Modern Languages

Le mariage burlesque: Carnival cross-dressing in the French Caribbean

This piece was originally published on The Conversation.

The mariage burlesque of the Plastic System Band carnival group in Lamentin, Martinique, 2012. Charlotte HammondAuthor provided

Anyone in the French Caribbean islands of Martinique or Guadeloupe during the carnival festivities will witness a unique and wonderfully subversive tradition: le mariage burlesque.

As a legacy of the refusal to assimilate into a French model of marriage and family, le mariage burlesque parodies the idealised fiction of a heterosexual nuclear family unit. Each year on lundi gras (the first Monday of the carnival) men and women perform each other’s conjugal role by cross-dressing as their gendered other. So the man masquerades as the (often pregnant) wife and – to a lesser extent – the woman dresses and performs as the husband. The happy couple is followed by a wedding procession and are “married” by a registrar and a priest along the carnival route.

The late Martinican theorist Édouard Glissant described the tradition as a critique of the family structure imposed by the colonising French republic. He wrote:

There is an occasion in Martinique in which men and women both agree to give a performance of their relationship. This is the tradition of the burlesque marriage during carnival, a critique of family structure.

In recent years there have been debates on the traditional role of family in France. A universalist notion prevails – the model of family promoted by the French Republic is made up of a heterosexual couple who live together, whether married or not, with children born of (or adopted by) the two parents.

Controversy around alternative forms of conjugal union, including legislation to enable same-sex marriage, gay adoption and surrogacy, have prompted fierce debates on the continued relevance of this traditional model. And, given that recent changes in legislation apply to France’s overseas territories, these debates have questioned the continued relevance of the French values of marriage and family in Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Family after slavery

French colonial discourse related marriage to “civilisation”. According to this racist logic, the African – who was considered subordinate – was unsuited to marriage. In the French Caribbean, unions between enslaved men and women of the same plantation were encouraged as they would produce another generation of slaves for the profit of the owner. Marriage between slaves (with the permission of their master) became legal from 1664 – but, in reality, the plantation system constrained the development of strong family units which would often be broken up when slaves were sold on to other plantations. This tended to disrupt the pure parent-child line of descendance or “filiation” promoted by the French state.

Following the abolition of slavery in 1848, French policies of assimilation (into la grande famille nationale) reinforced a desire for official marriage among its “daughters”, or les filles, as Guadeloupe and Martinique were disparagingly known. The extended family, in which grandparents, aunts, nannies and godparents are as likely to raise children as mothers, therefore came to signify not only resistance to a dominant social order of family imposed by slave owners, but also its imposition on French Caribbean territories during the aftermath of slavery.

In 1946, the islands voted to become overseas départements, granting them a distinct political status in relation to mainland France that promised full integration into the French Republic. However, this status has resulted in many social and economic disparitiesincluding severe unemployment, high cost of living and persistent racial discrimination.

As researchers in the social sciences have shown, family in this context – as the product of both African kinship traditions and its restructure during slavery – did not conform neatly to the model of family promoted by the French Republic.

Traditionally, le mariage burlesque was a ritual (with both European and African roots) to promote the birth of new unions during the festival period in the run up to Lent. Men would often adopt women’s roles during carnival through male-to-female cross-dressing. Today some gender studies scholars have argued that cross-dressing in the context of Caribbean carnivals merely reaffirms gender difference and masculine domination.

Yet in this context, where Eurocentric understandings of sexuality and gender are so often cut and pasted without attention to local histories and traditions, le mariage burlesquerepresents the contradiction imposed on French Caribbean citizens who continue to uphold a European (and heterosexual) model of marriage and family as the norm despite the co-existence of alternative family structures.

The “lesser” presence of women during le mariage burlesque has been addressed directly in the work of Martinique-based artists Annabel Guérédrat and Henri Tauliaut. In 2016 Guérédrat and Tauliaut performed the Marcel Duchamp-inspired La Mariée mise à nu par son célibataire même (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelor) during the mariage burlesqueparade of Fort-de-France, Martinique.

