- “I Talk More of The French”Creole Folklore and the Federal Writers’ Project
So the legend of the wild men came gradually back to town, brought by the men who would ride out to watch what was going on, who began to tell how Sutpen would take stand beside a game trail with the pistols and send the negroes in to drive the swamp like a pack of hounds. … The negroes could speak no English yet and doubtless there were more than Akers who did not know that the language in which they and Sutpen communicated was a sort of French and not some dark and fatal tongue of their own.—William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
It is a recurring lament. “We have at our disposal not a single written testimony on the reality of slavery coming from a slave,” writes Louis Sala-Molins in Le code noir (1987), a history of the 1685 decree that officially established racial slavery in the French colonies of the Caribbean (qtd. in Miller 35). Reflecting two decades later, Christopher Miller arrives at the same dire conclusion. “In the English-speaking world, and especially in the United States, the problem of silence [in the historical record of slavery] is significantly offset by testimonies and narratives, beginning with Equiano’s,” he explains. “But in French the problem is far more serious, for there are no real slave narratives in French—not as we know them in the Anglophone Atlantic, not that have yet been discovered. That absence, for now at least, haunts any inquiry into the history of slavery” (34). Doris Kadish, considering the cultural history of slavery in the Francophone Caribbean, echoes this refrain: “The paucity and fragmentation of Francophone material stands in sharp contrast to the rich supply of American slave narratives, for which there is no French-language equivalent” (Slavery xiii). And in the words of Deborah Jenson, in her survey of Haitian letters of the Revolutionary period, this “silence of the slave in the French/Francophone print traditions contrasts with the existence of a considerable body … of slave and ex-slave narratives in the Anglophone arena … dating from the mid-eighteenth century through the 1930s” (2).
But these exclusively Anglophone texts—more than 6,000 extant sources written, dictated, or otherwise produced by slaves and ex-slaves throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early-twentieth centuries—shed light primarily on the history of slavery in the United States, England, the British Caribbean, and Canada.1 Without French-language equivalents, however, the history of slavery in the Francophone arena (the French Caribbean, New France, and Canada) poses considerable interpretative challenges. “What would African American history and historiography be without the testimonies of Olaudah Equiano, [End Page 439] Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, or the dozens of narratives of former slaves?” Miller asks. “That is the condition of the African diaspora in the French Atlantic” (36–37).
These supposed deficits, gaps, lacks, and silences are deeply troubling perhaps most importantly for the unproductive ways in which they have framed and dictated scholarly inquiry into the history and culture of French slavery in the Americas. Miller’s framework, for example, is self-limiting. He considers hypothetically, “Why is there no Francophone Equiano?” and later bemoans that “there is no French Uncle Tom’s Cabin, no singularly influential literary work from which abolitionism gathered strength in its own times and which can serve as a compelling aide-mémoire now” (33, 37). Miller may be correct that there is no Francophone Equiano and no French Uncle Tom’s Cabin, at least according to the terms of his analysis.2 And there are specific and observable historical explanations for why that is the case. But when literary history concerns itself with questions of strict equivalence rather than deeper considerations of resonance—of affinity, kinship, and resemblance—it creates puzzles without viable solutions. The “epistemological challenge” posed by the history of French colonial slavery is both real and imagined (Miller 53). Sala-Molins, Miller, Kadish, Jenson, and the numerous other critics and scholars who have been on the lookout for the Francophone Equiano or the French Uncle Tom’s Cabin—and from various critical perspectives and...