The tragedy of non-representation

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As in her book Du Noir au Nègre dans le théatre, published by Editions L’Harmattan, Sylvie Chalaye’s analysis of the evolution of the image of Black people demonstrates how French society has avoided the issue of the slave trade by simply refusing to represent it.

To commemorate is to accept a process of memory, a duty to memory which is indispensable for grieving. But how can we remember what we have, for centuries, refused to admit? How can we recall what we have refused to see, what has been banished from all representation? How can we commemorate something that has left no trace in the collective imagination? The history of slavery is, above all, the history of a cleverly orchestrated amnesia. No image, no affect. No affect, no outcry. This is precisely the tragic irony of this black drama: the people who have been entirely reduced to their black appearance, who have been condemned in the name of their image, have been thus robbed of that very image. Not content to deport Black people to the colonies and to enslave their beings by turning them into Negro slaves, Europe took possession of, and subverted, their image by subordinating it to aesthetic or ideological motivations which are a far cry from the Africa’s realities, and from the slave trade to which it was subjected. After stealing their humanity, we have robbed them right down to the testimonies of the suffering we inflicted upon them. Who knows what a Negro looks like? The images of the past are no more than lies, dissimulations, and camouflage.
The representational arts, the arts which offer images – notably the theatre and painting – provided no echo of the horrors of the slave trade and slavery. What was tolerated in literature was not permitted in painting, nor on the stage. As it depends upon the imagination, writing evokes, suggests, there where the visual arts proffer images. Furthermore, literature’s impact was still very limited until the end of the nineteenth century, and was above all addressed to an educated elite. Painting, and particularly the theatre, had a more popular impact, offering a vector of information to the masses. As a result, the representational arts were the object of particular scrutiny on the part of the authorities.
Moreover, artists and playwrights, who were financially dependent on patrons, royal allowances, then on State commissions, hardly had a free reign, and imposed their own limits to avoid going too far and falling out of favour. Many had in mind the Inquisition’s famous trial of the great Veronese for a 1573 painting representing the Last Supper. It depicted Christ surrounded by a group of people, including several Black pages. The Inquisition judged « this buffoonery » to be grotesque and indecent. It looked for the hidden meaning behind the servant with a blood-stained handkerchief. And especially the Black person who appeared on Christ’s right-hand side… What heresy! Veronese was forced to dissimulate the Black person behind a beard, and to transform the subject into another biblical meal. The painting became The Feast of the Levi
The misrepresentation of the Moor
The taboos which emerged at the end of the sixteenth century surrounding the representations of Black people were not, as may well be imagined, the result of simple aesthetic prejudice. It is clear that the representation of Black people disturbed, revealed a lack of taste, seemed uncalled for, even, from the moment the slave trade took off and became an indispensable perimeter of the major European power’s economic prosperity, to the extent, even, that the Church gave its contentment, blessing this trade in the name of the evangelization of the poor savages dwelling in Africa.
Black people were not unfamiliar in Renaissance Europe; they could be come across in the ports of the major seafaring nations, often brought back from journeys and sold as servants. But as soon as the triangular trade took off, it was preferred that the slave trade be a mysterious and distant affair. And in order better to ignore it, it was preferable that these Black people disappear from the mainland.
It was thus that in 1570, France promulgated an edict to limit the arrival of Black people on its soil, and, above all, to dissuade the slave traders from coming to exhibit their cargo in the ports. Any slave who landed was definitively free. Slavery was the affair of the colonies!
Throughout the whole of the seventeenth century, people took great pains to ignore the trade which was making the ship-owners rich. Black people can be found in the Baroque paintings of Vélasquez, Rubens, Rembrant, etc., but they are not slaves. Those found in court entertainment, on the Elizabethan stage, or in Spanish theatre, were noble lords, kings, ambassadors. There was no hint of chains, nor whips. The part of the Moor was no more than a romantic travesty at the service of an amorous rhetoric for which preciosity had a penchant.
Exotic dolls and forbidden games
One would have thought that with the Enlightenment, Black people would have at last been brought out of the shadows, that the slaving practices of the Europeans, and the active participation of the French in the slave trade, could no longer go unspoken.
In the final decades of Louis XIV’s century, it seems to have been difficult to ignore the slave trade and the situation of Black people in the colonies. The publication of the Code Noir in 1685 made it official, and highlighted the governmental and administrative recognition of the status of slaves in the colonies, whilst at the same time legitimizing the rights the colonists had over them.
