My great-grandmother was born a slave in Guadeloupe

Swee'Pea was 18 months old (1981) when we moved into our first house. It was quite small but it had a tiny backyard, wonderful for playing outside. No more sandpit for Swee'Pea.

Our house was part of a very cheap housing development so there were lots of young couples with young children.

Quite perfect for an only child.

There were a lot of protected areas for the children to ride their bicycles, etc.

A true paradise.

Swee'Pea who didn’t go to school very much still made a lot of friends from the neighboring houses. I was working at home, starting quite early in the morning until 4:30 when school closed.

Many mothers were working so a few children would then come to our house, have their afterschool snack and play with my son until their mothers came back from work. It was fun. I remember I used to bake hundreds of chocolate cookies every month. (I knew the recipe by heart.) Yes, a true paradise.

Among Swee'Pea’s great friends, there was one boy and his sister who came from Guadeloupe (in the French West Indies). They lived in our street. Their mother was a night nurse and their father was a 'football star’ in the local police department. The family was nice. The children were extremely bright and fun to have around. Swee'Pea was a huge fan of Cedric who was a very quiet young boy.

In 1985, some bad news went around quite fast in our small world. A new baby had been born into the family (good news) but the father chose this time to leave mother and children. He went back to Guadeloupe with another woman.

Our neighbor was a very dignified young woman. She never let anyone see she was having problems. The children looked sad from time to time but they were young so when they were around other children, they still laughed a lot.

Then one night, around 1:00 am, someone rang our doorbell. Two policemen. Our neighbor had tried to kill herself but just before it was too late, she had called her sister for help. Her sister who lived quite far away had in turn called our city emergency services. An emergency medical team had arrived in time to pump her stomach.

In France, whenever you spell suicide, the police comes over and usually the patient is taken away to the hospital where he/she may remain for quite a long time under psychiatric care.

My neighbor didn’t want to go to the hospital. She was a nurse. She knew what she had done. She also knew that she didn’t want to die after all. Remember, there was a 6 months old baby and two children (5 and 6) asleep in the bedrooms close to hers. Her sister was already en route but it would take her at least 5 hours to get there.

Would I stay with the young woman until her sister’s arrival? She was not supposed to fall asleep and shouldn’t be left alone. She had asked for me.

I said yes... What else could I say?

I was a little bit worried because even though I knew the kids extremely well, their mother and I, we had never been that close. (Actually she kept to herself a lot which I thought was due to shyness.)

So it was a long night. We spent it talking and bonding. She was a very proud young woman from a family who owned a farm and made sure all the children went to school.

She talked about her husband.  He had been her high school sweetheart. She talked about her children. She loved them very much which was the reason of her desperate phone call to her sister.

She talked about her 'country', so far away from France. Her children didn’t speak creole, neither did she. That night, I discovered that she could speak English too since her mother was British.

She asked me about my background. I told her about my farming heritage. I told her about my grandmother and my great-grandfather and my village in Southern France.

Dawn was breaking when her sister called to let her know she was 30 mns away.

We were exhausted. The children were still asleep.

She looked at me very intently and said: ‘Tonight you helped me survive. I’ll be forever grateful to you. But we will never be friends.’

I was a bit surprised even though I never expected us to become friends just because of this one night. I knew she had told me things that she would never have told me in different circumstances. I knew she was a proud woman. I knew she was shy.

But I never expected what she said next.

‘You see, my great-grandmother was born and grew up a slave in Guadeloupe. Her father owned her mother. I do not feel quite at ease with "French white people". We do not share the same history and never will.’

What can you answer to such a fierce statement? Besides I was stunned because I was so sure slavery had been abolished by the French Revolution.

Her sister got there a few minutes later so I left.

We met many times after that but we never exchanged anything more than a smile. The children kept coming to play with Swee'Pea until we moved away to live closer to Paris.

This story kept bothering me for a long time because I’m the type of person who never notices differences whether ‘racial’, religious or social. Well, difference exists of course but to me, it’s very rewarding. Life would be so dull otherwise.

Today I was reading an article about slavery in France. So it all came back. She had been right. Slavery had been abolished in France in 1789 but Napoléon Ier had rescinded the law in 1802 (I think). And slavery was only officially abolished in 1848.

My one night friend had been right. So sad but she had been right. There was a huge difference between slavery and freedom.

A wound hard to heal.

*Good Night, and Good Luck*

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