Crystal Marie Fleming. Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017. xi + 276 pp. $99.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4399-1408-3; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4399-1409-0.
Reviewed by Sue Peabody (Washington State University)
Published on H-Black-Europe (January, 2019)
Commissioned by Vanessa Plumly (Lawrence University)
The sociologist Crystal Marie Fleming’s recent book, Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy, is a refreshing, enlightening, and stimulating theorization of antiracist organizing, metropolitan Antillean identity, and how color-blind politics facilitates the persistence of white hegemony in twenty-first-century France. Resurrecting Slavery offers a roadmap to and model for understanding contemporary French political identity politics, especially of first- and second-generation middle-class Antilleans in and around Paris. While by no means a comprehensive study of French “blackness” (African and Réunionnais constructions of identity remain mostly marginal to the study’s sample), Fleming’s trenchant analysis of events, organizations, and individuals, through participant-observation and interviews between 2007 and 2010, yields compelling insights into the problem of contesting antiblack racism in a society that resists “race” as a legitimate category of thought.
Americans first encountering French discourse on race inevitably run into mutual dissonance. Racial identity in the United States, generally constructed around the black/white binary (or regional variations such as invocations of “Native American,” “Asian,” “Hispanic” “races”), is so prevalent and immersive in our culture, from media and politics to internal monologues, that—even when we acknowledge these categories as constructed—they seem natural, almost essential, to understand our social and political experience. The work of American intellectuals is to denaturalize these ideas, to historicize them, and to interrogate their utilization in relations of power. Yet the word “race” and the invocation of racial categories can provoke resistance among French people, even scholarly colleagues, from subtle expressions of displeasure to outright hostility. Fleming’s book, building on prior scholarship on French racial ideology, makes it clearer why this is so.
Fleming initiated her inquiry in 2007 with twenty-three months of fieldwork. She attended and videotaped events commemorating slavery and the slave trade and conducted more than sixty interviews with both activists and non-activists, mainly people from the Antilles or born in France to one or more Antillean parents. Her goals were to understand how French “blacks” (in the broadest sense of the term) constitute themselves in group identity and how they do (or do not) relate the history and legacies of slavery and colonialism to modern antiblack racism in the metropole.
Fleming foregrounds her “unapologetically polemical” (p. 11) conclusions based in critical race theory. She observes, especially in official speech by politicians and certain advocacy groups, a pattern of asymmetrical racialization (p. 19)—whereby racialized labels (esp. noir/e, nègre/sse) are ascribed to blacks, but rarely to whites, who are immersed in the universalistic label of “French”—thereby rendering the privileges of whiteness largely invisible and difficult to challenge. Fleming argues that France’s official color-blind policies, such as the 1990 ban on using racial categories in the state’s collection of data and the 2013 vote to remove the word “race” from legal texts (to which can be added, on July 21, 2018, the replacement of the word “race” with “origin” as a protected category in the French constitution), hide antiblack discrimination, whether quotidian or at the level of electoral politics.
Meanwhile, Fleming’s Antillean informants readily use (as does the general French public) terms referencing nonwhite skin color and give testimony to ongoing discrimination (such as housing, employment, hate speech) on the basis of color. Drawing from Tommie Shelby’s formulations of thin and thick blackness,Fleming finds that blackness is recognized both as an external category, applied—often with negative connotations—to individuals whether they identify as “black” or not, as well as a discourse that affirms, somewhat more positively, a shared black identity based in history, culture, pride, resistance, and survival of suffering (pp. 150-51).
I found some of the most fascinating passages of Resurrecting Slavery to be Fleming’s ethnographic notes, transcriptions, and interpretations of the public events commemorating slavery in Paris between 2007 and 2010. Fleming evokes the mise-en-scène of French activists, intellectuals, and the public as they work to connect the crimes of slavery and the slave trade with present inequalities in France, especially in the face of the taboo of invoking racial solidarity, denounced as communautarisme (which Fleming translates as “divisiveness,” p. 38). Chapter 3, “Activist Groups and Ethnoracial Boundaries,” describes the tensions between Caribbean-centered groups and African-centered activist groups, each seeking to represent the collective interests of the descendants of slaves in the metropole. Chapter 4 begins with a survey of the food, consumer goods, and publications available for sale at slavery commemoration events sponsored by these groups, finding that the leaders’ professed identity politics do not always square with the slogans, labels, and titles of merchandise on display. Chapter 4 also records verbatim transcripts of public discussions (débats) in which activists and intellectuals (professors, filmmakers, etc.) engage general audiences in thinking through the history of slavery and its relationship to present-day inequalities and racism. Flemings’s careful ear for how these interactions capture conflicts and negotiations over racial category ascriptions or absences (blackness, whiteness) argues persuasively for a disconnect between elite and popular understandings of race in France today.
