, testifies: « Just as there are people who deny the reality of the Jewish Holocaust, there are those here who affirm that the black slaves’ long martyrdom in the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America was in fact a period of happiness and pleasure shared by master and slave. And if you happen to compare these two exterminations, these two horrors issued forth from the human beast, there are immediately those who will say to you, wait a minute, let’s not mix up the tea towels and the napkins.« 2
Whilst some still lack the courage to say things as clearly as Glissant’s American interlocuteurs, others, on the other hand, continue insidiously to use clichés bordering on the inhuman to represent Black people in advertising. This is clear from the posters on leprosy currently found in the Paris metro, in which an old African woman looks like a cross between a bat and a human being. This kind of poster, which persists in showing the Other in a grotesque light, forces Black people to face debasing images of themselves every day, which can easily shake their self-confidence.
« (…) It seems inoffensive enough », says Jules Amédée Laou (a West Indian), « but being insulted, humiliated, despised as we are in France in shitty ads, whorish films, and crappy rags plays on your morale. It’s true, being constantly represented by grotesque and vile caricatures crushes your morale. »3 Further on, the author continues: « The telly is on, the 7 year-old kid, the little West Indian girl born here, has her eyes glued to the screen, transfixed in front of it, she feeds off all the images, all the messages it spews forth. (…) Our image is too ugly in this country, and our children suffer from it. At the end of the meal the little girl said « Black people are ugly », yes the little Black girl loves the white and blond dolls, which are beautiful princes and princesses. « Black people are ugly », said the little Black girl, « Black people are ugly ».4
People will retort that none of that has anything to do with the abolition of slavery. But, on the contrary, this caricatural representation of Black people in the collective memory of the West is the fruit of a long history, in which the problem of slavery is central. And, as we celebrate the abolition of slavery, it is not without interest to recall that there may well be a misunderstanding between the official discourses which fight against racism, and call for fraternity, on the one hand, and, the grotesque representation of Black people which is distilled in the collective memory, drop by drop, on the other. In other words, it is not just about celebrating the abolition of slavery, but also, as Philippe Dewitte puts it, of ensuring that people feel good about their skins. For, even though they might not say so, thanks to this slavery past, every day, insidiously, Black people are required to prove their humanity. That is, to prove that they have well and truly progressed from the animal stage, which is supposed to define them, to that of the human race. This, we must admit, is no mean task.
James Baldwin certainly knew a thing or two about this, when he wrote: « The rage of the disesteemed is personally fruitless, but is also absolutely inevitable; this rage, so generally discounted, so little understood even among the people whose daily bread it is, is one of the things that makes history. (…) no black man can hope ever to be entirely liberated from this internal warfare – rage, dissembling, and contempt having inevitably accompanied his first realization of the power of white men. What is crucial here is that, since white men represent in the black man’s world so heavy a weight, white men have for black men a reality which is far from being reciprocal; and hence all black men have toward all white men an attitude which is designed, really, either to rob the white man of the jewel of his naïvité, or else to make it cost him dear.
The black man insists, by whatever means he finds at his disposal, that the white man cease to regard him as an exotic rarity and recognize him as a human being. This is a very charged and difficult moment, for there is a great deal of will power involved in the white man’s naïvité. »5

1. Jorge Luis Borgès, Histoire universelle de l’infamie histoire de l’éternité, Paris, Christian Bourgois, 1985, p. 14.
2. Edouard Glissant, Faulkner Mississipi, Paris, Stock, 1996, p. 24.
3. Julius Amédée Laou, « La Chronique du fou », cited by Philippe Dewitte in « Regards blancs et colères noires », in Hommes et Migrations nº 1132, May 1990.
4. Ibid.
5. James Baldwin, « Stranger in the Village » in Notes of a Native Son, Boston, Beacon Press, 1955, pp 165-166.
///Article N° : 5301

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