‘La Mariée mise à nu par son célibataire même’ (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelor), Martinique, 2016. Photo by Marvin Fabien @artincidence.Author provided (No reuse)

Guérédrat, dressed as a dominatrix bride in white and cradling a black dildo, sheds an oversized wedding veil and leads Tauliaut, in full gimp mask and black gown, along the carnival route. This commanding female performance subverts normative gender relations in a Martinican society which remains largely macho and a carnival space where male-authored representations of women dominate.

The tableaux concludes with the couple departing on a boat against a tropical Caribbean landscape in the background. This parody of tourist brochure clichés that depict the Caribbean as a honeymoon paradise destination evokes the inequities of a global tourism industry that often replicates an uneven master/slave dynamic.

Each year carnival in Guadeloupe and Martinique attracts tourists from France and the rest of the world who come to enjoy this vibrant theatre of the street. For both visitors and locals the mariage burlesque masquerade ensures a collective memory of the cultural and political transvestism of the overseas departments, dressed up to resemble France and its universalist values. It is an embodied reminder of the enduring one-sided marriage between the islands and France.

 

Charlotte Hammond is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Cardiff University and author of Entangled Otherness. See the original post on The Conversation.

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History

Inside the Kingdom of Hayti, ‘the Wakanda of the Western Hemisphere’

This post was originally published on The Conversation US.

marlene daut

An 1811 wood engraving depicts the coronation of King Henry. Fine Art America

Marvel’s blockbuster “Black Panther,” which recently became the first superhero drama to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, takes place in the secret African Kingdom of Wakanda. The Black Panther, also known as T’Challa, rules over this imaginary empire – a refuge from the colonialists and capitalists who have historically impoverished the real continent of Africa.

But fans of the box-office hit might not realize that they don’t need to look to the make-believe world of the Black Panther to find a modern-day black kingdom that aspired to be a safe haven from racism and inequality.

The fictional kingdom has a real-life corollary in the historic Kingdom of Hayti, which existed as a sort of Wakanda of the Western Hemisphere from 1811 to 1820.

The Haitian Revolution led to the creation of the first free black state in the Americas. But the world was hardly expecting a former enslaved man named Henry Christophe to make himself the king of it.

Media accounts from the era, some of which I’ve collected in a digital archive, serve as a window into a brief period of time when the kingdom stood as a beacon of black freedom in a world of slavery. Yet, like Wakanda, the Kingdom of Hayti wasn’t a utopia for everyone.

A new kind of kingdom

On Jan. 1, 1804, an army led by former enslaved Africans in the French colony of Saint-Domingue staved off France’s attempt to bring back slavery, and declared themselves independent and free forever.

The leader of the revolutionaries, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, had defeated Napoleon’s famous army and made himself emperor of the newly-renamed Haiti.

But in October 1806, Dessalines was assassinated by political rivals, leading the country to be divided into two separate states: General Henry Christophe named himself president of the northern part of Haiti, while General Alexandre Pétion governed a completely separate republic in the southern and southwestern part of the country.

‘I am reborn from my ashes’ was the motto of Henry I, the former slave who became king.Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA

In March 1811, President Henry Christophe surprised everyone when he anointed himself King Henry I and renamed the northern republic, the Kingdom of Hayti. Henry I soon had a full court of nobles that included dukes, barons, counts and knights to rival that of royal England.

Haiti’s first and only kingdom immediately attracted the attention of media outlets from around the world. How could there be a republic on one side of the island and a monarchy on the other, they wondered? Was the new black king trying to mimic the same white sovereigns who had once enslaved his people, others asked?

The edicts establishing the royal order of Haiti were immediately translated into English and printed in Philadelphia, while many American and British newspapers and magazines ran celebrity profiles of the Haitian king.

