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On Conceiving a Documentary about the Black Presence in Southwest France

Karen E. Fields

Of what does black European history consist? What might be its constituting narratives? Or should that traditional notion, integral to the most authoritative traditional European histories, apply? If traditional narrative seems not to apply, why not, and what stands in its stead? If it does apply, how (or where) might the constituting narratives of black European history stand in relation to the traditional narratives of French history (capital “H?”) as propagated via school textbooks? Conceptual questions of this order instruct the written representation of black European history, but they equally instruct its audio-visual representation. A medium that relies on the concreteness of visible, filmable elements merely poses those those conceptual questions in a different form: “Images of what and that show what?” My work explores possible answers.

As a result of my research, I have begun to think of those elements as intended and unintended representations of the presence of black people in Bordeaux and its region, Aquitaine (once, Guyenne). Begin with some examples of intended representation. Since the late 1990s, citizens’ groups have taken up the devoir de mémoire as regards Bordeaux’s participation in the slave trade. To that end, the association Couleurs bordelaises has not only organized many public events but has also, quite recently, published a picture book showing sites of interest. Thus, it allows the stone heads of Africans that adorn many elegant façades to represent (indirectly at least) not only enslaved Africans in French colonies but also the several thousand black people known to have lived in Bordeaux during the 18th century. By identifying a wealthy slave-trader whose immense house still stands in Bordeaux, the book also points toward the 20th century. After World War I, African veterans convalesced at the château, in nearby Talence, that the same wealthy man had bought for his pleasure in the days of Louis XV. An old photograph shows them. Parallel research by the Union des travailleurs sénégalais has identified cemeteries where African soldiers are buried, “Morts pour la France” during both world wars
Turn now to unintended representations, by which I mean filmable elements that implicitly or explicitly evoke black European history—and that, in so doing, suggest an expanded conception of Europe’s own historical representation. Travelers bound by road toward Basque country from Bordeaux encounter a city limit marker that announces, “Bienvenue à Bayonne, capital du chocolat depuis quatre siècles.” Two human figures stand on either side of an enormous cocoa bean—to the viewer’s right, an Amerindian in colorful feathers and a breech clout and, to the left, an African clad in traditional Basque costume. Thus does Bayonne, home of world-class gourmet chocolates, represent itself by remembering an African New World diaspora as well as a diaspora of French “Amériquins”—the historian and genealogist Jacques de Cauna revived this obsolete usage in his book L’Eldorado des Aquitains.

Most remarkable, to my eye, is that panel’s representation of Africa as part and parcel of the region. The Amerindian’s dress makes him visually foreign, but the African, naturalized by his Basque outfit, is visually chez lui. I keep coming across this abstract formulation—Africans embodied and, in a sense, traveling to Europe by virtue of the wealth their labor created in the New World. A fresco at the Opera House shows African captives being pulled onto the quais. In fact, only a minute percentage reached Bordeaux in that form (so to speak); but they did arrive in the form of commodities—their congealed labor and life-force. So without intending to, this visual shorthand represents black people as having been more numerous and ponderous in the region’s life than traditional narratives confess. The shorthand turns up frequently enough to suggest that representing black European history, as it relates to southwestern France, cannot supplement the traditional narratives without transforming them. A variety of European self-representations seem to invite just such a transformation.

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