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Slavery Routes by Fanny Glissant

A Hurricane of violence devastating the sugar islands:

Fanny Glissant presents her film on slave trade in the Caribbean.

During Black History Month in February 2019, as official pre-launch event of the second edition of the Tout-Monde Festival in Florida, film director and producer Fanny Glissant was invited by the France Florida Research Institute of University of Florida and the Winthrop King Institute of Florida State University to present extracts of her film “Slavery Routes”, co-directed with Daniel Cattier and Juan Gélas and presented by la Compagnie des Phares et Balises (CPB) Films and Arte.

“Slavery Routes” is a documentary retracing over 12 centuries of history of slavery in the world in 4 hours of interviews with 40 historians coming from Africa, Europe and the Americas, presented in four volumes narrating each a particular episode of the history of slavery. Contrary to other films on the same subject, which focus on the status of victims of black slaves, this documentary analyzes the question of slavery in the context of economic globalization, exploring how commercial routes and territories were used for the transatlantic trade and how women and men especially from Africa were reduced to colonial commodities. It explains how such an economically profitable system was not questioned on its moral basis for over 12 centuries and hence how the slavery system actually continues to rule our societies, mentalities and relations to the Other today.

 

In the spirit of Edouard Glissant’s Tout-Monde, the film’s directors assert: “Slavery Routes is a collective work” which unites a “multiplicity of perspectives, enabling us to comprehend slavery as a whole, by going beyond stereotypes and preconceptions about the culture of the other.”

 

Thinking of Edouard Glissant’s Echo-world, the four films of the documentary reflect how each historic episode has an impact on the following ones, how an economic ambition can shape racial perceptions for centuries, how a European craving for sugar will change forever the Caribbean. The film is an Echo-world itself narrating the meeting of four visions and stories, where Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and the Arab world converge.  

Invited to focus on the Caribbean episode entitled “1620 – 1789: From sugar to rebellion », Fanny Glissant presented the characteristics of “a gigantic hurricane of violence“ happening in this region. The Cultural Services of the French Embassy met with Fanny Glissant to learn more about this historic Caribbean hurricane which left traces until today.

Cultural Services of the French Embassy: The film adopted a resolute contemporary approach by narrating the history of slavery through images of today’s societies. Was this an initial choice or a progressive result of the film making and production?

Fanny Glissant: This documentary is a historic investigation. Its objectivity appears first and foremost through the word and the facts underlined by more than forty historians who were interviewed in Africa, in Europe, the Middle-East and the Americas. It was a conscious choice to explore this history across various cities todays, including big financial places like Wall Street or London which are usually not associated with slavery, but which actually played a key role in the economic process of the slave trade. Each episode of the documentary thus starts with an archeological reality in a contemporary city. The Caribbean episode starts with images reminding the existence of a colonial cemetery at the touristic beach of Raisins Clairs in Guadeloupe. The links to contemporary images aim not only at stressing the continuing impact of slavery on societies today, but also at helping the public identify with and take ownership of that reality.

CSFE: You are invited to present some episodes of “Slavery Routes” in the United States. What were the specificities of slavery in the United States of America and what links are you drawing with contemporary America?

FG: Slaves in the United States of America only represented 4-5% of the global slave deportation. Most slaves were then the result of a demographic increase on the American soil, when “domestic slaves” were deported from the North to the South from 1804 to 1810 to produce cotton, once the sugar islands had collapsed. Haiti was a huge cotton and sugar producer, so when the island became independent, the U.S. took over that production. This corresponds to a very specific moment, a second wave of slavery. This question of slavery was at the heart of the civil war and hence of the construction of democracy. Today, it is at the very heart of the United States’ political institutions, laws and social behaviors. The Jim Crow laws constructed social ghettos which put in place a racial segregation which is still very vivid. I am feeling that segregation in everything that surrounds me: I am struck by the lack of black people in the spheres of higher education, academics or managerial levels. The social mobility is very weak. The consciousness of being black, the Afro-American culture is a result of this segregation.

CSFE: How is the situation in comparison in France? Are the situations comparable at all?

FG: In France, the absence of social mobility and racism are linked to a colonial situation, the “Algerian question”. The immigrated North African population is facing bullying and social discrimination. Today the descendants of those who suffered slavery share the same problematics as the present population that is originally from Sub-Saharan Africa. Both are complaining about France overshadowing its colonial memory.

CSFE: The French Caribbean seem to face different kinds of challenges. How would you describe those challenges in the French Caribbean today and how do you relate them to the characteristics of slavery in the Caribbean in general?

FG: The Caribbean plays a very specific role in the slave trade. No other territories in the world were built and structured so much on the slavery system. And there is no exception in the Caribbean: from the Bahamas to Granada, the “sugar islands” were the beating heart of the Atlantic trade in the 17th century. If you had asked the British King during that time if he preferred to lose Barbados or one of the thirteen American colonies, he would have kept Barbados without hesitation. Today, the question of land property is key to understand social hierarchies in the Caribbean. Since the slave trade, no policy of redistribution of land was implemented in the French territories: those who own the majority of land and industries today are the same families. Contrary to other Caribbean or Latin American countries - where not all indigenous Indian people were eradicated, and where slaves had the possibility of extricating themselves from slavery though ‘marronage’ - there was no escape on the smaller, French Caribbean islands. Recent social explosions, current unemployment and peaks of violence in the French Caribbean today are a direct consequence of a long-lasting domination situation. On the cultural level, the result of the dominating sugar-system in the Caribbean was imported food: as islands were structures to only produce sugar, everything else had to be imported: rice, beans, flour, cod, salted pork. Today, these are the basic ingredients of Caribbean cuisine. But it is impossible to summarize all the links between the slave system and contemporary structures in the Caribbean; it would take hours and that’s why the film was produced.

CSFE: What is left of Africa in the Caribbean today?

FG: This would need a longer explanation. There is a will of the Caribbean to get closer to Africa. But four centuries have separated the populations with different histories, different sufferings. It is hard for the Caribbean to consider a return to that land. And yet, there is a common experience, here and there, of racism and xenophobia. This experience can only be overcome and fought through improved memorial policies. And for that, we need to improve our inter-personal capacities to reconstruct the link to the Other.

CSFE: Is this your vision of the Tout-Monde?

FG: Yes, for me, the Tout-Monde is being able to be White and considering yourself as a slave descendant, and to be Black and considering yourself a descendant of a slave owner. We are all the heirs of a system of inequalities. As a consequence, we all have to embrace this shared History and try to recreate the link of our common past.

And the experience of the Echo-World is precisely that: the spirit of European Enlightenment and of new ideas on Human rights captured by another place in the world, like Haiti in 1804. It is an ownership of a thought by producing another sense.

CSFE: So there is something positive in the confrontation of populations (as Edouard Glissant suggested)?

FG: If there is anything positive resulting from this period, then it is the birth of complex mixed societies, that have learned the “art of detour and rerouting”, according to Edouard Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse, and who have acquired a certain capacity to solve the complexity of the world.

CSFE: Thank you for your fight against prejudice, ignorance and racism.

Interview by Vanessa Selk, Cultural Attaché of the French Embassy’s Cultural Services in the U.S.

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