Comparative Literature and English

Students Confront France’s Colonial Past in Le Havre

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In the last of our articles on the Postcolonial Literatures and Theory class, Associate Professor Sneharika Roy explains how the Le Havre study trip and the course’s collaboration with activist and theater director Jocelyn Brudey contrast postcolonialism’s academic theory with its artistic interpretations. This article builds on the themes discussed in the first and second entries in the series.

In March 2019, students in my Postcolonial Literatures and Theory class took part in a unique learning experience that saw them faced with France’s colonial past and involvement in the slave trade. I co-organized the initiative with Jocelyn Brudey, a French activist, theater director, writer and actor of Guadeloupian origin. It had three phases: a study trip to the French coastal town of Le Havre involving archival research and role-play; an on-campus discussion; and a live performance of Brudey’s work in progress, Terre-de-bas, with musical accompaniment on electric guitar and accordion.

Brudey’s work engages with the concepts of identity, nationalism and colonialism in a way that resonates with postcolonial theory. “I self-identify as African, an Afro-descendant, citizen of the world and of Le Havre, as European, as complex,” he explains. The study trip began with a guided visit to Le Havre’s Municipal Archives. Pierre Beaumont, Vincent Thierry and Charles Collignon, who work at the Archives, gave the class a guided tour. Students interacted with manuscripts dating from Le Havre’s colonial past, including the diary of a slave trader.

“We were shown signatures of a ship’s crew from the 18th century,” said Ellis Carter, a creative writing student who attended the trip. The class viewed documents that acted as insurance receipts, reimbursing slave traders for slaves that died during the passage from Africa. Carter explained that the documents read more like a record of material transactions than of the loss of human life: “There were no names mentioned of the lost slaves.” This archival experience was juxtaposed with an artistic experience; Brudey encouraged the students to perform a theatrical adaptation of one of the slave registers, the idea being to foster a more human connection to the past than can be provided by names and numbers.

Later in the semester, Brudey came to AUP along with his collaborators – musician Maxime Perrin and translator Laure Guilhem – to discuss his latest work, Terre-de-bas, a theatrical performance inspired by Aimé Césaire’s Journal of a Homecoming. Brudey explained how important the text was to the Francophone black community, referring to it as “an explosion”: “Finally, we had our masterpiece, our great literary work.” Terre-de-bas immortalizes Brudey’s Guadeloupian island home while exploring his slave ancestry and his hybrid identity in France today.

“I enjoyed seeing the process of collaboration with Maxime Perrin and Laure Guilhem, which brought Brudey’s vision for Terre-de-Bas to life,” said Sam Wertz, a student in the class. By incorporating both artistic and academic interpretations of postcolonial themes, the course exposes students to a wide range of perspectives in postcolonial theory. During the discussion, Perrin reminded students that the accordion, long considered an instrument typical of French village life, had a multicultural history spanning Europe, the Americas and China. Guilhem, who translated extracts of Terre-de-bas into English, drew students’ attention to the importance of context when translating, arguing that “a word without a context does not mean anything.”

Finally, Brudey treated students to an exclusive preview of Terre-de-bas. The performance was an ecstatic expression of the notion of hybrid identity, oscillating between languages (English, French, Haitian Creole and Wolof), instruments (the accordion and the electric guitar, juxtaposing French tradition and black Francophone diasporic identity) and media (visual projections, music, voice, silence and the spontaneous dances of Brudey and the students). The performance culminated in Brudey’s call for un avenir zèbre – or “a zebra future” – in which the descendants of black slaves and white colonialists coexist in both Guadeloupe and France.

This is the last article in the series dedicated to my Postcolonial Literatures and Theory class; I hope you have enjoyed this closer look at scholarly life at AUP. Postcolonial studies offers ample opportunity for incorporating experiential learning initiatives; by its very nature, the subject requires an appreciation of how cultural, social and political power dynamics manifest in real-world scenarios. AUP, with its Parisian setting and international student body, offers a vibrant intellectual space in which to explore these complex issues.