ROFL!! : When Teaching History Meets Colonialism in Martinique

I love Martinique.  Love it!  Why?  Because I catch the most jokes here.  I write this with a silly grin, teary eyes and chuckling.  This place is nuts.  It’s like Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted.  Beautiful but incomprehensibly crazy.  Though it might be a crap analogy because I remember feeling like I didn’t ‘get it’.  Although it’s possible that it is therefore the perfect analogy.

But I digress.

What had me laughing so hard I felt compelled to blog about it?  Slavery – history versus the discourse here? The state of education in contemporary Martinique?  Or perhaps both?  I’ll let you decide.

First off, I was not alone.  The group of crying splutterers included me, two Martinican dudes, and two girls, one Martinican and one Guadeloupean.  We had convened at 8am and were reviewing the contribution of our comrade in educational struggle, who was also a Martinican, at around midday.  His task was to translate the fruits typically found in a jaden kréyol Matinitje (literal translation: traditional Martinican creole garden) into kréyol – as in the language so that creole-speaking students learning to read and write their language could have a written reference point aka a dictionary while they learned a bit of Martinican cultural history.  There’s a real and problematic lack of learning materials in creole – the first language of many if decreasing numbers of Martinicans (and St Lucians, Dominicans, Guadeloupeans, Trinidadians and Haitians…Mauritians, and Seychellois…but that’s another story).  Bref, this was an important task.

Like any serious postgraduate student, as well as providing a 20-page illustrated non-alphabetical list mainly of fruits and vegetables not found in a typical jaden kréyol, my man provided an introduction to his work.  In the wrong language.  And as the imminent deadline for the group project began to take it’s toll, it was in consultation with this contribution that we finally cracked. Up.  I blame the pressure.

So as to not be accused of libel, I will quote the original French along with my translation for my English-speaking peeps:

“Certains étaient connus des Caraïbes à leurs arrivés, alors que autres furent importés  par  les  Européens  ou  les  esclaves  Africains  pendant  la  période  de  la Colonisation (1635-1685).”  

So on its own it probably isn’t that funny.  But I will share it in English anyway.   In describing the fruits of Martinique he says,

“Some fruits are native to the Caribbean region, whereas others were imported by the Europeans or African slaves during the colonisation period (1635-1685)”

I can’t see your response to the quote, but I can tell you ours.  All of us fell about laughing except the Guadeloupean who didn’t hear when it was first read out.  Note: it was a group translation session so we went through each text line by line. We weren’t being mean.

For us, the Middle Passage was a nightmarish historical fact experienced by our grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents.  Or our ancestors for short.  It was involuntary and it did not involve pre-planning; no preparation nor packing.  As far as we’re aware, there was no knowledge at all of what would be experienced either on the journey, or when they finally arrived in their new homes on the parts of our ancestors.*  There’s an image on the top right of this page of the inside of a famous slave ship.  We were gathered to work on a bank holiday on the production of teaching materials we were creating collaboratively.  Our colleague’s description was simply so contrary to our oral histories and historical records that the flabbergastedness dissolved into hilarity in a matter of nanoseconds.

One of the Martinicans, a tall dude with locks down to his thigh, explained the joke to our perplexed comrade.  He dramatised the implications of our colleague’s version of history animatedly; I’m transcribing what he enacted.  This is NOT what happened in the run up to our ancestors’ arrival in the Caribbean:

One day, white people arrived on the west coast of Africa.  The local Africans looked at each other and said ‘Alors les gars (okay guys) nou ka pati (we’re leaving).  Looks like we’re going to Martinique, so er, let’s get to packing.’  They then each filled up two big recyclable supermarket shopping bags with their favourite fruits and vegetables (in dude’s version this was sac cabas Hyper U, but pick whichever big supermarket chain is most relevant to your setting for the appropriate cultural reference; Super J’s, Tesco, Walmart…), one in each hand and a few fruits stuffed into pockets for the journey.  Then they climbed into a slave ship. When they got to Martinique, they unpacked the aforementioned fruits and vegetables they’d brought from home, combined them with the produce the white people had brought, and those the local Caribs were growing, and together they all built the first Jaden Kréyol.

