Book Review: Politics of Memory: Making Slavery Visible in the Public Space, edited by Ana Lucia Araujo

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
Author: Gert Oostindie1
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  • 1 KITLV & Leiden University, 2300 RA Leiden, the Netherlands
Open Access

Ana Lucia Araujo (ed.), Politics of Memory: Making Slavery Visible in the Public Space. New York: Routledge, 2012. xi + 296 pp. (Cloth US$125.00)

The past two decades have witnessed an unprecedented series of public commemorations of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas, sparked by jubilee years such as 1804/2004 (bicentennial of the establishment of the Haitian Republic), 1848/1998 (150 years after the second French abolition of slavery), 1807/2007 (bicentennial of the British abolition of the slave trade), and 1863/2013 (150 years after the Dutch abolition of slavery). Commemorations in Europe linked up with a longer and more deeply rooted series in the Caribbean, the United States, and Latin America to give this troubling but constitutive period in world history its due place in the dominant historical narratives of the nations involved. In all of this, African nations tended to remain slightly peripheral.

Commemorations involved a wide range of activities, from official expressions of regret and occasional apologies through the production of museum exhibitions, theater plays, musicals, movies, and television series, the erection of monuments, and the publication of scholarly studies and educational materials. Many of these efforts were framed as a symbolic form of reparations. In addition, financial reparations were demanded by some organizations as well as African and Commonwealth Caribbean states—so far without success.

Scholarly analyses of this Atlantic commemorative process have followed, and Ana Lucia Araujo’s Politics of Memory falls squarely in the middle of this burgeoning subfield of cultural heritage studies. The outcome of a workshop at the 2011 American Historical Association Meeting, the book offers an introduction by the editor and fourteen case studies divided somewhat arbitrarily into a section on national narratives and another on museums. As its title suggests, the volume does not aim to offer new data or insights on the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas as such, but rather on the ways these have been and are being commemorated. In this, Politics of Memory does a fine job.

In her introduction, Araujo discusses some of the basic concepts in memory studies, starting with the inevitable reference to Maurice Halfwach’s notion of collective memory and moving on to historical memory and its crystallization in monuments, museums, memorials, and the like—in short, the “memorialization and heritagization” (p. 1) of this past. The rest of the book answers many of the questions she raises about the shaping of public memory, focusing on methods as well as political stakes and public reactions. There is no way to do justice to all the contributions in this volume; suffice it to say that they are all well worth reading. Most of the contributors, often drawing on their own experiences in the field, point to problems in the representation of an unspeakable horror, note obstacles in overcoming contemporary divides between black and white audiences, and reflect on questions of ownership, positionality, and the like. What strikes me is that many contributions are written in a cautiously optimistic tone, expressing confidence that the very act of discussion and representation of this past is part and parcel of a process not just of commemoration, but also of healing.

As so often happens with edited volumes based on workshops, the composition of the book is not altogether balanced. There is a heavy emphasis on the Anglophone Atlantic, with four contributions on the United States, two on the United Kingdom, and one each on Bermuda, Gambia, and Mauritius. There are two contributions on France and two on Brazil. Only one essay, a fine case study by Araujo herself, compares monuments erected for “perpetrators” (in Brazil, Benin, and England). There is no problematization of this Anglo-Saxon dominance, so typical of Black Atlantic studies, or of the still strong tendency in slavery studies and in the literature on commemoration to take American and British slavery, its legacies, and commemorations as the default model.

Contributions on other Caribbean and Latin American nations are missing, as are chapters on the Netherlands, Spain, and Portugal. Unfortunately the introduction does not attempt to make up for this by painting a broader canvas, which would have provided Araujo an opportunity to reflect on discrepancies in memorial cultures within Europe, and hence discuss the consequences of the presence and political clout of postcolonial Afro-European communities. After all, British, Dutch, and French “rediscoveries” and recognitions of this shameful past responded directly to urges from Afro-descendant organizations, and could not be ignored precisely because the “communities” they represent are voluminous and have successfully developed a political lobby that appeals to white constituencies. Conversely, the small number of descendants of former slaves living in Portugal and Spain explains why these countries, in spite of their heavy engagement in the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas, have so far failed to develop a critical public reflection on this part of their history.

Politics of Memory is recommended for anyone interested in the ways the history of the slave trade and slavery, as well as its real and alleged legacies, are commemorated today. This is a book written by researchers and cultural heritage workers with an explicit activist engagement talking to other practitioners in the same field. But rather than adopting a self-righteous tone, most of the contributions are nuanced and forthright about the dilemmas and pitfalls of bringing about a public debate on a past that, in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s words, “can’t be ignored [but] can only processed, digested and represented, time and again” (cited, p. 264).

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