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In Black & White

by Kathleen Cason


Intro  |  Revolution and Abolition  |  Widening the Canon  |  Found in Translation

Toussaint L’Ouverture, portrayed here accepting a letter, led Haiti’s fight for freedom from slavery and from France. Toussaint Reçoit une Lettre by Gary Dorsinville. Haiti.


Ourika’s story began in Africa in 1788. A two-year-old orphan, she probably had been imprisoned in a special children’s cell on Senegal’s Gorée Island for months. On this day Ourika would have emerged from a dark cell and passed through the “door of no return” into blinding tropical sun that seared her eyes.

Waves would have slapped the hull of a docked frigate as the ship was readied to stow human cargo. A rhythmic ka-chink ka-chink echoed off the walls of the House of Slaves at the sea’s edge as African men, women and children shuffled single-file down the palm-wood wharf toward the ship, their arms, legs and necks shackled and chained. This cargo — a fraction of the millions of African people shipped to the New World as slaves during a 350-year period — was likely meant for a Caribbean sugar plantation. Ourika began to sob, and that act changed her life.

Senegal’s French governor noticed the weeping child and pitied her. He decided that she would be a nice gift for his aunt back home in France. (He also bought a parakeet for the queen; and a horse, sultan hen and ostrich for other aristocrats.) The aunt raised the girl like her own daughter, with the same education and privileges as any upper-class young Frenchwoman around the time of the French Revolution.

Ourika’s life captured the imagination of 19th-century French author Claire de Duras, who recast the story in a novel. The fictional Ourika enjoyed every advantage of aristocratic French life — painting, dance lessons, fancy dresses and parties. But one day she overheard a marquise tell her benefactress that marriage would be unthinkable for Ourika because no man would want black children. From that moment, she realized the falseness of her life and wondered whether she might have been better off as a slave.

Ourika was a bestseller in 1823, and it inspired plays, poems and other books about the African girl. The story also sparked discussions in Parisian parlors because it exposed the aristocracy’s deep-seated racial prejudice at a time when France viewed itself as the world leader in freedom and equality.

In the 1970s, the story influenced British author John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman. By the 1990s, it was among the works that caused Doris Kadish, professor of French and women’s studies at the University of Georgia, to embark on a study of writings by 19th- century French women that dealt with race and slavery.


Intro  |  Revolution and Abolition  |  Widening the Canon  |  Found in Translation


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