One newspaper described him as “the elegant model of an Hercules.” Another described him as “a remarkably handsome, well-built man; with a broad chest, square shoulders, and an appearance of great muscular strength and activity.”

The ‘First Monarch’ of the ‘New World’

In 1813, construction of the opulent Sans-Souci Palace – meaning literally “without worry” – was completed.

The palace was partially destroyed by an earthquake in 1842; today, its remains have been designated a world heritage UNESCO site.

During its heyday, the palace dazzled.

There were the elegantly manicured gardens and a unique, domed cathedral. The structure was flanked by a dramatic double staircase leading to the entryway and two arches detailed with etchings and inscriptions. One acknowledged Henry, rather than Jean-Jacques, as the country’s “founder.”

A woman climbs the stairs on the remains of Sans-Souci Palace in 2017. Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters

There were also two painted crowns on the principal palace façade, each of which stood at 16 feet tall. The one on the right read “To the First Monarch Crowned in the New World.” The one on the left said “The Beloved Queen Reigns Forever Over Our Hearts.”

King Henry lived in the palace with his wife, Queen Marie-Louise, and his three children, Prince Victor Henry, and the princesses, Améthyste and Athénaire.

An April 1815 issue of The Gazette Royale details how the Kingdom of Hayti foiled France’s attempt to reconquer its former colony.

Newspapers around the world reprinted articles from the monarchy’s official newspaper, the Gazette Royale d’Hayti, detailing the royal family’s lavish dinners, replete with bombastic speeches and lengthy toasts to famous contemporary figures such as King George III of England, U.S. President James Madison, the King of Prussia, and the “friend of humanity,” the “immortal” British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson.

The Gazette also recounted the decadence of Queen Marie-Louise’s August 1816 official birthday celebration, which lasted for 12 days and had 1,500 people in attendance. On the final day of the party, 12 cannons fired after the Duke of Anse toasted the queen as “the perfect model of mothers and wives.”

A free island in a sea of slavery

There was much more to King Henry’s reign than luxurious parties.

On March 28, 1811, King Henry installed a constitutional monarchy, a move lauded by many in the British elite. The famous British naturalist Joseph Banks championed Henry’s 1812 book of laws, titled the “Code Henry,” calling it “the most moral association of men in existence.”

“Nothing that white men have been able to arrange is equal to it,” he added.

Banks admired the code’s detailed reorganization of the economy, from one based on slave labor to one – at least in theory – based on free labor. This transformation was wholly fitting for the formerly enslaved man-turned-king, whose motto was “I am reborn from my ashes.”

The code provided for shared compensation between proprietors and laborers at “a full fourth the gross product, free from all duties,” and it also contained provisions for the redistribution of any land that had previously belonged to slave owners.

“Your Majesty, in his paternal solicitude,” one edict reads, “wants for every Haytian, indiscriminately, the poor as well as the rich, to have the ability to become the owner of the lands of our former oppressors.”

Henry’s stated “paternal solicitude” even extended to enslaved Africans. While the Constitution of 1807 had announced that Haiti would not “disturb the regimes” of the colonial powers, royal Haitian guards regularly intervened in the slave trade to free captives on foreign ships that entered Haitian waters. An October 1817 issue of the Gazette celebrated the Haitian military’s capture of a slave ship and subsequent release of 145 of “our unfortunate brothers, victims of greed and the odious traffic in human flesh.”

Too good to be true?

Yet life in the Kingdom of Hayti was far from perfect.

Henry’s political rivals noted that people frequently defected to the southern Republic of Haiti, where they told stories of the monarch’s favoritism and the aristocracy’s abuse of power.

Worse, Henry’s famous fortress, the Citadelle Laferrière, was, according to some accounts, built with forced labor. For this reason, Haitians have long debated whether the imposing structure, which was restored in 1990, ought to symbolize the liberty of post-independence Haiti.

Henry’s dreams of a free black kingdom would not outlive him. On Aug. 15, 1820, the king suffered a debilitating stroke. Physically impaired – and fearing a fracturing administration plagued by the desertion of some its most prominent members – Haiti’s first and only king killed himself on the night of Oct. 8, 1820.

