White cruelty or Republican sins? Competing frames of stigma reversal in French commemorations of slavery
This article contributes to research on stigma by exploring how activists use the commemoration of slavery to shame the practitioners of Atlantic slavery, thereby challenging historical and contemporary representations of their group members. Through analysis of activists’ discourse and ethnographic observation of events about the history and memory of slavery, I show how a French Caribbean1 association, the 1998 March Committee (CM98),2 and a pan-African association, the Collective of Daughters and Sons of Deported Africans (COFFAD),3 interpret and respond to the stigmatization of slaves and their descendants. I demonstrate that differences in the groups’
destigmatization strategies reflect their divergent conceptions of ethnoracial identity. Moreover, despite their attempts to assert the dignity of the enslaved and their descendants, I argue that both associations ultimately reinforce stigmatizing images of slavery. Before turning to the empirical case, I present a framework for theorizing the commemoration of slavery as destigmatization. I then provide a brief overview of French Atlantic slavery and present data on commemorations in Paris. Commemorations make use of symbols, texts and rites to recall the
past in collective settings (Schwartz 2001). Commemorative events are often key arenas in which collective identity is defined and negotiated, as indicated by Durkheim’s (1995) observation that groups use ritual remembrance of ancestors to generate solidarity. The ‘invention’ of tradition (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1984) was a major feature of national projects in Europe from 1870 until 1914. As rulers sought to germinate new bonds of solidarity in the midst of rapid social change, they institutionalized new commemorations, ceremonies, anthems and national symbols to legitimize their authority. Some dimensions of a nation’s history produce contention rather
than consensus (Kertzer 1988; Bodnar 1992). Atlantic slavery, like the memory of the Vietnam war (Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz 1991) and South African apartheid (Teeger and Vinitsky-Seroussi 2007), exemplifies what Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz (1991) refer to as ‘difficult pasts’: historical periods and events whose memories generate ambivalence and conflict. In Paris, agents of memory and ordinary people confront the difficult past of slavery in large, state-recognized ceremonies as well as smaller, grassroots protests, debates and other collective settings. Goffman’s (1963, p. 4) theory of stigma applied not only to physical
deformities and discrediting behaviours and beliefs, but also to negative attributes ‘transmitted through lineages’ via the categories of race, nation or religion. Members of collectivites whose predecessors were low status and viewed as inferior (morally or otherwise) may re-interpret the representation of their history. In so doing, they fashion strategies to assert their equality or even superiority over historically dominant groups. Thus, Somalis in Toronto use alternative status criteria to stigmatize white Canadians (Kusow 2004), while African-American elites use religion and competence to disconfirm stereotypes and affirm their cultural membership (Lamont and Fleming 2005). Killian (1985, p. 9) defines ‘stigma reversal’ as ‘the imputation of guilt and moral inferiority to the members of a dominant group on the basis of descent when the moral justification of the group’s position of advantage is being redefined.’ Wimmer (2008, p. 1037) usefully refers to ‘transvaluation’ strategies of ethnic boundary making that ‘try to re-interpret or change the normative
principles of stratified ethnic systems’. He distinguishes between equalization strategies (Lamont and Bail 2007), which attempt to establish parity between unequally valued groups, and normative inversion, which rebuts stigma by infusing the collective identity of low-status groups with positive meaning. As we will see later, normative inversion plays a central role in CM98 and COFFAD’s efforts to destigmatize the historical and contemporary meaning of their group members.