Society

France Facing Demons Of Its Own Slavery History

Saint-Denis's monument to the victims of slavery
Saint-Denis's monument to the victims of slavery
Elise Vincent

SAINT-DENIS - Those going through the Legion d'Honneur Square, not far from the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Denis, in the northern Seine-Saint-Denis suburb of Paris, will perhaps wonder about the presence of a globe-shaped monument in the middle of a flower bed.

As they come closer, they will see that names, surnames and numbers have been etched onto colorful medallions. A plaque at the foot of the monument will tell them that these are the names of former slaves, along with their identification number. There are precisely 213 of them. And if they read to the end, they will learn that these names are also the names of French West Indians, who added their ancestors – found through genealogy – to the list.

This new monument was inaugurated on May 23 by the Minister of Overseas France, Victorin Lurel. The same day, a similar sculpture was unveiled in Sarcelles, in another northern suburb of Paris – Val d’Oise. For the past 15 years, both Sarcelles and Saint-Denis, two cities where the French West Indian diaspora is most important, have been marking the “victims of slavery” on this very day.

These are not the first monuments France has erected to commemorate slavery. Former Presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy even inaugurated one together in 2007, in Paris’s famous Luxembourg Garden.

But even though every little French village has a monument engraved with the names of those who died during World War I and World War II, there are few such monuments for former slaves.

The monuments in Saint-Denis and Sarcelles would certainly not have come to life, without the desire of Antilleans (French West Indians), who wanted to pay homage, in their own name, to the Africans that France reduced to slavery for more than two centuries. The memorials are also the fruit of a little Parisian organization – CM 98 – which struggles to keep alive the memory of slavery's victims -- and make France face this tragic past.

Overcoming the stigma

In most of the French West Indies, even today, lighter skins are considered more attractive than darker skins. Only an experienced eye can tell the difference between the different nuances of black by which many Antilleans define themselves: metis (“mixed-race”), quarteron (“one-quarter black”), chabin (“having two black parents but being light-skinned”)...

This sort of Stockholm syndrome influences family trees. While in France many look for ancestors within the French aristocracy, many in the French overseas territories look for “white” colonists in their family trees, rather than “black” slaves.

The goal of CM 98 is to help all Antilleans – and their descendants – who want to research their family tree. "After years of thinking about it, we came to the conclusion that the problems in our islands were often linked to skin colors," explains CM 98 vice-president Emmanuel Gordien. "We want them to overcome the stigma of slavery, the idea that slaves were dirty and depraved."

On the table of her living room in Aulnay-sous-Bois, in the suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, Chantal Charles-Fred unfolds her family tree. This 45-year-old woman from the French West Indies Island of Martinique has always been curious of her origins. In her home, everything recalls her native island – her trinkets, her two massive aquariums, a tapestry on the wall showing a beautiful beach.

For a long time she researched her family tree by herself. But when she discovered, thanks to CM 98, the person she points to with her finger, at the top of the maternal side of the tree, Charles-Fred says she was shocked to see the caption born in Africa. His name was Maximin Criart – identification number 128. Maximin was 30 when he was emancipated and given a surname.

Chantal doesn’t have any resentment. Like all those who worked with CM 98 to have their ancestors’ names etched into the monuments, she does not intend on filing for financial reparations from the French government.

"For me, it is just a way to affirm myself," she says, "knowing your origins makes you stronger."

CM 98's secret weapon is a unique database of 120,000 names that they were able to build after searching the archives of French overseas territories for seven years. They researched documents that are not known to the general public, but that historians know well: the registers where the surnames of emancipated slaves where written after the abolition of slavery in 1848.

These notebooks, which were inscribed by quill, are called the registries of the “newly freed” in Guadeloupe, and the registries of the “individualities” in Martinique. Before these registers were created, the slaves only had a first name and an identification number. When they were mentioned in official deeds, it was in the same way that cattle or hectares of land were mentioned.

The distribution of surnames were made by officials who were more or less inspired. In some villages they just inverted the syllables of the first names: Marie became "Rima.” Others had mythology on their mind and went with Dionysos (“Dionysus”) or Andromaque (“Andromache”). The unluckiest slaves were afflicted with “shameful names” such as Bracoupe ("Amputed-Arm"), Grospoil ("Big Hair"), Gros Desir ("Big Lust")...

For the sculptures to become a symbol, CM 98 activists made sure there would not only list the names of those who researched their family trees. For many Sundays in a row, they held office at the Saint-Denis and Sarcelles town halls so that anybody with family papers could come and discover the identity of their ancestors.

Tearful discoveries

To be sure that people came, they searched the directories of the two cities. They identified Antillean-sounding family names and wrote to them on the stationary of the Sarcelles and Saint-Denis town halls.

"We have decided to inaugurate a monument to honor the women and men who were victims of slavery (...). If you want the name of your ancestor – your name or your father or mother’s – to be added to the monument, CM 98 is waiting for you," said the letter.

Marie-Veronique Jeremy, 63, a retired nurse answered the call. "Tell me everything," said the volunteer who welcomed her, shaking with emotion and holding her family papers carefully wrapped in plastic.

Marie-Veronique gave her father's name. The computer found the identity of a certain Noel Jeremy, emancipated in 1849, at 47, in Guadeloupe. She started crying: "I am black, but I didn't think..."

Ariane Virginius-Porlon, a CM 98 volunteer, explains: "Even today, in France, we don't tell our children the truth. Every three years they spend their holidays in the islands. They think they will be living the good life, and when they find out their grandparents' house is a hut, they are shocked."

Laura Felip, 33, whose family is from Guadeloupe, had the name of her ancestors engraved on the document. "I was not brought up in the culture of shame," she says.

The window is open. The sun delicately sets. Felip explains that she is often asked for her “residence permit” when she has administrative papers to fill out, even though being from overseas territories makes her fully French. Quietly, she says that she would like those monuments to help people understand that "you can be black and French."

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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