Saturday, 7 February 2015

Program Review: Department of Sociology Colloquium Series

Title: Thomas Jefferson’s Bordeaux and W.E.B. Du Bois’ View of the French Revolution
Speaker: Dr. Karen Fields
Date: February 4, 2015

Dr. Fields was certainly one of the most personable and affective sociologists that I have ever come across. Rather than spend the entire hour talking about Thomas Jefferson in France, Fields discussed her decision to study in Bordeaux, what it was like to talk about race in France, and how she make her research has led to her “obnoxious juxtapositions”. It was interesting to hear a macro analysis of the 18th century slave trade that included observations about the incredible wealth that the trade of African slaves brought to European port cities like Bristol (England), Lont (France), and Bordeaux. When Field described the opulent opera house that was more important than any venue in Paris, and as large as city block which was constructed by the nouveau-riche merchant class in Bordeaux, I had a picture in my mind’s eye.

Bordeaux's eighteenth-century opera house, designed by Victor Louis

While living in Bordeaux and studying at the university, Fields could not ignore the traces of Africans and the slave trade in this city. She saw brown figures in the stained class of 16th century Catholic churches, student protests urging the city to “take on its history” with slavery, even the merchants who built the opera house commissioned ceiling artwork that depicted slaves, ports, and other implements of commerce. Moving into a 20th century context, Fields told how the French recruited Africans to fight and protect their land during World Wars 1 and 2, and there are monuments to mark it. Fields was slowly building an argument of the increased complexity of the influence of Africans in France. W.E.B. DuBois wrote (ironically) that the fortunes made at Lont and Bordeaux (slave ports) engendered the pride that made them demand liberty. No matter how rich those merchants became they were never accepted into the upper class, even the writer Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that American race relations were so similar to the tensions between aristocrats and commoners in Paris. Fields summarized, “no amount of money could outdo an accident of birth”. It would seem that the transitive property is at work when slavery creates rich merchants, and rich merchants overthrow bad monarchs; slavery must result in French Revolution. I don’t presume to express how Fields elaborates on these connections, but I am most certainly intrigued.