We laughed cos otherwise we’d cry.  We laughed because while it was an easily corrected error, in context, it was depressing.  Unfortunately it is not especially uncommon to meet people who can wave a piece of paper at you to prove that they are educated, but without which you would take a really really long time to be convinced it was true.  To live in Martinique with a mild appreciation of history and stay sane and sociable, sometimes you actually have to suspend your ability to reason.

We didn’t even get to questioning the dates of the colonial period. I’m not an expert in Martinican or Caribbean history, and although my French is respectable enough, connotation is easily lost in translation.  Colonisation in French could indicate ‘initial settlement’ or ‘pre-slavery’ as opposed to the ‘until decolonisation and/or independence’ like it does in English.  It must do, because to state 1685 as the date of the end of the colonial period in Martinique would be extreme revisionism even by French standards.

Differing perspectives on the role of the University of the French West Indies are playing their part in its current dismantling

Differing perspectives on the purpose of the University of the French West Indies are playing their part in its current dismantling

As for the state of education in Martinique…simply put, Franz Fanon is from around here.  When I first read Black Skin, White Masks I was living here.  I was horrified by how accurately he described the commonly-found complexes in the country I know a bit and love a lot almost exactly 50 years before I got here.  This is also the place Aimé Césaire called home.  There’s a reason why their articulations of blackness and the inferiority complex birthed by colonialism were so good they famously inspired a generation of black power activists and Steve Biko to name a few.  This place is special.

Last semester I ran a short course entitled ‘Black Thinkers’ profiling some of the ideas of some famous black mostly Caribbean men from history;  George Padmore, CLR James, Julius Nyere, Henry Sylvester Williams, Edward Wilmot Blyden, Steve Biko, WEB DuBois, Malcolm X.   The class was difficult, often requiring French-speaking students to read long speeches in English from a century or two ago.  But we persevered with a good-sized group for a while.

Despite their location in the heart of the Caribbean basin, my (all black) students had had few previous occasions to study ‘black stuff’.  Black History Month doesn’t exist here, and no, although most people here are black, every month is not black history month.  One of my students recounted being in primary school and learning about his ancestors, les Gaulois; the (allegedly) white indigenous inhabitants of France who preceded the arrival of the Romans.  He received his education from primary through to postgrad in Martinique.  Another recalled the furore when France added slavery, the historical phenomenon which literally dominated the Martinican physical and social landscape for centuries, to the school curriculum…when she was in secondary school. As she’s an average-aged final year undergrad student, I locate that happening anywhere between 5 and 10 years ago.

So in case I’ve not been clear, in Martinique you have a whole country where children are not taught their or the country’s history in any kind of methodical way. Compound that with the fact that France – which designs the curriculum for school and university education here – has not made anything resembling peace with its colonial past; if I recall correctly, after the success of the film Les Indigènes highlighted the contributions and experiences of Algerian soldiers in the second world war, the French Assembly overturned a controversial law compelling history teachers to highlight the positive sides (plural!) of French colonialism.  Less than a decade ago.  This makes for some very confused adults walking around with some very peculiar ideas about history, and some seriously colonial ideas of what it means to be black and Caribbean in the twenty-first century.  Some 50 years after what I learnt about as the end of the classical imperial period in school. Or at least the ‘Winds of Change’ speech.

I should add here something about The Obama Effect.  Martinicans have a very personal relationship with the US prez Barack Obama.  They make jokes about talking to him on the phone, or him coming over for dinner, they name bars after him.  He’s something like an unanticipated Messiah to a nation of agnostics and atheists.  A one man Windies team to Caribbean people in England in the 70s.  But with the stubborn inferiority complex which is right at home in the popular psyche of Martinicans.  There are those who are as disappointed as the rest of us, but the overwhelming Martinican feeling seems to be instinctive adulation.  But take that with a pinch of salt because like I said, Angelie Jolie, Girl Interrupted: I’m an outsider and I don’t really get it when it’s all said and done.

