The Past is Made By Walking: Labor Activism and Historical Production in Postcolonial Guadeloupe

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Kim Hansen, "Stairs of the Slaves." October 19, 2012 via Wikimedia Commons.

The act of walking represents an important (yet under examined) element of political protest and collective action, as well as an increasingly common form of historical commemoration. In this article I examine the development of a series of "memory walks" by labor activists in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. I argue that these peripatetic practices constitute a particular spatial, kinesthetic, and sensorial form of historical and archival production. Along the way, I consider what these events reveal about postcolonial forms of archival production and the importance of historical praxis to the formation of political subjectivities.

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on History & Historiography, including: Danilyn Rutherford's "Sympathy, State-Building, and and the Experience of Empire" (2009), Angela Garcia's "The Elegiac Addict: History, Chronicity, and the Melancholic Subject" (2008), and John Collins's "'But What If I Should Need To Defecate In Your Neighborhood, Madame?': Empire, Redemption, and the 'Tradition of the Oppressed' in a Brazilian World Heritage Site" (2008). 

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of essays on Postcolonialsm, including Julie Livingston's "Suicide, Risk, and Investment in the Heart of the African Miracle" (2009), Jesse Weaver Shipley's "Comedians, Pastors, and the Miraculous Agency of Charisma in Ghana" (2009), and Anand Pandian's "Pastoral Power in the Postcolony: On the Biopolitics of the Criminal Animal in South India" (2009).

About the Author

Yarimar Bonilla is currently an assistant professor of Cultural Anthropology and Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University. Her work focuses on social movements, political imaginaries, colonial legacies, and historical memory in the non-sovereign Caribbean and French Outremer. She is currently working on her first book, an ethnographic study of labor activism in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Dr. Bonilla was previously at the University of Virginia where she was also the coordinator of UVA’s Haiti Working Group.

Additional Works By the Author

2010. "Reinventing the Mass Strike: Prefigurative Politics in Contemporary Guadeloupe." Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 12(1): 125-137.

2010 (with Rafael Boglio). "Puerto Rico in Crisis: Government Workers Battle Against Neoliberal Reform." NACLA Report on the Americas forthcoming January 43(1) 43(1):6-8.

2009. "Guadeloupe on Strike: A New Political Chapter in the French Antilles." NACLA Report on the Americas 42(3):6-10.

2009. "Labor and Protest in Guadeloupe. International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest." Immanuel Ness, Ed. Blackwell pp 1468-1471.

Related Readings

Nora, Pierre 1989. "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire." Representations 26:7-24

Palmié, Stephan 2010. "Slavery, Historicism, and the Poverty of Memorialization." In, Memory: History, Theories, Debates. Susannah Radstone and Bill Schwarts, eds. Fordham University Press.

Munn, Nancy D. 2004. "The 'becoming-past' of places: Spacetime and memory in nineteenth century pre-civil war new york." Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 29(1): 2-19.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995. Silencing the Past : Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press.


Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. How does walking provide access to historical experiences (conaître histoire) that cannot be conveyed in other contexts? Is it simply a result of encountering a new lieux de memoire and lieux d’oubli within the landscape, or is something more at work (think, in particular about the difference with encountering nature vs. encountering monuments)? In particular, what is the relationship of the body and the sensorium to the kinds of memory-practices described in the article

2. What types of historical knowledge are conveyed to participants of Guadeloupe’s historical walks? How do participants encode this knowledge through different kinds of emotional and sensorial experiences? And how do such memory-practices compare with the sorts of historical knowledge gained in other contexts, such as classrooms, archives, or mental recall?

3. What type of subject is made through the practice of fe nonm in the history walks? That is, how is that subject formed through these affectively-charged memory practices (the examples of Adeline and Jean Michel from the essay are particularly instructive in answering this question)? And, why do you think that the task of building a new Guadelopean political subject might require that individuals cultivate an intimate relationship to the past (connaisance)?

4. From an analytic perspective, what does a spatial narration of history entail? How could we imagine narrating other histories spatially, as opposed (or in addition) to sequentially? And, from a methodological perspective, what kinds of novel tools might help us to read the landscape as an alternate historical archive?

5. Similarly, what role do natural topographies—e.g. rivers, trees, valleys, etc.—play in shaping what the author refers to as the “spatiality of history”? How does nature operate as both a source and site of historical memory? Are there any potential risks involved in re-reading history through nature – for instance, can you think of any contexts in which natural topographies have become sites for inscribing (and even naturalizing) hegemonic historical narratives?

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