Friday, June 19, 2009

The Port of No Return

It is estimated that 1/3 of the slaves that came to the Americas passed through Benin and Nigeria. Ouidah, located along the coast of Benin, was one of the most important slave towns on the entire continent of Africa. An estimated 20,000 slaves left every year from its port and nearby towns at the height of the slave trade in the 19th century. In 1885 the last slave boat left from Ouidah.

We spent last Saturday in this town with a Ouidah local- Ray's French teacher,Tarsasis, and our friend from Cotonou, Leontine. We followed the The Slave Route (Route de Esclaves) from the site of the slave market, where men and women were sold as a commodity in exchange for sugar and weapons, to the beach 3.5km down the sandy road. There were several stages along this route, one involved the Tree of Forgetfulness- a tree planted and blessed with magical powers so that upon circling the tree (men 9 times, women and children 7 times) they would have forgotten their names, their family, their identity, and the life they were leaving.

The next stage is called 'Zomai' and translates as 'where the light is not allowed.' Slaves would spend many months in this room before finally being shipped off-- disoriented, weak and their spirits broken. Those that died inside the room were thrown into a mass grave. The next stage involved circling the Tree of Return, to insure that their souls would find their way back home. Today, the final stage is marked by the Gate of No Return- a simple monument that leads to the beach.

Our visit to Ouidah, and subsequent conversations with our Beninese friends, raised some tough and uncomfortable questions to tackle. Do we, as white Americans, bare a responsibility to individually apologize for the past? And to who? Do we bare this responsibility because of the color of our skin, irregardless of the fact that our families did not participate or directly benefit from the slave trade? As a friend here put it (Im translating and paraphrasing)- 'you [Americans] have reaped the benefits of growing up in a nation that was built by the labor of Africa's strongest. And Africa has suffered.'

The same friend asked if we were proud of our country. Indeed we are, but not of every aspect of its past or recent history. Is it enough to be well educated about the abuses of the past? And to work to not repeat them, whether on an interpersonal or structural level?

Who do you ask for forgiveness? God? What individual would have the right to forgive, if not only symbollically?



  1. Karin and Ray,
    your response is an interesting and important one, and I think you addressed the reality of our country's development honestly but also with a sense of responsibility.
    We can only be responsible for our time...feeling guilt can be inspiring to try to effect a balance. Even though our actions are small they tend to address the imbalance of evil and good.
    Dan - Chicago

  2. This post is especially apt as America reflects upon the senate's apology for slavery.
    Thanks for this post.

  3. We discussed this a little in one of my classes. We were covering the post-Apartheid model for racial reconciliation in South America. Desmond Tutu wrote about it extensively in "No Future Without Forgiveness." The concept was to make amends by having Apartheid officers apologize in person to the ones that they victimized. By making them stand accountable for what they had done, this forced the issue to be addressed in a way that was painful for all, but certainly meaningful and more than symbolic. For it seemed like there was a serious effort for true forgiveness and reconciliation.

    The problem with using a similar model in America, as one student in our class pointed out, is that the victims and the persecutors are not here. We can't go back in time and force slave owners, slave traders, etc. to stand up to their crimes. So what do we do now to address the issue?

    The problem that I see with America's need for forgiveness is that we want to do it in one fell swoop. We want to give a certain amount of money to whomever we've harmed or write some fancy apology. Anything to make the issue just go away. And I don't think this addresses the issue. Forgiveness, especially for an evil that was so systemic and gradual over a long period of time, will probably take a long time to earn. Rather than just saying "I'm sorry" and allowing ourselves to be absolved, I think the countries the slave trade ravished need to see that we are truly contrite about making a social change for those we've harmed. How do we go about this change? Truthfully, I don't know. You guys would probably have better ideas than I. But I'm of the opinion that forgiveness for slavery is a long process where actions speak louder than words (cliche I know, but I really believe it) and true contrition is shown.

    Hope you guys are well in Africa! Look forward to seeing you sometime!

  4. Good and deep and neccessary and interesting questions... and there are others as well.

    What awareness or soul-searching goes on in Benin and other areas of origin for Western and Arab slave-trading regarding the participation of local African elites or particular ethnic groups in the enslavement of their own people or other groups?

    And within our own country... African slaves, while the most egregious, were only one group among several who were and to a different extent still are abused and violated as a base source of labor within our economic system. What forgiveness do we owe to our English indentured 'servants,' Irish, Chinese, and currently our undocumented Latina/o groups who we have and currently do oppress for the economic benefit of the rest of our nation? What does it mean that, though ending one form of oppression in slavery, we have continued to find new ways of legally subjugating ethnic groups at the lowest end of our social and economic strata?