Illustrator Mahlon Blaine depicts King Henry on the cover of the 1928 book ‘Black Majesty.’@paulclammer/Twitter

Despite some questions about living conditions in the Kingdom of Hayti, its ruler can still be recognized as a visionary. Even one of his most ardent rivals from the south, Charles Hérard Dumesle, who often referred to Christophe as a “despot,” nonetheless praised the remarkable “new social order” outlined in the Code Henry. Dumesle appeared to lament that the king’s “civil laws were the formula for a social code that existed only on paper.”

For all those who still dream of black liberation, strong – if ultimately flawed – leaders, like both the King of Hayti and Black Panther, have always been central to these visions.

King Henry was even depicted as a sort of superhero in his time. As one article from 1816 noted of Henry,

“History demonstrates that no people has ever done anything great entirely by themselves; it is only ever in collaboration with the great men who become elevated in their midst that they raise themselves up to the glory of accomplishing extraordinary deeds.”

Marlene Daut is Associate Professor of African Diaspora Studies, University of Virginia. She is also the author of Tropics of Haiti.

 

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Irish Studies

Artistic works inspired by the Great Famine struggle to do it justice, but they keep the memory alive

This piece was originally published on The Conversation.

How do you represent in film an experience as keen and painful as hunger? Director Lance Daly’s recently released film Black ‘47 – a revenge epic set during the 1840s Irish famine – is the latest attempt to depict the devastating catastrophe which left more than a million dead in Ireland in one of the worst episodes of human suffering in the 19th century. The famine’s legacy is profound: today Ireland remains the only European country with a smaller population than in the 1800s.

Robert Fripp’s ‘An Irish Peasant and her Child’, a saccharine portrait of curiously well-fed looking victims of the famine. Robert Fripp/Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum

Yet the problem of how (and whether) to convey the horrors of the famine in visual art perplexed artists of the period. There were few conventions in Victorian art practice to represent the starving human body in extremis. More commonly, paintings of the famine reverted to saccharine images of noble peasants at the mercy of external forces, or caricatures of Irish indolence and fecklessness, or simply ignored the crisis altogether, since it didn’t accord with the values or interests espoused by academic painting.

Illustrated journalism – which was in its infancy, with the Illustrated London News founded only in 1842 – fared somewhat better. Many of the best-known depictions of the famine are from journalistic coverage of the crisis, such as the sketch of Bridget O’Donnel and Children from the Illustrated London News, December 22 1849. Black ‘47 makes ample use of this source material, with its opening sequences explicitly mimicking the monochrome palette of 1840s wood engraving.

 

The sketch accompanying the story of Bridget O’Donnel in the Illustrated London News has become one of the best-known depictions of the famine. Illustrated London News

But newspaper coverage was uneven, as what they published was also constrained by their perception of what readers would tolerate. Although frequently based on eyewitness accounts, newspaper images generally pale in comparison with the words that accompany them: too shocking an image and the viewer would quickly turn the page.

Did a silence descend upon Britain and Ireland on the subject in the aftermath of the famine? Has it really remained an unspoken horror left in the past? Recent research on the visual and textual representation of the famine challenges this broad view. Today scholars of “famine memory” seek to more closely observe when, and crucially why, the famine emerges or shifts as a subject of representation. Far from being an unrepresentable event, the memory of the famine has assumed a wide array of visual and textual forms from the 19th century to the present. These include popular and literary fiction, drama, political rhetoric, print and painted depictions, photography and film.

Touted as the “first famine film”, Black ’47 is intriguing example of the genre, but not the first. That distinction belongs to the silent film Knocknagow (1918), the first feature entirely shot and produced in Ireland by the Film Company of Ireland, set loosely during the famine period and based on the popular 1873 novel by Charles Kickham.