Furthermore, right after Louis XIV’s death, the regent lost no time in giving in to pressure from the colonists, granting them a decree which got around the ban imposing the « right of soil » in metropolitan France. From now on, they were allowed to bring their slaves into France and to keep their prerogatives over them. All that was required was that they justify the trip by giving training to increase the know-how of the slave.1
Young Black girls, Black boys, little dark-skinned pages were soon to be seen in all fashionable quarters: at the court, in the salons, in painting, and even in theatre. They brightened-up high-society gatherings, added a touch of exoticism and colour to the spirit of gallant parties, as the paintings of the time show: Hogarth, Raynolds, Watteau, Lancret, Pater, Fragonard, Carmontelle. During the first half of the century, all of carefree and smart society, hitherto repressed by the austerity of the end of Louis XIV’s reign, flocked to the gallant parties. Carried away in a whirlwind of pleasures, this society was not ready to open its eyes to the realities of the triangular trade and the horrible rot beneath the gilt and the purple. What was essential was to enjoy the new commodities which enhanced the conviviality: they tucked into sweets, coffee, chocolate. And the little Black boys played at being inseparable companions to these ladies who preferred them to budgerigars, little dogs and greyhounds. Black people, of course, continued to be the object of the predominant aesthetic taboo, which condemned their ugliness, but this prejudice turned into a sexual taboo. The black stallion or dusky mistress titillated an idle society in search of forbidden games and erotic spices to stimulate the eye and the senses.2
Feather disguises
The word « nègre » (« negro ») first entered into usage in France in the eighteenth century. Trévoux’s dictionary indeed specifies that it means « slave », and designates those who, coming from Africa, are the object of a trade. Blackness and servitude became synonymous. To be Black from Africa, was to be a slave. All the same, Enlightenment society went out of its way to disguise its Blacks so that no one would confuse them with the Negroes who were traded.
They strove to disguise the Negroes who frequented aristocratic circles, and who jumped on their mistresses’ laps, to pass them off as Indians, to make them look like Veronese’s Black Children, or to deck them out in Oriental costumes. The artists gave them an air of Wise Men from the East, and painted them in turbans and feathers, baggy knickerbockers, or little green jackets like Venetian masters. These little dressed-up Black boys who amused the gallery were absolutely not to evoke slavery. They were deliberately not associated with either Africa, or the Colonies. They were nothing more than accessories, dildos used by the upper-crust to enhance their powers of seduction.
Far from refraining from parading their fair complexions alongside these swarthy souls who augmented their purity, coquettish women commissioned paintings in which they are accompanied by young, enturbaned Black pages, or had themselves painted in the Oriental decors made fashionable by Antoine Galland, for example, the Marquise de Pompadour, whom Van Loo represented as a Sultana alongside a nice ebony-coloured serving girl.
A plumed chimera was invented, which was a far cry from reality. Literature, however, began to lift the veil. In England, Aphra Behn’s novel, and the success of his hero, Oronooko, contributed to making people aware of the realities of slavery, thereby awakening public opinion. French novelists took inspiration. And philosophers denounced the harsh treatment inflicted on slaves in the Caribbean. However, whilst they denounced the inhumanity of slavery and the violence it engendered, the slave trade itself remained taboo, as can be seen from the system of antiphrases in the famous text by Montesquieu. It was not until Abbey Raynal that the economic system Europe grew rich on was really denounced.2
With the exception of literature, and the handful of allegorical frontispieces which illustrated the rare abolitionist works, Black people and the slave trade to which they were subjected remained an unrepresentable subject. The Enlightenment era produced no pictorial representations evoking Black slavery, and no plays either. As for all those Orientalist plays which the eighteenth-century public loved, they only depicted beautiful European slave men and women captured by barbarians…
Playwrights were in turn forced to disguise their Black characters so that they in no way evoked the Black people of the colonies. Wild Black people from the Americas were invented. And the word « nègre » was even banished from the stage, unless it referred to a white person, as in Dorvigny’s play. That is why the word does not occur at all, for example, in Marivaux’s La Dispute (1744). We only learn that Carise and Mesrou, the Black servants who have to take care of two children raised far away from all civilization, « were chosen for the colour they are, so that their wards would be astonished when they saw other men » (scene 2).
To avoid all untoward references to the reality of the traffic, playwrights disguised their Blacks as Indians. Savages in place of savages, it was better to avoid the Negroes. Thus, Romagnesi and Riccoboni’s Les Sauvages, staged by the Italians in 1736, are well and truly black. They are even curiously named ‘Negrillon’ and ‘Negritte’, but live in the Americas!