This is what an extremist looks like (at carnival).  "Martinique, Flower Island, is ours"

This is what an extremist looks like (at carnival): “Martinique, flower island, it is ours”

Of course, teaching history in Martinique is particularly special because only political extremists call it a country: ‘Yes but Martinique is not a country it’s a region of Francepeople explain straight-faced when you ask a simple question.  Like why Martinique seems to be the only country in the world that I’ve visited with no regular system of public transport.  I don’t expect 24 hour cross-country trains everywhere I go, but if I can’t hail a taxi on a Sunday afternoon in the ‘capital’, surely that’s a problem?  Never before had I considered getting a bus at 8pm on a Tuesday evening in a major town centre as living the dream.  I road tripped around Haiti and Cambodia with ease, wandered around Cuba and the Gambia, all on local buses without blinking an eye, but have to hitchhike to get to church independently on a Sunday here.  And I live in the city.  I’ve never been anywhere where rumours of closed petrol stations provoke the same reaction as dangerous weather.  In fact, rumours of closed petrol stations blatantly provoke a stronger reaction – stockpiling like it’s the apocalyse – than adverse weather here.

Sorry that was another huge digression.

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery none but ourselves can free our minds?  Liberate our minds by any means necessary?  The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed?  A people without roots is a people without a future?  Can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been? If you don’t write your history someone else will do it for you?  These ideas do not have traction here from what I can tell.  I know I grew up in a funny sort of place where kids went to Saturday school to learn their culture, history and languages whether they were of Turkish, Chinese or Caribbean parentage so I perhaps find it particularly abnormal but still.  Doesn’t anyone else find this all let’s not teach history properly a little Village of The Damned??  As in super weird?

My know-it-all little sister and I were just chatting on facebook.  I told her my Martinican sister-girl had told me the only reason I was surprised to meet a head honcho in a majority black country who’s white, is cos I’m not from here.  When black people get senior managerial jobs in Martinique, she says, the black staff ‘have difficulty’ accepting their authority so they’re always discredited.  Unless they’re not Martinican, then it’s less controversial.  Martinicans are not comfortable taking orders from people who aren’t white she reckons.  Perhaps it is this, rather than language, which makes Martinicans so unlikely to spend time in the English-speaking Caribbean.

Smartarse (my sis) is also the cynic of the family.  To her, it’s unsurprising that in Martinique all the top jobs go to white people recently arrived or imported specially from France, rather than people – white or otherwise – who were born, grew up, and – horror – educated here.  Smartarse says ‘It’s a colony. colonies historically are run on a belief and political system which holds up the superiority of the coloniser.’  I have clearly been in Martinique too long cos I stuttered. 

So to accompany this random collection of thoughts on history teaching and Martinique this week I will leave you with an image.  The backstory: enjoying an engrossing chat at lunchtime, a couple of friends decide to do the afternoon’s work on the beach.  Cos what’s the point in living in the Caribbean if you can’t relocate to a gorgeous beach at a moment’s notice?  They actually worked too: in glorious sunshine and to the sound of the waves.  Unfortunately their afternoon is spoilt by the reality they were trying to forget.  This people, is a snapshot of life in Martinique; constantly trying to forget the unpalatable truth before your very eyes.

The Elephant in the Péyi; French Colonialism

The Elephant in the Péyi; French Colonialism


*In case you’d like an idea of how it probably DID happen, Agabond is a black history hobbyist who gives a short version of the transatlantic slave trade here.



2 thoughts on “ROFL!! : When Teaching History Meets Colonialism in Martinique

  1. Pingback: Five Reasons to be Ridiculously Excited about Going to Ghana | movingblack

  2. Pingback: Battledream Chronicle: Lame Name, Awesome Film | movingblack

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