With a sentimental and convoluted storyline combining star-crossed lovers, forced emigration, an absentee landlord and a rapacious land agent, and with a dramatic centrepiece scene depicting an eviction, Knocknagow drew upon stock characters and vignettes with broad appeal to the anticipated (largely American) audience. It used a repertoire of images of famine and eviction well known to contemporary audiences through their repetition in decades of painting, engraving and in popular fiction.

Black ’47 adopts many of these same elements, but its dramatic action is situated in the genre of the revenge western (a kind of O’Django Unchained), and it offers a far more sophisticated telling of a familiar story. For example, the targets of its central character’s fury range from the indifferent landlord, a frequent villain in 19th and 20th-century famine fiction, to the gombeen-man, a complex figure who exploited the suffering of his own people (and in the film, his own family).

During the 150th anniversary of the famine in the 1990s, hundreds of public memorials were constructed across Ireland and in the new homelands of the expansive Irish diaspora, something I discuss in my book Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument. Public interest shows no sign of waning since: new memorials are planned, from Glasgow to San Francisco, and the Irish government has adopted an annual National Day of Famine Commemoration. Nevertheless, all representations of the famine respond to pre-existing literary or visual traditions, are crafted to appeal to specific viewers, and stem from a range of political and social motivations. As such, any image of the famine is a complex artefact of its own time and place, not merely an illustration or reflection of historical experience or collective cultural memory.

Since the 19th century people have questioned whether the famine is a suitable subject for creative reinterpretation. Howls of outrage greeted news of Hugh Travers’ “famine sitcom” pilot commissioned by Channel 4 in 2015, a project eventually abandoned. But the famine should not be considered any kind of sacred cow: this has certainly never been the case historically. As the genealogy of its depiction shows us – from The Black Prophet by William Carleton, writing at the time of the famine, to Black ’47 today, the seismic shock of the famine has continued to haunt all subsequent generations, each seeking forms of comprehension and meaning.

As Walter Benjamin observed: “To articulate what is past does not mean to recognise ‘how it really was’. It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.” The making, and remaking, of the famine will recur so long as its memory unsettles us.

Emily Mark-FitzGerald is Associate Professor in the School of Art History and Cultural Policy, University College Dublin and is the author of: Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument.

 

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Modern Languages

Colette: writer, feminist, performer and #MeToo trail blazer

This piece was originally published on The Conversation.

Colette, photographed by Henri Manuel. Wikimedia Commons

The French writer Colette was indifferent and even hostile to the feminist movement in the early 1900s. But both her writing and the way she lived her life represent a vibrant and radical feminism in tune with the #MeToo spirit of today.

Born in rural Burgundy in 1873, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (the abbreviated pen name came later) belonged to a middle class but unorthodox family. Raised by a mother who was as sceptical of religion as she was of bourgeois respectability, she was 20 when she married Henri Gauthiers-Villars (“Willy”), the 33-year-old charming but dissolute writer son of a family friend.

The marriage was both a good and a bad move for Colette. Willy introduced her to the rich Bohemian culture of the Parisian demimonde, and launched her career by insisting (despite her reluctance) that she write down memories of her schooldays.

But his serial infidelities distressed and depressed her. And as an unscrupulous literary entrepreneur, Willy cheerfully sold his wife’s semi-autobiographical “Claudine” novels under his own name.

The stories of a spirited, tomboyish heroine rapidly became a publishing sensation, with profitable sales of related merchandise including Claudine cigarette holders. But the profits were all Willy’s.

When, in her early 30s, Colette decided to leave the marriage, she had to find a way to support herself. Energetic and resourceful, she began to publish under her own name and took classes in dance and mime. She trained in the gym and went on stage, becoming the only great French author (to my knowledge) to have alternated writing with dancing semi-nude on stages all over France.

She combined her careers, writing both fiction and non-fiction set behind the scenes of the music hall, giving a voice to the underpaid women performers who featured so often from a male perspective in paintings and novels of the time. She also began a passionate affair with a cross-dressing lesbian aristocrat, Missy, and scandalised the nation by sharing a passionate kiss with her on stage.

