What would Owen Smith say?

June 16, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

LONDON -- It is Monday, April 22. The Sun has sent longtime foreign correspondent Gil Lewthwaite and me to see if slavery does indeed exist in Africa's poorest country, Sudan.

Inspired by that eminent statesman and humanitarian Louis Farrakhan - who said he didn't believe slavery existed in Sudan and challenged the media to go there and find proof - we are in London to board an eight-hour British Airways flight headed for Nairobi, Kenya.

From there we go to Sudan where I - a black American descended from slaves - will try to buy a slave.

It is my first trip outside the United States. Soon I will be on the continent whence my ancestors made the perilous journey across the Middle Passage to the Americas. My emotions - which should be jumbled, colliding with each other as they struggle for priority in my heart - are remarkably calm.

Should I feel some hesitation, some uneasiness, indeed some moral revulsion, about buying a slave? What would my ancestors who made that journey on the Middle Passage think? What would they do if they could get their hands around my throat right now?

BUT THIS ISN'T REALLY A whole new idea. During the 246 years of chattel slavery in the United States, blacks often purchased other blacks - and sometimes for good reason. There were blacks who bought their own freedom. Some then went on to buy the freedom of relatives. There were even cases of blacks who owned slaves.

A group of abolitionists bought Frederick Douglass' freedom from his Maryland masters after he escaped to Rochester, N.Y. The idea was to give Douglass the freedom to roam the countryside and continue his scathing attacks on slavery as an institution without fear of being captured and returned to bondage.

Editors of abolitionist newspapers did the same thing The Sun wants Lewthwaite and me to do: buy slaves and then free them.

One incident in particular illustrates the morality of the practice. In 1842, a fugitive slave named George Latimer was captured in Boston. Abolitionists raised money to buy his freedom. Among them were Douglass - then editor of his own paper, The North Star - and William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator.

George Latimer's son Lewis would later work with a man named Thomas Edison. Latimer patented the first light bulb using a carbon filament. We can pretty much conclude what might have become of Lewis Latimer - and his contribution to American science - if abolitionists hadn't bought his father's freedom.

I THOUGHT ABOUT MY OWN African forebears. The only black ancestor from the antebellum era whose name has come down to me is my great-great-great-grandfather Owen Smith. In 1852, he married a French woman in St. Mary's or Calvert County, my mother tells me. The woman, Maria Conte, was a white indentured servant. Owen Smith was what in the 19th century was called a free man of color.

Neither my mother nor my cousin Jackie Campbell - the experts on the family's history - knows how Owen Smith came to be a free man of color.

Was he born free? Did his master free him? Did he buy his own freedom? Did someone - as Lewthwaite and I will try to do - buy him and then set him free? What would Owen Smith think of what his great-great-great-grandson is about to do? What would Maria Conte think, since she herself was in a form of bondage?

Their great-great-great-grandson has no qualms about buying a slave.

IT'S NOT THE BUYING OF A slave that's immoral. It's what you do with the slave that counts. I'm convinced that our ultimate goal - proving slavery's existence - justifies buying a slave. If it was good enough for Frederick Douglass, it's good enough for me. Which is why I have no problem with what I'm about to do.

Nor do I feel a sense of exhilaration about returning to the land of my ancestors.

History gets in the way. I've learned there is much to celebrate, much glory in African history. But I haven't romanticized the history the way some African-Americans have.

I've also learned that there is a ghastly and grisly side to African history, especially on the issue of slavery.

For instance, that the greatest enslavers of blacks weren't white, Christian Europeans. (It is way past time, isn't it, that black Americans shut down the "white devil school of history"?) They were Arab and African Muslims, although some non-Muslim Africans like the Ashanti and the Dahomeyans - powerful warrior nations of the 18th century that lived in what are now Ghana and Benin, respectively - also got in on the action.

I've read of Mohammed Ali. Not the boxer, but the Ottoman Empire's governor of Egypt who invaded Sudan in 1821 in search of slaves, becoming one of the greatest mass murderers of blacks the continent has ever seen.

I've read of Hamed Bin Muhammad, better known as Tippoo Tib, who was one-fourth Arab and three-fourths African and hailed from the slave-trading island of Zanzibar. Tippoo Tib led slaving expeditions into Central Africa in the late 19th century.

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