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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Slavery: Its memory liberates the future

by Adrien Rouchaleou

Slavery: Its memory liberates the future

Translated Thursday 21 May 2015, by Brooke Cochran

The ACTe Memorial opened yesterday in Guadeloupe. Far from putting an end to debates, this exhibition and research center is intended to promote them.

Pointe-à-Pitre (Guadeloupe), special report.

For a long time, they didn’t want to talk about slavery in the Lesser Antilles. The shame of being a victim set the precedent and kept their lips sealed. Then, when they decided to open the plantations’ registers, then their mouths, things moved quickly. To the point that today, the Guadeloupean people want to take the big step to build their pride and identity on this history, as well as their connection to the world. They are opening an ambitious Caribbean Center on the Expression and Memory of Slavery and the Slave Trade, the ACTe Memorial in Point-à-Pitre. It was inaugurated yesterday with great fanfare by President François Hollande and in the presence of most of the Caribbean heads of state and many others from Africa.

Sharing the point of view of victims of slavery

The French president may have inaugurated it and Victorin Lurel, the president of the Regional Council of Guadeloupe, may have advanced the project. But the ACTe Memorial originated in civil society in 1998. It was instigated by Guadeloupean personalities from the International Committee of Black People (CIPN) when 40,000 people marched silently in the streets of Paris to commemorate 150 years since slavery was abolished in the French colonies. The momentum continued when the mission of announcing a national center for the memory of slavery and the slave trade was entrusted by Jacques Chirac to Edouard Glissant, a great writer from Martinique. Glissant wanted to build it in the center of Paris. The project was aborted, though, when Nicolas Sarkozy took power, declaring widely his hatred for "repentance." It became a concrete project when Guadeloupe expressed the desire to build it on the same grounds where the crime took place. The idea was put forth that, if the Republic had been celebrating abolitionists for a long time (Victor Schoelcher especially), it was now time to share the point of view of the victims of slavery.

It is located in Point-à-Pitre’s heart, on the former site of the huge Darboussier sugar cane factory. It overlooks the city and the ocean where immense cruise ships come to port, visible on all sides from streams as well as the famous Victory Plaza. The memorial is imposing like the new horizon, an immense building of black granite, covered in silver latticework that imitates the strong aerial roots of a constricting fig tree. It reflects the forbidden fig tree from the Bible. It is said that imprisoned slaves threw down its seeds in hopes of seeing them destroy the dungeon walls. A specimen is visible atop the dungeons of the industrial site’s former vinegar plant. Its style of construction clashes with the Pointois architecture, due to Pascal Berthelot’s Guadeloupean architecture design studio. The project planners want to make it a symbol comparable to the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Opera House in Sydney.

But the outside is surely not as important as its contents. So, what is a "Caribbean Center on the Expression and Memory of Slavery and the Slave Trade?" The question of its classification "will be perpetual," says Victorin Lurel, but "it shouldn’t be seen as a museum." To use the expression of Thierry L’Etang, the head of the project, "the marrow of the project" is still a permanent exposition, in concrete terms. But very different from what already exists. It is organized into about 40 "islands" among six themed "archipelagos," the Americas, Towards Slavery and the Black Slave Trade, the Slavery Period, the Abolition Period, the Follow-up Period, and Today. It includes a succession of exhibitions of potentially evocative objects (Caribbean Indian artifacts, conquistador’s armor and helmets, the chains of Benin slaves...), high quality, contemporary creations, and scenes that immerse you in a Caribbean street during Carnival or in the hold of a slave ship where the walls close in... The visual, experiential, and spatial composition is strong and impressive thanks to Swiss museum specialist François Confino’s design studio. It will surely move numerous visitors profoundly, short of making them specialists in the history of slavery and the slave trade (but the exposition’s aim goes far beyond this subject).

"We are looking at these things with lucidity."

The ACTe Memorial is also a space for temporary exhibits dedicated to contemporary creations, making it a great outlet for the Caribbean arts scene which desperately needs one at present. It will also be a center for research, more specifically, for genealogy, and a place for debates, which is great of course, since the ACTe Memorial isn’t putting an end to any of them. Victorin Lurel believes that "the ACTe Memorial would be perfect if it addresses two questions: one about forgiveness and the other about atonement." These are extremely sensitive questions that have narrowly avoided starting wildfires in the past. They are current questions, incidentally, as demonstrated with the Representative Council of Black Associations of France (CRAN) announcing that it is going to sue Ernest-Antoine Seillière, the former president of MEDEF. The Council has already done so with the Deposits and Consignments Fund and Spie Batignolles company. All of the aforementioned have been accused of building their fortunes on the exploitation of human beings. Elie Domoto, a trade unionist, asked on Sunday for "the repeal of those texts from 1848 and 1849 which indemnified the colonists, since they don’t conform to the French Constitution." "The ACTe Memorial might rekindle these tensions, but we are looking at these things with lucidity," Lurel assured, adopting the project’s motto. "Memory inspires the future."

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