Friday 29 May 2015


By Brenda F. Berrian

It is a cool afternoon at the Place de la République in Paris, and, clad in black, several people of Caribbean descent are kneeling on the pavement to form Le Brick, or la fresque humaine (The Brick, or the Human Fresco), with their bodies flat on green mats to duplicate the way in which their departed ancestors had been packed onto the bottom of a slave ship.

People attending the commemoration.
Photo: Brian Cook / Golden Sky Media
This is May 23, 2015, and the participants who make up la fresque humaine are among more than 30,000 people of Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Réunion and various other ethnic origins at the 17th annual memorial commemoration of slave ancestors.

The free 13-hour Limyè bayo (Light for Them) program, with the themes of Acknowlegement and Reconciliation, also includes vendors, speakers, dancers and a free concert. 

This celebration is held under the auspices of Le Comité Marche du 23 mai 1998 (The Committee for the March of May 23, 1998, or CM98). This group lobbies the French government on issues related to Caribbean history, including the National Assembly’s passage of the 2001 Taubira Law and the inauguration of a holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery.

Serge Romana and Joycelyne Beroard
Photo: Brian Cook / Golden Sky Media
“We have come to honor our great-grandparents,” announced Serge Romana from the stage set up at the Place de la République.

Romana, who's a Guadeloupean professor of medicine and president of CM98, served as one of the evening’s hosts.  “The holiday erases the shame that people feel upon hearing the word slavery…The name I carry is my great-grandmother’s that was given to her in 1848, when slavery was abolished. It isn’t so long ago,” he said.

After her performance, Jocelyne Béroard, the Martinican singer of the band Kassav’, said: “In Martinique, everyone wanted to forget about slavery and its history. For them, slavery symbolized pain. They had to deconstruct what was constructed in their minds. When Guy Deslauriers’ 2003 movie The Middle Passage about the indignities and sufferings of slavery on a ship from Africa to the New World was shown, people walked out and demanded back their money whereas I cried. They and I must know our history in order to move forward.”

Spectators enjoying the concert.
Photo: Brian Cook / Golden Sky Media
CM98 was founded after the Paris march of May 23, 1998, in which 40,000 people including Caribbean nationals, Africans and Europeans protested  racial discrimination in complete silence from la Place de la République to la Place de la Nation. The CM98’s main purpose was the rehabilitation and defense of the memory of colonial slave ancestors who were based in French Guiana, Martinique and Guadeloupe.

The march was unprecedented because not more than 1,000 or 2,000 Caribbean people usually showed up for other marches. This time, however, the Caribbean population chose to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery to ensure that the present and future generations would know their true history, which had not been taught in the French-oriented school system through the Caribbean islands.

Christiane Taubira
 (photo: SWAN)
In June 1983, the French Republic instituted the commemorations of the abolition of slavery throughout the overseas departments (DOM-TOM). The law of June 30, 1983, accorded a holiday to the departments. Then, on May 23, 2001, the Taubira Law was passed by the National Assembly to recognize that slavery was a crime against humanity. In 2008, after many debates, May 23 was chosen as the official date to honor the slave ancestors in France. Yet Martinique continues to celebrate the abolition of slavery on May 22; Guadeloupe on May 27; and French Guiana on June 10.

On Saturday, 17 years later, people of all walks of life were in attendance with V.I.P. guests such as George Pau-Langevin, the Minister of the Overseas Departments; Christiane Taubira, the Minister of Justice who lent her name for the 2001 law; and Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris. The free musical concert, with the Martinican journalist Marijosé Alie as the Mistress of Ceremony, included entertainers from Guadeloupe, Martinique and Haiti. The legendary Tabou Combo, the Haitian compas group, gave special tribute to Haiti. Live coverage of Limyè bayo was provided by a number of television networks.

It was a celebratory evening that gave voice to the fact that the ideas of liberty and freedom matter to all. La Place de la République, the largest pedestrian area in Paris, also symbolized a space where people meet to exchange various viewpoints.

Brenda F. Berrian is Professor Emerita of Africana Studies, University of Pittsburgh (USA).