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Enriching the narrative of Black history and culture in Bordeaux

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Bordeaux-based artist Pascal Koloko stands in front of a billboard of former US President Barack Obama, at a youth centre on the outskirts of Bordeaux during Black History Month Christina Okello for RFI

Campaigners in Bordeaux are seeking new ways of teaching the history of slavery that illustrate the positive contribution of the black community to society, beyond stories of victimhood.


In a dim-lit theatre in the centre of Bordeaux, a small crowd of spectators, many of them curious onlookers, settle into their seats. In the background, the music of Michael Jackson, the face of France’s Black History Month, begins to play.

The music is the late American singer’s 1995 hit Earth Song, whose plea for a better world sets the tone for the evening.

The event is a literary night to celebrate the works of American abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass (1818-1895).

Douglass was an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland in the US, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, gaining note for his oratory and incisive antislavery writings.

Spectator, Anne, an American now living in Bordeaux, says it was “her duty” to be present.

America’s role in slavery “is shameful, but fortunately people are speaking more and more about it,” she tells RFI.

On stage, artist Nirina Ralantoaritsimba starts. 

Entering the 'hell' of slavery

“Are you ready to go on a journey through time and space?” asks the Franco-Malagasy performer.

A hush fills the Inox theatre, as Ralantoaritsimba begins reading a scene from Douglass’s early childhood, taken from his first autobiography A narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave.

“The little Douglass was barely six years old when he witnessed his aunt being flogged by her master,” she reads.

“The more she screamed, the harder her master whipped.”

This scene would stay with Douglass all his life. "It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass, reads Ralantoaritsimba.

The story paints a very bleak image of black history.

Rainbow teaching

Yet Ralantoaritsimba is determined not to leave it there.

Recounting how Douglass rose from nothing to become one of America’s foremost intellectuals, helping to lead the fight against slavery, she extols the virtues of the self-made man, hoping it will rub off on other black people and instill pride.

“We really need to rebalance the story,” she told RFI after her performance.

“We need to bring the history also to France, because slavery is not just an American thing, it was in all the French colonies,” says the former teacher, urging schools to “go back to the roots of people writing,” to improve awareness of slavery.

“The story is not just from a white point of view, the story is from a black point of view and we put it together, and we create all the greys in between, and then we have all the colours of the rainbow,” she said, adding Black History Month had encouraged her to go back into teaching.

In the streets of Bordeaux, there are calls too for a better portrayal of black history.

“I think it’s very important in France to remember the story of black people because many children don’t know it,” says Franco-Senegalese student Sarah Mbengue.

Overcoming the narrative of slavery

However, she insists the narrative should move beyond slavery.

“It is very important to talk about other aspects of black people, not just the dark side with slavery, and discrimination and segregation,” she tells RFI.

Black history is about “overcoming. It is about culture, music.”

Referring to the choice of Michael Jackson as the face of Black History Month, aimed at reshaping black identity, she said: “It is a good idea, because he knew what it meant to be black and white.”

There is less confusion when it comes to her own identity: “I am a young African girl, living in Bordeaux, a melting pot of different communities.”

For some, the southwestern town that played a major role in the African slave trade is a controversial choice to host France’s second Black History Month.

“The town’s wealth was built by selling slaves,” comments José-Daniel Bakyono, a museum officer from Burkina Faso.

Reparations

The trade resulted in the forced removal of millions of Africans, sometimes sold by their own tribal chiefs to white slave-owners, to Europe and from there to colonies in the Americas and Caribbean.

“Africa should be compensated for all of the many brave men it lost,” says Bakyono, who regrets that slavery is not treated on an equal footing with the Holocaust.

“We also suffered just like the Jews. Many slaves died, and entire villages were wiped out,” he told RFI.

In 2001, France recognized slavery as a “crime against humanity,” but stopped short of admitting historical guilt, fearing doing so could make it financially liable.

Bordeaux, which once prospered from the slave trade, has ruled out paying reparations, saying it wants to avoid antagonizing different groups.

Elsewhere, artists like Pascal Koloko from Cameroon feel it is time to move on.

“It is up to black people like me who are here to show to the Bordelians [Bordeaux residents] that it is not a war,” he states.

Celebrating black identity

“Yes, we are proud to be black, but we have a part of us here in Bordeaux too,” he says glancing over at his two mixed-race children whom he has brought to watch Black Panther at a youth center on the outskirts of town.

“It is important for us to see this film which redefines black identity,” he comments.

A groundbreaking celebration of black culture, Black Panther scooped up an Oscar for Best Costume Design on Sunday.

In the fictional African nation Wakanda that it depicts, black viewers discover a cultural oasis that has never been conquered or colonized. An Eldorado that their ancestors, captured and coerced into slavery, could only have imagined.

At the end of the film, attended mostly by schoolchildren, the organizers of Black History Month led by the association Mémoires et Partages ask their young audience to do just that: imagine the Africa they would like to see and draw it.

Making this shift toward stories that value the black experienceis welcome.

“The history of black people is also the history of humanity,” reckons artist Koloko.

We must learn together, work together, so that what happened yesterday does not repeat itself today or tomorrow.”

Black History Month ends on, March 2nd.