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Blacks in French culture in the late-18th and early 19th centuries

William Alexander

My focus on issues of Blacks in French culture in the late-18th and early 19th centuries has taken me in two complementary directions which I wish to pursue at the BEST workshops. The first has to do with the changing perception of Blacks as a result primarily of the slave trade and classification theories predicated on physiological factors.

The theoretical underpinnings of abolition, the humanitarianism and belief in natural rights, were offset by the simultaneous derogation of Blacks by philosophers, belles-lettrists, and naturalists.

Black skin color was identified with servitude and was considered reflective of the very soul of Black people. Even those Enlightenment figures who criticized the slave trade and slavery rarely accorded Blacks the full measure of humanity. A decade before the French Revolution, Blacks from the colonies were forbidden to enter France. The rationales advanced included fears of the consequences of race mixing and the growing nervousness that Blacks visiting France would return to the colonies and infect the slaves with their sense of independence and mobility. In my research on the place of Blacks in emerging racial theory I am trying to bring more clarity to the issue of the transition from cultural ethnocentrism to outright biological racism.

At the same time, the actual situation of Blacks in France was more nuanced. While the actual numbers of Blacks in France during the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries were relatively small, some Blacks and “people of color” experienced assimilation in port cities and Paris. Obviously there were examples of race mixing who were not physically identifiable; but there are several examples of people of color who were recognized as such and were able to thrive in Enlightenment society. I have been considering the roles of perhaps the two most outstanding examples of this phenomenon:

Julien Raimond and Joseph Boulogne (Chevalier de Saint-George). Raimond began as an octoroon with fortunate marriages and a legal career, but with no concern for the plight of slaves, and later changed into a leading advocate of abolition. Having earlier represented only the interests of the free people of color in restoring their rights specified under the Black Code of 1685, between 1789 and 1793 he led the people of color in a dual struggle against the segregationist order that had developed in Saint-Domingue during the eighteenth century and the plantation slave system. The mulatto Boulogne was more visible as a legendary swordsman who simultaneously became a major composer/conductor in Paris and for a while one of its leading celebrities. Largely through the observations of his friends, we can observe the racial snares that he experienced even while he was patronized by many of the French aristocracy. Raimond and Boulogne joined forces in organizing a Revolutionary force of 1000 free people of color and in their embrace of the Haitian Revolution.

These two topics are part of a larger study I am preparing on Blacks in France during several centuries particularly from the perspectives of Blacks themselves. Few Blacks in France were vocal about consciousness of their predicament during the Enlightenment, but this was the very period when racial ideas which defined them negatively were hardening. I should think that my interests relate most specifically to the workshop on “empirical research: subjects and objects,” though they also speak to issues of “representing Black European history.” Among the questions that ought to be considered are these:

  • 1. Prior to the nineteenth century, can we properly speak of a diasporic community of Blacks in France in terms of consciousness and recognition of self-interests? At what point does this emerge?

  • 2. Did the element of “assimilation” in France encourage or inhibit the development of diasporic consciousness in France?

  • 3. What was the role of the Haitian Revolution in galvanizing a sense of community among Blacks in Europe? Did European Blacks outside France react to this event?

  • 4. In studies of Blacks in Europe, what has been the impact of the frequent dichotomy of Blacks and peoples of color? Is there an inevitable conflict between these two groups Is this a division that has been consciously exploited by the broader society?

  • 5. At what point can we see the emergence of self-conscious Black European literature where Blacks reflect on the complexity of their situation? There is some of this in Julien Raimond.

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