In the spring of 1848, Victor Schoelcher authored documents declaring Martinique, Guadeloupe and Haiti "newly freed" and the inhabitants of those islands "new citizens" of the French Republic. Schoelcher, author of a series of abolitionist tracts, had been named under-secretary of state for the French colonies under the provisional government. A heroic figure in French history and in the French rendition of the history of slavery and colonialism, he remains a problematic figure in the political and cultural history of those islands. Consider for instance that Haiti, after a bloody armed struggle of more than a decade, declared independence from France in 1803. The French Republic, however, refused to recognize that nation's sovereignty until nearly half a century later, when it elected to abolish slavery in Martinique and Guadeloupe.
In French history, Haiti remained a colonial possession until 1848. It also required at that time that Haiti pay to the French government a restitution charge for the loss of French lives and property (among which the enslaved population counted) as a result of the Revolution. The amount was fixed at 90 million francs in gold. The new Haitian Republic bowed under pressure and agreed to pay damages. The final installment on the "independence debt" was paid in 1883. It bought belated, begrudging recognition from France, and it sank the tiny island nation into a grinding national poverty from which it has not recovered in more than 120 years.
The very fact that Schoelcher is credited with liberating the French colonies is nothing less than shocking. Such a notion belies and virtually erases from history the long armed struggle of black people to achieve freedom, national sovereignty, economic self-determination and self-representation. Yet numerous institutions, organizations and landmarks are named in his honor throughout the francophone Caribbean.
The first in a long line of European specialists on "the black problem" in the Americas, Schoelcher is a figure not unlike the former French journalist Régis Debray, head of the recently formed Independent Committee on France-Haiti Relations. The Committee, formed Oct. 7, 2003, only came to public attention in the wake of the most recent bloodshed in Haiti, which resulted in the ousting -- under the combined auspices of France and the United States -- of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. It is made up of 13 such "specialists" and has as its stated aim "to aid Haiti in progressing on the path of good governance and democracy." One of the most telling statements of what is now officially known as the "Debray Report on France and Haiti" appeared in a recent issue of the newspaper Le Monde: "Haiti is part of our (French) history, but not part of our memory."
In a conversation just prior to Aristide's removal, an acquaintance here, deploring the heightened level of violence but saying nothing of its causes, turned to me and asked, "Who was it colonized Haiti anyway?" and seemed genuinely surprised when I responded "the French." "Oh," he rejoined, "I had no idea." And that reaction is typical of the French with respect to the history and consequences of slavery and colonial aggression. It illustrates rather neatly what American university scholars referred to awhile back as the "myth of the innocent European" -- the idea, still popular in Europe, that not only the experience of slavery but also racism, and even race itself, were and remain somehow uniquely "American problems."
At the opening reception for the Camargo Foundation fellows, I met a married couple who are great lovers of jazz. After comparing notes on favorite composers, performers and recordings, the conversation turned to my current writing projects. The husband then went into a lengthy statement about the evils of American slavery and racism. He was stunned when I emphasized that my project focuses on the French colonial period, during which some of the most brutal enactments of violence had taken place and against which there were numerous rebellions. He appeared personally wounded when I informed him that the slave trade was, in fact, introduced to Louisiana by the French and the Spaniards.
Two more anecdotes: Not long before leaving New Orleans, two French tourists wandered into a shop in the Quarter where I happened to be browsing. They were lost and had apparently stepped in to try and orient themselves. I listened for a while before mentioning that I was a native and might be able to help them get back to their hotel. Before they could accept my offer, one of the women turned and practically shouted, "But how do you speak French?" To which I responded, "With my mouth. Do you need help finding your way?"
Back in the 1970s when I was a student at Montpélliér, a professor, having seen me with both African and Caribbean student groups, asked which of the French Antilles I came from. When I said that I was from New Orleans, not the islands, he responded with a knowing smile, "Oh yes. In Louisiana. We used to own you, too." So much for selective memory.
As a New Orleanian, much of whose work is bound up in the history of slavery and freedom in New Orleans, I find all of this especially interesting at this particular juncture. One of the things New Orleanians have long been in the habit of saying is that we are culturally and socially not so much part of the fabric of the southern United States as we are the "northernmost capitol of the Caribbean." While I am among those who hold this to be true, I am aware also of a certain oddity in this claim. Among the things linking us to the Caribbean, and which we have abandoned, are the French and Spanish languages of our former slave and colonial masters and the Creole language of our enslaved forbears. In their place we adopted the language of our newer American masters. From among these we concocted a brand of creolized American English that baffles black Southerners, all Northerners and even some native New Orleanians. But where does that leave relations with that group of Caribbean cousins with whom we claim to have the most in common?
I am not by any means suggesting that we return to conducting the business of business, government, education or even literature in the French and Spanish of the former colonial overlords or the Creole language of our ancestors. I am, however, convinced that an awareness of and receptivity to those languages can help us to dialogue with "family across the waters." This is especially true for writers of African descent. In recent years, there has been a number of trade and cultural exchange jaunts from New Orleans to Haiti and Cuba. That's a good beginning. How much more productive those exchanges, and more long-lasting the mutual benefits of those journeys might be, if more of us were ourselves fluent in the languages of our Caribbean cousins -- instead of relying entirely on their ability to speak English or the quality and integrity of the skills of translators. Otherwise, we must be content to have our experiences and our histories read back to us in unrecognizable forms. And to celebrate outside "experts" as our heroes and liberators.
The most interesting fact about the Committee on France-Haiti Relations to appear in Le Monde is that it was formed at about the same time the former Haitian president made public his reparations campaign. Aristide calculated that the 1883 payment of the "independence debt" had cost Haiti a cumulative sum of $21,685,135,571.48. And he demanded restitution in that amount.
Immediately following Aristide's ousting, new headlines appeared in the French daily. Aristide's removal was no longer being touted as "a show of combined French and American concern for human rights." The new headlines read "Aristide Ousted by U.S., France Claims No Part."
It is exasperatingly true that much is lost in translation.
New Orleans author Brenda Marie Osbey is currently writer-in-residence at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, where she is working on a bilingual literary project addressing the history of slavery and rebellion in Louisiana under French colonial domination.