You’ve probably read Christopher L. Miller’s The French Atlantic Triangle, yes? (No, you are NOT a francophone African/Caribbean literature scholar, you say? You stumbled onto this blog because you heard there’d be cake? There is cake too. There is definitely cake.)
The book is taking me all summer to read. But not in the bad way. In the way that it is getting my full and undivided attention while I’m reading, and I’m only giving it a few hours a week because there are more pressing books at hand. Books I can skim. Books that get about half my brain while the other half is thinking about what to do with the fresh basil and eggplant in my fridge. Books that stand untouched on my desk until I have done the laundry, cleaned the bathroom, organized my closet, found all my missing jewelry, made a pie, rearranged my pictures, and checked email eight times because I don’t want to read them but I know that I have to. (*cough* Heidegger *cough cough*…) Books that I simply have to get through so that I can read other books about them. (It’s a charmed life or something…)
For those not familiar, The French Atlantic Triangle surveys various texts from French literature dealing with slavery and the slave trade (different things, people) and what insight these might give us into an intensely fraught period of history (to put it freaking lightly…) The trade was based on a triangle – France, Africa, the Caribbean – and it pretty much stands to reason that the economic currents created by this triangle are the very basis of the modern, globalized world we now live in. (Not just the French trade, we don’t want to neglect the British. What I’m saying is that you should think: slave trade > colonialism > modernity/globalization. Which is a huge bummer for those of us who enjoy the modern, globalized world we live in and I’m sorry to break the news. Now go read the introduction to The Black Atlantic and we’ll talk about it over coffee. Except you will not want to drink coffee and you will most definitely not want to put any sugar in it but maybe we’ll have, like, okay not tea…is there anything we drink that is caffeinated and sweet and not inherently rooted in exploitation of non-white people?)
Now, I’m going to stop there and get to the point, which is the part I read today on Prosper Mérimée’s Tamango (1829) and which gets at the heart of a major difficulty underlying any reading of French texts dealing with slavery and the slave trade – you cannot easily tell whether or not they truly espouse an abolitionist agenda. Isn’t that kind of insane? (Particularly from an American perspective where the literature tended to be pretty damn clear on the point.) Some of the texts – many of the texts – from the 18th and 19th centuries that might at first seem to be supporting arguments against slavery are…well, it gets complicated…
Take Claire de Duras’s Ourika (1823) for example. You get the tragic story of a Senegalese girl raised in a French salon, possessed of all the talents you would find in a lady of the highest French society, who one days overhears (from this Marquise character who is a total bitch) that she is black and therefore has no place in the very society she has been groomed to participate in, the only society she knows, since she was taken from Senegal in infancy. And it’s a tearjerker. She can’t stand the sight of her hands, she covers her mirrors, she doesn’t go out anymore. She thinks herself a monster, is suicidal, and dies alone in a convent after leaving her benefactress’s (owner’s) home. Duras’s point can be summed up as such: Hey, racial difference is really a shame, guys. Africans are no less than us. Not only do they have feelings but they can also play piano and wear pretty dresses just like we do. Except that when the slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) occurs in the novel, Ourika mimics the outcries of those around her and can’t believe that those “barbarians” to whom she is related would dare to violently rise up in protest. Ambivalent, yes? Racial difference is a tragic (European) invention, but then it seems to justify itself in Duras’s telling.
Prosper Mérimée was a writer of adventure stories. And he was writing adventure stories right around the time that slavery was outlawed by the French, and therefore taken up by the strictly criminal element of society. And can you (assuming you are a 19th century French citizen) think of anything more adventurous than swashbuckling criminals headed to the coast of darkest Africa, dodging the British and kidnapping a bunch of people only to turn around and transport them across an entire ocean? Can you???
Prosper Mérimée was also deeply troubled by the search for some kind of authenticity in the world. He wanted primitives. He wanted exotic traditions. He wanted local color. (He really really really wanted local color.) But he couldn’t find any, so he had to invent it, using the template of many texts (some of them thoroughly abolitionist) that discussed these utterly foreign spaces.
So when Prosper Mérimée writes a story about the rebellion aboard a slave ship, led by Tamango – who, and this is important, sold the slaves to the devious ship captain Ledoux in the first place and is then tricked (it’s a long story) aboard the ship himself – it is fairly doubtful that he is writing in order to side with some abolitionist cause, but highly likely that he is writing in order to create an exciting narrative. That is not a criticism, I don’t think Miller would go so far as to say “Well there, Prosper, this exciting narrative should have had a sounder moral compass.” But it does support the argument that any writer of this time period who turns Africans into “real” characters cannot easily be collapsed into the category of “abolitionist” simply because they realized (as most people had not) that Africans may or may not be people. (Keep in mind that this was still a question in larger mindframe of Europeans at the time.)
It seems (and this is not my expertise, or not yet) that a common mistake when reading texts about African protagonists, written by Europeans, in the period of the slave trade, is to equate two separate gestures- one which vilifies the European, and one which proclaims the humanity of the African.
Mérimée creates the European slave trader character of Ledoux, and he is an evil man by any standard. But this does not mean that Africans are portrayed as inherently good. Tamango, in fact, is portrayed as bloodthirsty and uncivilized. Let me mention again, in case you didn’t pick it up, he is a slave trader himself. He is a colleague of the evil European slave trader. The one difference between them is that, when they drink together, Ledoux becomes more clever and Tamango loses his wits – meaning, obviously, that one is stronger (can hold his liquor better) than the other. Exposing Ledoux’s sinister nature and relating this to his profession as a trader in human lives does indeed support the notion that the slave trade is a sinister practice. Okay. But this does not in any way serve to humanize Africans in the perspective of the French reader. So let’s not be patting Mérimée on the back for doing so.
Contrarily, Duras’s text would certainly leave the reader more disposed to considering Africans as human beings who need to be protected against the tragedy of racial difference. But nowhere does the text go so far as to say that the slave trade deprives them of their humanity. Miller, in fact, cites a passage which glorifies the practice of slavery, if not the trade itself. To see these separate gestures – the vilifying and the humanizing – as one in the same is anachronism. The relatedness of these two is absolutely obvious to us, the enlightened people of a post-racial society (bahahaha, can you hear my cynical laughter all the way from up here? in Canada? where there are no black people?) but they cannot be conflated in any analysis that remains true to their time frame. Of course we know that slavery was an utterly evil practice, precisely because it deprived people of their humanity. (See how the vilifying and humanizing things come together in one sentence here?) But this is a recent thought, and it is a thought that is oft repeated and seldom followed, lending itself all the more easily to abstract purposes like literary analysis…