Bayart: African Doorways into American History

by zunguzungu

From Jean-Francois Bayart’s Global Subjects: A Political Critique of Globalization:

“…historical memory is a complex and fallacious process whose emotional power is at least partially disconnected from the tangibility of facts. Without going as far as the grotesque consecration of Michael Jackson in the Akan village of Krinjabo in the Ivory coast (his unconscious had suggested that his ancestors came from here), the pilgrimages made to the island of Goree by Afro-Americans with a hankering after ‘roots’ demonstrate it in an exaggerated way. It is not even certain that the famous House of Slaves ever was such a place, and it is certain that the majority of captives whose descendants people the United States did not come from Senegambia. Nonetheless, even if one needs to put a spin on the facts, it is easier and less dangerous to meet one’s past a few cables’ length away from Dakar than in the delta of the Niger, in Fernando Po or Sao Tome. The need felt by Bill and Hillary (or by George W. and Laura) to have themselves photographed in the doorframe of the mythical door, which the ancestors of their electors supposedly crossed, confirms that it is not actually just a matter of cultural and family tourism, nor of any sorrowful or nostalgic contemplation of history, but rather of the self-expression of contemporary power. In any case, one result of the Civil War, and the massive European immigration and the social phenomenon of racism that ensued, is that the memory of slavery in the United States assumed a political importance out of all proportion to the slave labor that was really transported there and to the effective conditions of its existence, if we take as our measure the slave societies of the Caribbean or Brazil.”

I’m not sure I’m comfortable with completely eliding the difference between George W. Bush and African-American “heritage tourists,” but then that’s more a corellary of the point he’s tryin to make. In any case, what I find valuable about such an exercise is the way that emphasizing the a-historical logic of this kind of tourist imaginary makes it easier to place the work it does in the context of larger political narratives. And the strange self-serving ritual of a white US president’s pilgrimage to Goree speaks volumes.