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An Island in the Mist : With so much of African American history lost, the story of an ex-slave community takes on special meaning as a link with a collective past. : SAPELO'S PEOPLE: A Long Walk Into Freedom, By William S. McFeely (W.W. Norton: $18.95; 200 pp.)

July 24, 1994|Roger Wilkins | Roger Wilkins, a former official for the U.S. State and Justice departments, is a Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University

Sapelo is an island off the Georgia coast, inhabited by descendants of slaves brought there almost two centuries ago. Near the end of "Sapelo's People," a self-styled "meditation on race," William S. McFeely, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Ulysses S. Grant, writes that he wants to restore their own history to the black people of Sapelo Island. Only one of those islanders, for whom McFeely's gift was intended, can truly judge how successful he has been. But I--merely an outsider, but one whose history this could have been--am deeply grateful for McFeely's magnificent effort of thought, empathy, scholarship and imagination.

McFeely's story of the blacks on Sapelo is a searing, metaphorical X-ray of a people battling to find space where they can become themselves rather than succumb to the weight of a hostile majority determined to master an island, a region, a continental nation. Using the stories the Sapelo people told him, the advice of a professional genealogist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the tools of the historian's trade, McFeely delineates a spare trail from slaves like Bilali--the great-great-great grandfather of one of his sources on Sapelo--to the poor and decent lives led by the few remaining inhabitants.

For most blacks the past is not prologue. It is a fog created by whites who, while romanticizing their own stories, expended much effort attempting to destroy or demean the history of blacks. Had McFeely followed the duplicitous historical traditions that prevailed up to the middle of this century, not only would Bilali have been lost in the mist, but the long road from him to James Banks Jr., a Sapelo native now studying at Georgia Southern University, would have been profoundly distorted. Losses inflicted by bad or incomplete history are incalculable.

Like many other blacks, I feel this on a personal level. On American soil, I feel whole, but when I travel to Africa, I feel incomplete, overwhelmed by the presence of a part of me that has been lost. Luckily, that began to change on a visit to Ghana earlier this year. In a guest house in Accra, I was stunned while looking at a painting of an African scene to see a face that bore a striking resemblance to my father's face. On another day, I encountered a young Ghanaian woman who looked very much like my aunt and my older daughter.

A few days later, I visited the Cape Coast Castle, a fort on Ghana's Guinea Coast that for two centuries served as both a warehouse for slaves consigned to the Western hemisphere and as their point of embarkation: the place where they lost their native soil, the communities that had shaped and nurtured them and more often than not, their entire families. Having just seen evidence of African stock that carried down to my family in the United States, I knew that centuries ago at least one ancestor of mine had suffered in her own filth, crammed with scores of others in the dark dungeon where I was standing as she waited for a slave ship and a future filled with unknowable horrors.

In a strange way the power of the hideous memory was healing. It gave me back a tangible sense of an important part of my history. While in a different way, McFeely's sketch of the specific histories of Sapelo's people brought me a similar sense of restoration.

Bilali, the patriarch of the Sapelo Island slaves, was purchased either in the West Indies or in the Charleston slave market in about 1802 by Thomas Spalding, the patriarch of the Sapelo Island slave owners. Ultimately Spalding, a highly successful planter--with enormous help from his slave driver/plantation manager, Bilali--was able to will 1,000 slaves to his children. Ultimately, Bilali, a devoutly religious Muslim with some formal education, was able to pass on the spirituality he brought from Africa by writing a book for his descendants about his faith and hereditary slavery.

For those of us who need to establish a human link to Africa but cannot reach back to a specific ancestral moment, Bilali, born in what is now Guinea in about 1760 and abducted and shipped from the Guinea Coast about two centuries ago, is a good stand-in. In describing the plan the Spaldings developed to control and train their newly purchased work force, McFeely suggests what Bilali experienced in the transition from free-standing human to slave:

"The terror of those enslaved in Africa, forced into the stinking holds of slave ships . . . for the Middle Passage, and then driven from those ships and into the slave pens of the Charleston Market. Already separated from family and other familiar people, having seen their fellow cargo, dead and no longer of value, thrown into the sea, these were the survivors. Unable to communicate with most of the other people in the pens and shouted at in a language wholly alien, they can scarcely have imagined what would be their fate."

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