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Returning to the Door of No Return

Slavery: Clinton must use his clout to eradicate the economic subjugation of Africa.

April 02, 1998|KAREN GRIGSBY BATES | Karen Grigsby Bates is a regular contributor to this page

The West Coast of Africa is studded with slave castles, fortresses built to protect the masters of the slave trade and their investment property. Their jealously guarded property, of course, just happened to have been human beings. And no matter how worldly you are or how well-traveled, the first tour of these monuments to commerce and human misery is likely to stun even the most chatty visitor into silence. Walking through these large, echoing buildings, with their wide walls dotted with iron cannons facing the ocean, your logic recedes and your imagination takes over, populating the empty 20th century scenario with vignettes from earlier centuries.

Here is the courtyard into which captured Africans were dragged for general inspection, to see which among them might be strong enough to make the arduous voyage that came to be known as the Middle Passage. These were cruises from hell, where, routinely, less than half the passengers on any given journey survived. (Some historians refer to the Middle Passage as the Black Holocaust.) Here are the holding rooms, into which hundreds of people were jammed to await loading on the docks. From these rooms, one can hear the sea. One cannot, however, see it, for the windows are small, barred and far, far above even the tallest man. One would not have been able to hear the ocean above the captives' polyglot cries of fear, outrage and despair. And one would not have been able to smell the salt air; it would have been masked by the more pungent aroma of hundreds of live bodies crowded together with little ventilation and few hygienic outlets.

Today, President Clinton will see what millions of tourists, many of them people of African ancestry, have seen before him when he visits Senegal's Goree Island, site of one of West Africa's largest and best-known slave castles. He'll tour the rooms with high ceilings, small windows and scant drainage. He'll walk into the same courtyard that was once used for European slave brokers' inspections of their African merchandise. And he'll pass through the "door of no return," the narrow portal through which the ancestors of many current Americans passed as they left their homelands forever. He will be, as many visitors are, struck silent for a moment.

The emotion of this tour has, for much of the mainstream press, been baffling. Pundits Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson (that paragon of restraint) have mused aloud on their weekly show about the incomprehensibly high feelings among the African Americans on the trip. The depth of black American feeling is simply alien to them.

"I don't understand why they don't get it--or why they're talking about us as if we are another species, instead merely ethnically different," a friend snapped. "If their ancestors had traveled this route, you can bet we would have had a different kind of coverage." And she is probably right. Most of us do, after all, respond to what we know and most white Americans (and sadly, far too many black ones) do not know Africa well at all.

Goree Island may help explain why, a century after slavery ended in this country, its sting is still felt by people who were themselves never enslaved. If he listens and watches as the president tours this terrible place, perhaps even Donaldson might come to understand why his black peers have found this journey through black Africa so moving.

The president surely will wax eloquent at Goree as he's done in his other African stops. But let's hope he also returns to Washington as a strenuous advocate for aid to Africa. Even modest funding for grass-roots programs can make a significant difference in helping to educate children and enabling women to lift their families from a standard of living that is more consistent with the previous century than the current one. Clinton can't undo what happened to Africa in the last century, but he can and should throw his weight into encouraging partnership initiatives that will ensure the eradication of economic slavery, which has the potential for lasting at least as long as its chattel counterpart.

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