- Listening to the History of Those Who Don't Forget
Almost twenty-five years ago, Martin Klein observed that it would be especially interesting for historians of Africa, albeit with great difficulty, to analyse traditions of migration among groups who had escaped slavery and to examine whether these groups remembered and transmitted such traditions. Klein's article soon became a major milestone in the scholarship of slavery in West Africa, as it was the first methodological study to approach directly the complex topic of slave memories. While Klein remained rather sceptical on the possibilities of retrieving such memories though, his article offered nonetheless a strategic point of departure for future research to which I am still deeply indebted.
My study of the history of slavery and emancipation in villages of Mali and Senegal is largely a re-examination of some of Martin Klein's initial hypotheses. I have been especially interested in how the modes of memory transmission in these villages testify to the vulnerabilities of emancipated slaves at the beginning of the twentieth century in Western Sudan.
In interviews I conducted in Mali and Senegal from 2008 to 2010, the exact circumstances of the foundation of these villages often remained [End Page s27] illusive. Did these people simply escape Samori's wars as some of their descendants claimed? Or had they been taken by Samori and sold into slavery along the slave trade roads of Western Sudan, as colonial documents seemed to imply? The reluctance of some of my interviewees to dig into the past may resonate with Klein's findings over the possibility of recovering such memories more than hundred years later. But crosschecked interviews also demonstrated that this situation was more of a "public secret"1 than of an effacement of these memories.
Yet, it is difficult to know under which circumstances these histories have been transmitted and to what extent the trauma of slavery may have played a role in their circulation.2 It is also almost impossible to know where in the chain of memory transmission silencing may have occurred. But we can nonetheless suspect as Klein does that some of these silences may have already occurred in the decades following the creation of these villages.
The colonial and local ideologies prevailing at the time of abolition prevented the stigma of slavery from disappearing. Transmitting such memories only within the family was probably an efficient strategy to rebuild lives without having to carry on the stigma of slavery or to completely deny this part of the family history. Confining the history of slavery to a "public secret" was most likely also a necessary step in conveying an authoritative identity at a time when slavery had not completely disappeared. Abolition had certainly been promulgated in French West Africa in 1905, but the conditions of social and economical emancipation were not yet fully established.
The postcolonial context did not allow the public expression of these memories either. Following the independence and with the diffusion of the nationalist ideology, the memory of the colonial oppression occulted the memory of internal slavery.
So, it's not only that slaves and their descendants preferred in some instances to forget about this traumatic past, but it is also because the production of local memories always remained conditioned by the possible [End Page s28] reception of such voices. If the society in a whole is not ready to listen to these memories, if the authorities make the people concerned understand that it is inconvenient to talk about it, why should the descendants of slaves claim such memories beyond the infra-official level?
Former slaves and their descendants did transmit their experience but in ways that have challenged colonial and postcolonial discourses on slavery and emancipation and continue to challenge us, scholars, who have been slow to or have refused to hear and acknowledge when and how these voices were spoken. It is therefore important to examine how questions on slavery and emancipation were/are asked, by who...