Persistent racial tension in France is symptomatic of 'un passé qui ne passé pas' — a past that will not pass.

Renée Gosson, associate professor of French and Francophone studies, has built her scholarly oeuvre on the literature and culture of the French Caribbean, particularly in the way that the French West Indies have been assimilated by France in language, culture and landscape.

Last year, she served as the professor-in-residence for the Bucknell en France program, which is held at the Université François Rabelais inTours.

As one whose studies mostly take her to Martinique or Guadeloupe — both former French colonies turned overseas departments — Gosson wanted to take advantage of being in France. "There's a long colonial history of tension between these two parts of the world," she says. "I decided to take students to the No. 1 city that had participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Nantes."

Her students learned that France enslaved four times as many Africans as the United States did and kept slavery legal until 1830, much longer than any other European country.

Back in Tours, the students interviewed their host families about their knowledge of the French slave trade. A number of them reported that their host families didn't know anything about Africans being exported to the Caribbean. And that, Gosson told them, is significant. "France has still not reconciled itself with this slave past," she says.

This trip to France inspired a book project for Gosson, who is intrigued by the ironies and complexities.

She says, "Since 2001, France is the first country that has voted slavery a crime against humanity." And yet, France suffers a collective amnesia about its own participation. Her book will examine the attempts — or lack thereof — to commemorate the slave trade, slavery and abolition on both sides of the French Atlantic.

"Persistent racial tension in France," says Gosson, "is symptomatic of 'un passé qui ne passé pas' — a past that will not pass." She sees the path towards reconciliation in breaking the silence and educating modern-day French about France's colonial history.

Posted July 2010