Thankful for slavery?

April 17, 1997|By Derrick Z. Jackson

BOSTON -- In his new, widely publicized book ''Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa,'' author Keith Richburg of the Washington Post sees the corpses of massacred Africans and writes, ''If things had been different, I might have been'' one of them. ''So I thank God my ancestor survived that voyage.''

At another point, he visits the place where Africans were loaded for the voyage: Goree Island in Senegal. Many African-Americans cry when they visit Goree. Mr. Richburg writes that he felt ''little personal connection or pain.'' He asks, ''Would I have been better off if this great tragedy, this crime of slavery, had not occurred?''

In yet another passage he writes, ''I am quietly celebrating the passage of my ancestor who made it out. . . . Had my ancestor not made it out of here . . . maybe I would have been one of those bodies, arms and legs bound together, washing over the waterfall in Tanzania. Or maybe my son would have been set ablaze by soldiers. Or I would be limping now from the torture I received in some rancid police cell.''

His bottom line is: Thank God my ancestor got out, because now I am not one of them. Thank God I am an American.

It is nice to thank God from whom all blessings flow. Slavery is not one of them.

Mr. Richburg has done fine work exposing corruption and black-on-black killing in Africa. But to be so weary that he has kind thoughts for white-on-black genocide is a bit much.

He is not the first African-American to have such pangs. Poet Phillis Wheatley, who was captured in Senegal in the 1750s and was made a slave in Boston, wrote 220 years ago, '' 'Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land/Taught my benighted soul to understand/That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too.''

Like Wheatley, Mr. Richburg's gratitude found a ready audience. His thankfulness to God is on a book-cover flap. It is the first quotation in the press release from Basic Books. It is as if white America breathes a sigh of relief in being absolved. Slavery is reduced to merely a bad hair day for America.

Mr. Richburg is so convinced of his probable misery that he fails to ask what would have happened had his ancestor not been kidnapped in the first place. Before the Atlantic slave trade, Africa had about as many people as Europe: 80 million. West Africa had thriving farms and mines, universities and art. Like medieval Europe, it had war and localized slavery.

Transporting people halfway around the world for slavery was a new level of destruction. In 1526, King Nzinga Mbemba of the Congo wrote the king of Portugal asking that he stop the new slave trade. Mbemba wrote: ''We cannot reckon how great the damage is, since [your] merchants are taking every day our natives, sons of the land and the sons of our noblemen and vassals and our relatives. . . . Our country is being completely depopulated.''

How many millions?

From 15 million to 20 million Africans were shipped to the Americas. So many people died resisting capture or perished on the voyage that the book ''Before the Mayflower'' says Africa lost 40 million people. Goree Island's Maison des Esclaves says 60 million.

In ''Africa in History,'' author Basil Davidson wrote that the slave trade left ''an empty hand,'' depleting Africa of its youngest and strongest workers. It ensured that economic development would stay way behind that of Europe and created a dependency for goods and materials during later colonial periods.

Far from giving thanks to God for the killing of millions of people and the permanent separation of families, Equiano Olaudah, in his 1789 slave narrative, wrote, ''O ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you -- Learned you this from your God, who says unto you, 'Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?' ''

Most African-Americans feel a connection to Africa in full understanding of its troubles. Kenneth Richburg's depression may please publishers but does nothing to tell the truth about an America that vaulted to economic power with slave labor, then sanitized the history books to convince slavery's descendants that they should be thankful they were saved from pagan lands.

Mr. Richburg fears he would be bound and tortured if he were an African. Racism stops him from thinking that an Africa unbound by America and Europe would have been a much freer place today. His own words show the power of America to sanitize the brain. He says his ancestor ''got out'' or ''made it out.'' No one ''got out.'' They were taken out.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.

Pub Date: 4/17/97

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