Olympe de Gouges, who was also forced to transform her Black characters into Indians, explains so in the preface of the first publication of her play, Zamor et Mirza, ou l’heureux naufrage (1788). The play, which was accepted by the Comédie Française, depicted life in the colonies on a plantation, but Olympe de Gouges had to change her story into an « Indian story », and the Black people all became West Indians: « I conclude this preface by informing the reader that it is the History of the Negroes that I dealt with in this play, and that the Comédie forced me to disfigure it with costumes and colour, and that I had to substitute savages; but that this inconvenience does lessen the deplorable history of these unfortunate souls who are men like us, whom an injustice of fate has placed on the rank of brutes.« 3
Despite of these modifications, the Comédie Français repeatedly differed staging the play. Finally, following judicial pressure from Olympe, they staged it just after the Revolution, but managed to remove it from the bill after the third representation.
Indeed, it turned out later that the theatre was subjected to pressure from the colonists who threatened to make it go bankrupt by renouncing their subscriptions. They indeed hired forty or so boxes on an all-year basis, each of which brought in between 1500 and 2000 pounds a year. This gave the colonists the right to determine what was programmed and a true means of controlling plays likely to upset public opinion.
The curtain of Republican allegories
The first abolition of slavery, decreed in the enthusiastic spirit of the Revolution in 1793, did not shed any more light on the reality of the exactions the colonists perpetrated on Black people. Furthermore, it was extremely hard to apply the decree, and the colonists once again used their economic clout. They did not recognize the revolutionary government, and allied with the foreign forces still involved in the slave trade, notably England and Spain. In the name of national reconciliation, therefore, people preferred to let the issue lie.
In the theatre of the revolution and the republican propaganda painting, which nevertheless tried to alert public opinion against the injustices of slavery, representations of the slave trade and the slaves’ work on the plantations was carefully avoided. Abolition and, above all, fraternal harmony were highlighted: slaves who prostrate themselves before the magnanimous generosity of the white liberator, White and Black falling into each other’s arms, mixed marriages… In the revolutionary climate, the image of black and white union hitherto condemned by the Ancien Régime emerged as the very symbol of the overthrowing of the values of a former order founded on iniquitous prejudices. Whilst just before the Revolution, Radet and Barré sought the public’s indulgence and generosity in La Négressse ou le pouvoir de reconnaissance (1787), taking great precautions in bringing together the beautiful Black native and Dorval, the White man she saves, numerous plays of the revolutionary period staged mixed unions and images of brotherliness. Not only did people rush to adapt Paul et Virginie to the stage, but, in Le Nègre aubergiste by Guillemain, staged in 1793, in La Liberté des nègres (1794) by Gassier, in Les Africains ou le triomphe de l’humanité by Larivallière (1795), or again in Honorine (1797), a charming vaudeville by Radet, friendship and love were conjugated in black and white. In the name of national union, the reality of the damages of the past were swept away to better celebrate abolition, whilst slavery became an abstraction, the rare representations of which remained allegorical.
Although the theatre now began to depict Black people who were no longer disguised, they were not shown to be slaves either. They were freed and grateful Blacks, Negroes who had just escaped from slavery, or servants who had come to the mainland, for whom servitude was already long since a thing of the past. Le Noir et le Blanc by Pignault-Lebrun, the only play which tried to illustrate the accounts of Abbey Raynal and to stage the life of slaves on the plantations, received no applause in 1795, at the Théâtre de la Cité, and had to be withdrawn from the bill.
The plumed chimera of the high-society parties gave way to another invention, that of the « good master’s good negro », a character with no psychological depth who, above all, served to highlight the magnanimity of the White, and who is behind a well-known stereotype: that of the happy-go-lucky good negro, busy dancing and preferring to put his good fortune in his master’s hands.
