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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: December 2009

7 - The Spiritual Economy of Emancipation


L'aristocratie religieuse (coopérant avec les notables) annonça au peuple illuminé qu'avec la fin des travaux forcés et l'inauguration du «labeur librement consenti», tous obtiendraient – bing!– iru turu inè turu, «une véritable liberté et une citoyenneté entière»…

– Yambo Ouologuem Le devoir de violence

If writing the history of women and gender in West Africa is often hampered by methods that cannot adequately confront silences in sources, the same is true for the history of slaves or members of other marginalized social groups. For former slaves both documentary and oral records are particularly problematic. In the absence of formal guarantees of equality, freed people and their descendants often found that the best strategy was to disguise their family history. Martin Klein and others have noted the way this can result in serious misinterpretation when researchers take oral sources too much at face value. But if silence or forgetting are active strategies of self-emancipation, and if the keepers of memory, like the assemblers of archives, guard knowledge that reinforces their power, then it may be that no history of postslavery West Africa is truly possible and that efforts to write it cannot but reinscribe the perspectives of former masters; history itself may become a source of oppression. Other conceptual problems, here traceable to researchers themselves, have also afflicted scholarship on the topic. In large-scale narratives of West African history, the end of slavery appears as a set of fitful, hesitant moves away from a range of forms of unfree labor and toward the gradual appearance of contractual labor governed by markets.

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