By Ellen Knickmeyer
GOREE ISLAND, Senegal – Framed in the slave house’s narrow, dark doorway onto the Atlantic, Detroit clergyman James Ephaim talks of the Africans once forced through it and onto slave ships as if the wrong were today, and the wound were his.
And for Ephaim, and other Africans and African-Americans speaking up in a debate on slavery reparations spurred by this week’s U.N. racism conference, they are.
“How can you pay for a part of a family shipped here to Brazil, here to Jamaica, here to France, here to the States, here to Haiti?” asks Ephaim, a tourist whose trip to the old slave barracks off Senegal comes as vacation, pilgrimage and homecoming combined.
“How do you repay people for messing up their lives? For making them start out at less than zero? For classing them in terms that were less than human?”
He stops, staring out of the rock doorway with the murky Atlantic stretching behind him. He raises his eyebrows in inquiry.
When the U.N. conference opens Friday in Durban, South Africa, proponents say they will ask for compensation and an apology for the centuries of trans-Atlantic slave trading – arguing in part that Africans and African-Americans are still suffering from slavery’s effects and that the Americas and Europe are still benefiting from it.
But in a debate that hits home on both sides of the Atlantic, there’s a lot left to talk about, even among supporters of reparations.
Who should make amends? Just Europe and the Americas, or Arabic nations and Africa itself – also once active in the trans-Atlantic slave trade?
And how will those reparations be calculated? Who would they be paid to?
At Goree Island, a half-hour ferry ride from Senegal’s capital, Dakar, emotions are such among American tourists that arguments can run to fistfights, guides say. They’ve learned to separate African-American tour groups from others, giving them their privacy when they visit the red clay slave house.
The Bush administration says the United States may boycott the U.N. conference if slavery reparations and the demand for an apology are even on the agenda.
African leaders, including those whose governments have endorsed the reparations demand in general, have been surprisingly silent in the run-up to the conference.
Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade has been one of the few leaders to speak out on financial compensation – but against it.
“We still suffer the effects of slavery and colonialism, and that cannot be evaluated in monetary terms,” Wade said. “I find that not only absurd, but insulting.”
The proposal’s supporters say that after centuries of slavery, and 150 to 200 years after its Western abolition, it’s time to talk.
For the United States in particular, the bill for “40 acres and a mule” – the U.S. government’s famous, never-realized pledge to freed slaves – is past due, said Alouine Tine, an outspoken leader of a Senegal-based group pushing for reparations to be on the U.N. conference agenda.
“Come, come, discuss with other nations. Negotiate,” said Tine. “This is one of the most tragic experiences of the black people, and America profited from this trafficking, this enslavement. I think it’s one of the countries most concerned by this question.”
According to the most broadly accepted estimate among historians, 12 million to 15 million Africans were shipped into slavery in Europe and the Americas.
Historians say their labor alone made a vast difference to the economies of the New World and the Old World.
Cheap cotton from the U.S. South, for example, supplied cotton mills in England – a key industry sparking the Industrial Revolution, notes John Thornton, a history professor at Pennsylvania’s Millersville University and a specialist in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The African-led movement’s terms for reparations start with cancellation of Africa’s billions of dollars in foreign debt, and funding of social, education and health programs in Africa.
African leaders of the reparations movement have had comparatively little to say on reparations on the other side of the Atlantic, for African-Americans.
And little is said about Africa’s role in the slave trade, or that slavery persists in Africa today. Britain’s Anti-Slavery League and others say countless numbers of people remain in slavery – much of it hereditary – in West Africa.
Reparations supporters make a distinction, calling that “domestic slavery” – “as existed under the Greeks, for example,” Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s independence leader, told reporters at a contentious pre-conference forum in Geneva.
“There is no good enslavement,” Tine said. “All forms are bad, and all are crimes. But if we insist and make emphasis about the trans-Atlantic trade, it is because of the deportation of men. Sending people from Africa to the continents (of Europe and the Americas) was very, very bad.”
The reparations issue “is complicated by the involvement of some African rulers in the slave trade,” says Linda Heywood, a historian at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University.
Heywood nonetheless welcomes the African-driven move to come to terms with the legacy of slavery.
That’s a topic that’s yet to be discussed in the mainstream, Heywood said. And without resolution, she says, the conflicts aren’t going to go away.
“They call this the ‘Door of No Return,’ ” says Ephaim, just outside it. “And I’m here to tell you that’s a lie, because I have returned.”
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