Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Stereotypes of Past-Slavery and "Stereo-Styles" in Post-Slavery: A Multidimensional, Interactionist Perspective on Contemporary Hierarchies

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Stereotypes of Past-Slavery and "Stereo-Styles" in Post-Slavery: A Multidimensional, Interactionist Perspective on Contemporary Hierarchies

Article excerpt

Several post-slavery societies in francophone West Africa may not quite be as "post" as the term suggests. Does the "post" refer to the two key moments of 1) legal abolition in 1898 (abolition of the economic institution of slave trade and markets), and 2) the 1905 French colonial abolition of domestic slavery as a societal system of organization? If it does, then what of the argument made by some scholars that the 1905 abolition hardly impacted existing social norms1 and that domestic slavery continued well into the twentyfirst century2 in certain areas and often among nomadic groups? The majority of scholars working on nomadic groups in different parts of francophone Sahel areas confirm this. My first argument then is that the term post-slavery reduces the possibility of including continuities, complexity, and diversity of past-slavery forms in present African contexts. It obfuscates even further, for example, the already existing amalgamation of an extreme variety of institutions of inequality (human trafficking, prostitution, human bondage, forced labor)-discursively referred to as "modern slavery"-and the persistence in some areas of historical forms of slavery.

Rossi has proposed the following classification: continued forms of past-slavery (historical slavery); metaphorical uses of the strong language of slavery (metaphorical slavery); classification of people according to their place in a society that is impregnated with social practices and discourses recalling past-slavery (classificatory slavery); and relations whereby new forms of exploitation are interpreted as modern variations of slavery (modern slavery).3 This is a valuable analytical model to distinguish different legacies and discursive uses of the word "slavery" in post-slavery societies. However, this model helps us to deal only with discursive references to slavery in Africa. New analytical approaches are needed to examine the polymorphism of slavery as an institution in the past and present, and the polysemy of legacies of slavery not only as a discourse, but also as an embodied practice.

This article proposes to extend the analytical tools available for grappling with categorical slavery in the Sahel. The notions of fields and stereo-styles central to this article are proposed to overcome and interconnect three hybrid aspects of the complexity encountered in post-slavery societies:

1. Discursive anachronistic categories

2. Legal and institutional pluralism

3. Normative performances based on slavery habitus

The first hybrid aspect is discursive: both scholars and their informants feel that the available words, categories, and status positions often do no justice to performed identities in situated moments in time. The terminology can be either anachronistic or euphemistic and is used in voiced and/or silenced ways.

The second aspect is legal and institutional pluralism: there are overlapping legal, political, and normative systems functional in the Sahel (see Eric Komlavi Hahonou and Benedetta Rossi in this volume).4 Legal pluralism is evident in many Sahelian countries, where citizens can chose among international human rights legislation (claiming universal equality for all groups), national courts with laic constitutions (not recognizing differences in social statuses related to the slave past), and local courts with Malikite interpretations of Muslim law (attributing more rights to those with freeborn status than to those with nonfreeborn status).5 To date, the interpretations of Maliki strands of Islamic legislation encourage criteria of distinction between classificatory social status groups, based on the slave past.6 This matters to the majority of villagers, who have easy access to an imam who can administer justice but not to international or national constitutional courts, because these are distant and expensive. Moreover, powerful elites may actually use the plurality of legal systems to their benefit and to reinforce their monopolies. …

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