One aspect of French racial discourse touched upon, but not fully explored, in several places throughout the book, is French people’s more prominent invocation of métissage and mixed-race categories (e.g., métis, mulâtre/sse, chabin/e), especially as compared to US conceptualizations, which have tended to be more binary in the twentieth century. In her interviews with ordinary (non-activist) Antilleans, Fleming notes that, in contrast to US African Americans, many Antilleans readily acknowledge “European” ancestry (pp. 136-40), but tend to set some distance from (or lack of curiosity about) “African” roots (pp. 140-41). Drawing on the American sociologist Mary Waters’s research, Fleming hypothesizes that the foundational acts of rape that occurred during slavery were too traumatic to be passed along through familial memory to present Antilleans who identify as mixed. But while the strong majority (80 percent) of her informants described themselves as “the descendants of slaves” (p. 131), over half of this group (51 percent) also claimed “Europeans” among their ancestors (p. 136). Several also described color hierarchy within the Antillean community, where lighter skin was viewed as preferable to darker (pp. 130, 173). This pronounced French “tricolor” approach to informal racial thought (white, mixed, black) is arguably another specific legacy of the slavery era. I would argue, in fact, that it originates specifically in the Antilles, where terminology emphasizing degrees of mixity (blanc, mulâtre, gens de couleur, noir), was applied to give some elevated status for the mixed sons and daughters of white men with their concubines, even as it prevented them from achieving social parity with whites. The Antillean racial category libre de couleur (and all its variations, which shared many features with similar caste categorizations in Spanish and some British Caribbean colonies) was codified into metropolitan law in the second half of the eighteenth century, and French men tried to enforce these labels in France’s “other” ancienne colonie, Île Bourbon (today, La Réunion) in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
I found Resurrecting Slavery highly accessible and readable—an excellent work for both the graduate and undergraduate classroom. If you are moved to read this book—and I hope that you will, as it reveals much about shifting and contested ideologies in France today—be sure to read Fleming’s gripping and unflinchingly honest appendix C: “Methodological Reflections.” Historians are not generally asked to reflect carefully on our research methods or experiences (though an occasional anecdote will make its way into a foreword or an afterword). Fleming captures the overwhelming nature of cross-cultural immersion, as a researcher’s set of assumptions confronts an unfamiliar terrain, as well as her self-conscious immersion in theoretical and historical literature to develop a set of concepts to make sense of that experience. One is left with the lingering impression of a formidable mind and spirit.
. Some of the historical works addressing modern or contemporary French racial thought cited by Fleming include: Michèle Lamont, The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2000); Erik Bleich, Race Politics in Britain and France: Ideas and Policymaking since the 1960s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Sue Peabody and Tyler Stovall, eds., The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); Herrick Chapman and Laura Levine Frader, eds., Race in France: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Politics of Difference (New York: Berghahn, 2004); Mary Dewhurst Lewis, The Boundaries of the Republic: Migrant Rights and the Limits of Universalism in France, 1918-1940 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007); Tricia Danielle Keaton, “The Politics of Race Blindness,” Dubois Review 7 (2010): 103-31; Tricia Danielle Keaton, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Tyler Stovall, eds., Black France/France Noire: The History and Politics of Blackness in France (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012); and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Bricktop’s Paris: African American Women in Paris between the Two World Wars (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015).
. One of the important theorists she cites is David Theo Goldberg, The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
. Tommie Shelby, We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).
. Assertions of “biracial” identity are more common in the United States, and specifically authorized since 2000 in census collection categories.
. Mary Waters, “The Role of Lineage in Identity Formation among Black Americans,” Qualitative Sociology 14 (1991): 60, cited in Fleming, Resurrecting Slavery, 140.
. Pierre H. Boulle and Sue Peabody, Le Droit des Noirs en France au temps de l’esclavage (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2014), 83-88.
. On the formulation of French racial thought in the ancien régime, especially with regard to La Réunion, see Mélanie Lamotte, “Colour Prejudice in the Early Modern French Empire, c. 1635-1767” (PhD diss., Cambridge University, 2016); and Nathan Marvin, “Bourbon Island Creoles: Race and Revolution in the French Indian Ocean Colony of Réunion, 1767-1803” (PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 2018).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-black-europe.
Sue Peabody. Review of Fleming, Crystal Marie, Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France.
H-Black-Europe, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|