In the 1907 pantomime which included a kiss with a woman. Wikimedia Commons

Director Wash Westmoreland’s recent film about Colette takes us to this point in her colourful career. She would go on to write prolifically as a journalist, novelist, essayist and innovator in the blended genre of “autofiction”.

She would nurse in World War I, marry twice more, bear a daughter at the age of 40, bolster her flagging finances by opening a beauty parlour – and finally become, for the French, “our great Colette”. But a whiff of scandal was still attached to her name, and acceptance of her as a great writer was slow.

The Catholic Church even refused to grant her a religious funeral (although she would have agreed with the Church, for religion formed no part of her passionate love of life.)

Sex and sensuality

Westmoreland’s film, starring the British actor Keira Knightley, shines a deserved spotlight on an important feminist figure. From the Claudine series on, Colette gives us a serenely irreverent perspective on a patriarchal culture.

She reverses the gaze of heterosexual desire to provide sensual, detailed descriptions of male bodies, and writes with equal sensuality and precision of same-sex desire. She writes movingly of romantic love and motherhood but insists, in her novel Break of Day that both are also peripheral to a woman’s life:

Once we’ve left them both behind, we find that all the rest is gay and varied, and that there is plenty of it.

In life, as in writing, she places female friendship centre-stage, sometimes subverting the eternal triangle by making its primary focus the relationship between a man’s wife and his mistress. She often published in women’s magazines, right up to her death in 1954 (Elle serialised her final books), and wrote comically and caustically of trying to make her own robust, food-loving body fit into the willowy fashions of the inter-war years.

In a very public life, as in her fiction, she exemplified financial and social independence and shame-free sexuality – what we would now call “gender fluidity”. She possessed a generous optimism that went against the grain of the angst and despondency which characterised so much male literature of the 20th century.

She remained, throughout, a popular writer. An author read for pleasure, for the sensuality of her prose, the dry note of humour that peppers her eloquence, the lightness of touch that means her seriousness is never heavy or self-important.

One of France’s greatest – and certainly most unconventional –- writers, she has been translated – often brilliantly – into other languages. Her appearance on cinema screens should bring her even more readers.

Diana Holmes is Professor of French at the University of Leeds and is author of Middlebrow MattersSee the original post on The Conversation.

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News

Liverpool University Press partners with The Conversation

In the first agreement of its kind, Liverpool University Press has become the inaugural university press partner of The Conversation UK (http://theconversation.com/uk), an independent source of news and views sourced from university academics and researchers and delivered direct to the public.

Since its UK launch in 2013, The Conversation has brought the expertise of university academics and new research to a broad audience. The Conversation aims to improve the quality of public debate by ensuring the views of experts are heard. The partnership means LUP can help its authors boost the impact of their work through The Conversation’s explanatory journalism on a platform “free of commercial or political bias” which reached a readership of 110 million in 2017-18. LUP’s partnership provides access to The Conversation’s editorial team and opportunities for its authors to provide their expertise to The Conversation’s readers worldwide.

Anthony Cond, Managing Director of Liverpool University Press, explained: ‘Working with The Conversation UK will present our book and journal authors with the opportunity to amplify their research, raising awareness of their publications with LUP but also making the most of the opportunity to spread their ideas and put them on a pathway to impact. They will also benefit from The Conversation’s robust analytics to track engagement with their articles.’

Chris Waiting, Chief Executive of the Conversation UK, added: ‘To date our partners have been universities: collaboration with university presses, widely recognised for their commitment to publishing high quality scholarship, fits well with our aim of bringing academic expertise to a broader audience. We are delighted to work with Liverpool University Press, an imprint that exemplifies modern university press values and the access to quality information that The Conversation delivers.’

Commissioning Editor Chloe Johnson will co-ordinate the submission of news articles from LUP authors to The Conversation.