Howard University history professor Ana Lucia Araujo and Carnegie Mellon French professor Mame-Fatou Niang discussed recent debates regarding the removal of statues that depict slave traders and owners in Europe at an event Wednesday afternoon.
Roughly 180 participants tuned into the seminar hosted by The Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies and moderated by Harvard French history professor Mary D. Lewis. The conversation was contextualized by the demonstrations against police violence and racist legacies, which erupted across Europe following the death of George Floyd in May of this year.
Lewis said that she was not surprised that George Floyd’s murder and other incidences of U.S. police brutality resonated so strongly with citizens of France — a country with a complicated color-blind outlook on race, typically a taboo topic.
“After George Floyd was murdered, France had perhaps the largest Black Lives Matter demonstration anywhere in the world,” she said. “People weren’t just condemning the racism in the United States, which would have been one way of interpreting it, but rather associating what happened to George Floyd with another death in police custody by a similar means." Adama Traoré unexplainably died in police custody in France in 2016.
Araujo and Lewis began by talking about monuments as memorialization of colonialism in Europe. Araujo, author of “Slavery in the Age of Memory: Engaging the Past,” emphasized that removing monuments that pay homage to those who defended and participated in the Atlantic slave trade is not an unprecedented trend. She pointed to crowds that tore down monuments during the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolution, and the fall of Eastern Europe’s communist regimes to highlight that this is not an isolated phenomenon.
Araujo said she disagreed with French President Emmanuel Macron’s argument that France would, “erase no trace or names of its history, it will forget none of its works, it will tear down none of its statues.”
“You don't erase a history by removing a monument. Then, the history is written, is stored, and is preserved elsewhere, in museums, in the archives and in scholarship,” Araujo said.
Niang said that she worries that the momentum from the 2020 demonstrations in France, in addition to similar protests in the past several years, may be misconstrued as attacks against France.
Niang stressed that beheading a pro-slavery statue is a powerful symbol — breaking down longstanding barriers around these conversations.
“People would express themselves on the statue, and here, I use the word express not deface,” she said. “The statue became a receptacle, the page on which was inscribed stories of the city.”
These inscribed stories, she added, run contrary to the misconception that the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade is relevant only to its descendants or those living in America and Brazil.
“In our education, how come people cannot see this as a history of France, but it's seen as an outside history,” Niang said.
The seminar ended with an audience Q&A. Many attendees asked about adding educational plaques to statues of slave traders, or if more substantial actions should be taken. Both Niang and Araujo added that in addition to plaques, there needs to be substantial changes to educational institutions in France.
“Right now, it looks like any memorialization or any education on race and memory especially among questions on race and slavery, is happening in real time, and everywhere, but in textbooks or in institutional settings,” Niang said. “We cannot maintain monuments to white supremacy outside, as it exists here in the United States, and on the other hand, claim to write textbooks that will be accurate.”
Wednesday’s event is part of a two-part series. Next semester, their event — “Race and Representation” — will touch on political representation in Europe.
Correction: October 22, 2020
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Mary D. Lewis said she was surprised George Floyd's murder resonated in France. In fact, she said she was not surprised.