From veto to romantic appropriation
It is not surprizing, therefore, that Napoleon I had no difficulty in going back on the abolition decree, re-establishing what had finally never been a tangible reality in the eyes of mainland public opinion. Under the Empire and the Restoration, colonial subjects were banished from the theatre. Georges Ozaneaux was unable to get the censorship affecting his play repealed. The play, entitled Le Nègre, was set in a Portuguese colony off Africa, and depicted a slave’s desire for revenge, the slave ending up organizing a revolt. Ministers of the Interior came and went, and practically always gave the same reply: « The inconveniences of the subject are so serious that it is not possible for me to go back on the decision of my predecessors. »
And when the censors did not actually ban, they demanded the most profound changes. Bug-Jargal, which features the Ambigu-Comique, is nothing like Victor Hugo’s novel. The melodrama is transplanted to Java, the Whites are Dutch, the natives of the islands are Indians, and the Blacks are only distant, speechless shadows, with the exception of Bugg, whose attempted uprising lamentably fails. Only good Black characters were tolerated on the stage, models of gratitude and faithfulness, such as Oréno in the vaudeville by Xavier, Duvert and Paulin, or tragic Negresses such as Madame de Duras’s Ourika, which the popular theatres rushed to stage in 1824. Fate has it that the poor Negress is saved from her condition as a slave, but the education she receives then prevents her from finding happiness. She no longer fits in amongst her brothers, and colour prejudice banishes her from White society. Morality: it would have been better for her to have stayed a slave!
The 1830 change of government brought about the end of the censorship forbidding colonial subjects. The ‘Boulevard du Crime’* thus quickly latched onto these unfathomably romantic and exotic subjects. The site of all excesses and possibilities, the colonies gave melodrama themes and settings which the public loved: dramatic sentiments and unexpected gratitude, buccaneering, pirates, star-crossed lovers and forced marriages, weeping victims and cruel monsters, fights, revolts, floods and earthquakes… But, whether it be Docteur noir by Anicet-Bourgeois and Dumanoir, Marché Saint-Pierre by Comberousse and Antier, Code Noir by Scribe, Planteur by Saint-Georges, and many more, the realities of slavery were still not represented.
In 1835, the first painting depicting slavery entered the Salon: a painting by François Biard entitled La Traite des nègres. It was, however, a painting of the kind which contented itself with illustrating colonial values. Marcel Antoine Verdier’s painting Châtiment des quatre piquets aux colonies was more denunciatory. And the subject was, of course, refused by the jury of the 1843 Salon who feared that it would stir « popular hatred against our colonies« .3
Abolish the memory too
After the 1848 Revolution, and its abolition, the taboo concerning images of slavery remained. Far from acknowledging its own implication in the horrors of slavery, French society put all its energy into denouncing America. The theatres rushed to adapt Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and, above all, denounced the perverse colour prejudice at the heart of American society, which was capable of condemning a poor young girl simply if it be noticed that her mother was a slave. Slavery was rapidly turned into an American affair which had nothing to do with French society. Once abolished, slavery became ancient history. Its existence was forgotten, even in the history books, an omission that was no doubt absolutely necessary for the colonial ambitions of the Second Empire, and above all, the 3rd Republic.
And right up until the present day, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of abolition, what efforts have been made to acknowledge, to reconstitute? At a time when only images exist, at a time when film and television have taken over from the theatre and the arts as a mouthpiece, which films, which documentaries, recall this past? The fatality of non-representation continues to haunt the drama of slavery. The media, which has got us so accustomed to live blood and death, has no images to deal: no visual medium, no subject for the television. Yet this abdication on the part of the arts exposes the History of the Black people and their suffering to all forms of revisionism. The duty to remember is also the duty to reconstitute history, without which we risk letting slavery and the slave trade fall into the sphere of myth. The duty to remember is also about affronting the images of horror so as to combat it, and to free it from the clutches of eternal return.

1. Jean-Michel Deveau, La France au temps des négriers, France Empire, Paris, 1994.
2. Pierre Pluchon, Nègres et juifs au XVIII siècle. Le racisme au siècle des Lumières, Tallandier, Paris, 1984.
3. Louis-Sébastien Mercier, « Petits nègres », in Tableau de Paris, Amsterdam, 1783, vol. VI, pp. 290-291.
4. Abbeé Raynal, Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements de du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes, J.P. Pellet, Genève, 1770.
5. Olympe de Gouges, préface de Zamour et Mirza…, in Oeuvres de Madame Olympe de Gouges dédiées à Monseigner le Prince, tome III, Cailleau, Paris, 1788.
6. Hugh Honour, L’Image du Noir dans l’art occidental. De la révolution américaine à la première guerre mondiale, 2 tomes, Gallimard, Paris, 1989.
* Translator’s note: The ‘Boulevard du Crime’ was the name given to a popular and rowdy theatre-going part of Paris at the time, akin to the West End of London.
///Article N° : 5300


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