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Politics

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Des chaînes dans la tête

by Raphaël Confiant

Chains Deep in the Mind

Translated Wednesday 24 June 2009, by Isabelle Métral

Peoples that have been knocked about have no memory. Or rather what memory they have obstinately refuses to fall into clear, obvious periods that could be handed down through the generations, and occasionally celebrated.

West Indians are the fruit of a great upheaval that started in the late 15th century in the Christian era, when the Great Admiral of the Oceanic sea landed on the coast of the Guanahani island and confronted the strange and the irreducible.

The Amerindians (as Arawaks, who inhabited the Greater Antilles, and Caraibs, who inhabited the Lesser Antilles, were later to be called) refused to submit to the hubristic dreams of those who, unknown to them at the time, were Europeans.

Of that head-on collision, that first “tabula rasa”, we only know what the chroniclers reported, and none of them were natives. So memory was already half erased, crossed out! Then came the time when black gold was transported from the black continent’s western coast - on through an endless succession of centuries - the whistle of the whip, the painful, stubborn progress through cane fields, and the red earth along their paths.

Hardly any precise memory has come down to us of the great transportation called “trade” in books and therefore in the official version of history, but what survives is something much deeper, in each and every one of us, a sullen, enduring pain, and over a long period of time, the shudder of dread in front of the sea. Whenever we stand facing the sea, we intuitively sense the presence of a long chain of corpses along the sea floor, bodies that died a natural death - of starvation, scurvy, or simply torture - marking out the route to Guinea and Africa - as told in the long-lost tales of the griots of yore.

That route secretly persists in us.

How they settled in that new land, on the slave-owners’ plantations (which we in Martinique prefer to call “habitations”) our memories here are more distinct, but still they are fractured, loose, confused, and even as painfully haunting. We were long afraid of the word itself. So we called it “the time of shackled feet”, “the season of the whip and iron collar” and a hundred other discreet metaphors. In our songs and tales, whether told in the sulky atmosphere of Lent (the rainless season) when the cane must urgently be cut, or proclaimed in the enigmatic darkness of wakes amid laughter and people drinking, that olden time is not directly evoked. As if the word was taboo. “Slave” and “slavery” are words for books or newspapers. They never sully that being-in-the-world that we have had to put back together or even cobble up.

Then the thing without a name, the beast, or more appropriately, the unspeakable will surface in roundabout ways in the course of our life: a mysterious gesture, a sudden deviation in our speech, or casually during a forest walk. Some of us will wander off to nowhere without a warning, having given no previous signs of that real madness , “drive” we call it, in Creole. They were like all the rest of us but one day they break out of their ropes and flee. Then you will see them turning about and about, walking up and down, off and back, with fire in their eyes, their mouth letting out disjointed words. We know they mean no harm. So we leave them alone, knowing that the runaway slave has woken up in them, the absolute refusal of their outrageous present condition.

But it can show in a less spectacular form, not through the body’s “drive”, but through a slip of the tongue. Even as a sentence unfolds smoothly in a regular succession of almost trivial words, there will come the unpredictable turn that takes us by surprise and transfixes the hearers. It might be an onomatopoeia that will not be found in the list we normally use. A cluster of vowels and consonants unknown in Creole that sounds remote. Or it might be some weird image, some far-fetched yoking of words that causes stupor, then elicits a smile in us or in others. The boldness strikes us as perplexing and mysterious. Or it might stumble out of the blue in some “unspeak”, some way of speaking backwards, sideward, underneath or above. Doctors will pronounce you mad. Mad in the thick of your mind. From the slip of the tongue to the unspeak it is a short step – a glissé as in the forward movement of a quadrille or a Creole mazurka. Unspeakers themselves know no taboo. They howl out the forbidden word: SLAVERY!

Standing beside that fractured memory, that patchwork of words, gestures, sufferings, and dreams sometimes, too, that day by day, unknown to us, dwells within us, there are the books. Dates will be found there, names will be discovered: white masters’ names (with a handle), black slaves’ first names. Engravings and paintings showing such atrocious scenes (people hanged by their feet, shut up in barrels spiked with nails, quartered between “four posts”, their backs to the ground, and many other forms of torture) that they seem unreal to us. So much cruelty seems impossible. So we try and decipher the faces, in the hope of recognizing an ancestor or a villainous master. And all in vain, of course. Yesterday is not today, the master-of-speech soberly declares. Does he mean by this that vengeance is inadmissible? That only today’s issues must be tackled? That time erases everything, the outrageous as well as the sublime?

True enough.

But our tragedy originates in our failure (as yet) to throw a bridge between that knocked-about memory, which survives in the deeper strata of our minds, and the perfectly clear and rational memory that survives in print. It is as though two worlds existed side by side, that never met, or inexorably drifted ever farther apart.

That is why we have kept our chains. They are now deep in our minds.

Last work published: l’Hôtel du Bon Plaisir, Mercure de France, 2009


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