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Come Again?

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 7/23/2003

If African-Americans in Charm City felt dissed by all the international hoopla over President George W. Bush's recent visit to Africa--especially the photo-op tour through slave dungeons in Dakar, Senegal--they had a right. I mean, if he wanted to pay tribute to both the cultural greatness and inconceivable despair that reflect the black experience, a brief limo ride to, say, Pennsylvania and North avenues, would have done the trick, for starters.

But we didn't let Bush's choice of where to visit (and where to promise peacekeeping forces and debt-defying U.S. dollars when we desperately need both) get us all worked up. After all, we had Baltimore idol and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume pitching a press-kit fit about the president's third consecutive no-show to the organization's annual convention (myopic affair that it is). And we knew that, for all the media play, Bush's Africa trip wasn't about helping anybody so much as deterring future terrorist cells and bolstering his résumé with something besides war and recession prior to the 2004 elections.

So it was with peace in my heart, goodwill toward men, and a second sour-apple martini in hand that I sat down to ruminate on this week's column, having decided not to take an easy bite out of Bush's foray into Africa. Then, in a backlogged stack of Sunday papers, I ran across an editorial by Adam Goodheart (a history buff and fellow at Washington College in Chestertown) featured in the July 13 issue of The New York Times. "Slavery's Past, Paved Over or Forgotten," read the eye-catching headline, followed by a brief and on-point dig at U.S. presidents like Bush, and Bill Clinton before him, who have visited historic sites and spoken of slavery's atrocities in Africa but have done little or nothing to pay tribute on these shores.

Initially, Goodheart's piece seemed to express sentiments similar to my point about Bush paying homage in Baltimore--or any number of historic cities with ties to slavery. He remarks how peculiar it is that "America's leaders need to go to another continent in order to address an issue rooted so deeply in our own history," and goes on to mention commemorative-worthy places like the Old Point Comfort lighthouse in Virginia and Natchez, Miss., the site where the first enslaved Africans came ashore and one of the nation's slave markets, respectively.

But then Goodheart took a turn that made me get out of the car. "There are any number of sites in this country far more intimately connected to America's slave past than Goree Island is," he wrote, referring to Bush's visit to Senegal, which, let Goodheart tell it, "probably had little to do with United States slave history," given the number of African captives shipped to America from other places, such as the Ivory Coast.

As if seeking to further diminish the political and cultural relevance of Goree Island, Goodheart looks to Dorothy Spruill Redford, a black woman who manages Somerset Place in North Carolina, a former plantation site (where her enslaved ancestors lived) that could use "the kind of attention the president has just given to a land across the sea," Redford said.

It's true that people in this country--all races and demographic whatnots--could benefit from a trip through some Southern cotton and tobacco fields to get a more hands-on, less-studied sense of American slavery. I'm not suggesting the equivalent of Civil War re-enactments (a godforsaken pastime among folks who are one sandwich short of a picnic, if you ask me). But I am saying that, for all the tomes I'd read on the subject, my cognitive and personal understanding of slavery was enriched after I'd stood barefoot on dirt floors of one-room slave shacks in places like Boone Hall Plantation in South Carolina, and gazed at the woods while leaning on the glassless, chipped-wood windowsill of a slave cabin at Stagville Plantation in North Carolina. Just taking time to be still and think about what took place on those grounds, in those places, was a powerful experience. Such places should rightfully be commemorated and preserved by elected officials and citizenry alike.

Still, I can't imagine a less stirring experience had I the chance to visit Goree Island or any of the slave outposts memorialized in Africa (a continent to which I've not yet traveled). But I'd challenge anyone to discount the richness of films like Haile Gerima's 1993 underground classic Sankofa, which captures the enduring relevance of Africa-to-America slave history. Moreover, I'd challenge them to watch PBS documentaries like the recently aired This Far by Faith: African-American Spiritual Journeys, which depicts an emotional pilgrimage by blacks to the continent (and which thankfully offsets that flea-bitten sacrilege of the Wonders of the African World documentary by Henry Louis Gates a few years back).

That Bush could visit such a place and probably feel nothing more than odd stares or bugs biting through his repellent goes without saying. That such a place might or, worse, should pale in comparison to historic sites in the United States is--or at least was--unheard of.

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Here's Looking at You (5/19/2004)
...I've gradually discovered that my heart's got issues when it comes to whatever place I call home.

Sappy Anniversary (5/12/2004)
Suburban flight isn't the only reason many schools have resegregated almost organically, especially in cities, like Baltimore, with vast "minority" populations.

Om (5/5/2004)
Efforts to snuggle closer to the Big Dawg seem more doable--not to mention, if heaven awaits, more worthwhile.

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