Volume 13 Number 2
Forgiveness at the Gate of No Return
01 April 2000
Paige Chargois travelled to West Africa for a meeting between the descendants of those who bought and sold Africans and the descendants of those they shipped to the Americas.
In the halls of the US Congress, a heart beats for racial reconciliation. The efforts of Congressman Tony Hall and Senator James Inhofe led to 100 Americans journeying to Benin, West Africa, to attend to what one called 'the irresistable need to heal the wounds left behind' by the slave trade.
Congressman Hall first introduced a resolution apologizing for slavery to the US Congress in June 1997, and has worked unceasingly -- but so far unsuccessfully -- to get it passed.
Undaunted, Hall and Inhofe took their efforts to the global community. Together with various religious leaders they crafted a moment in which apology could be heard and forgiveness extended: the Leaders' Conference on Reconciliation and Development in Cotonou, Benin, last December.
The conference was attended by several heads of state or their emissaries, including the Presidents of Benin and Ghana and the Vice-President of the Dominican Republic. The Presidents of the Togolese Republic and of Algeria sent representatives, and delegations from Europe took part. Politicians brought their faith and religious adherents brought their political will to heal the horrors of our collective past.
Hall and Inhofe had spent much time over several years with President Mathieu Kerekou of Benin. According to Inhofe, they 'felt the guilt of slavery [that] in order to have a buyer, there had to be a seller'. Inhofe said that he was not there as a politician, but as 'a follower of Jesus'. 'I'm here because I started a mission.'
From the shores of Benin alone, more than 3,000,000 Africans were sold into slavery. The official statement of the conference read: 'We owe to ourselves never to forget these absent ones standing among us who did not die of their own death, to acknowledge our share of responsibility in the humiliation and opprobrium, to feel shame for what those absent ones did, to look differently at the false images, to surrender to forgiveness in order to start afresh and pursue our goal towards progress, and free ourselves from misery without succumbing to vanity of material possession. For Africans, this awareness opens the way to forgiveness and reconciliation.'
Addressing the audience of mainly Africans and African Americans, Hall declared, 'As a citizen I can apologize! I'm part of it too... my sins... my ancestors; take these apologies and start to heal... start to close the wound that is there.'
One of the European representatives at the conference was Fenton Jones. 'This is the hardest message I have ever given -- representing tens of millions who were made rich at your expense,' he said. 'I'm one who carries generational guilt. I'm so grateful to you for even allowing me to stand here.'
Referring to the complicity of even the Papacy, Jones quoted a statement in which Europeans were encouraged to 'attach, subject and reduce to slavery' the Africans that could be captured. 'God is doing something in our midst to cleanse our sin [of having] become rich at your expense. We bow and confess our sins.'
Jones' words ushered in one of the most poignant moments of the conference when Jerry Rawlings, the President of Ghana, embraced him as a brother. There was no doubt that a new level of racial healing had already begun.
This scene was replicated in various ways over the five days of the conference. A choir sang heart-wrenching lyrics to a rhythmic beat and melodic sounds:
We're so sorry, so sorry!
Somebody say so.
Sorry for the betrayal.
Sorry for the separation.
Sorry for the suffering.
Sorry for the loss of identity.
Some were so overwhelmed that they cried out while others wept in silence.
President Kerekou had invited the kings of Benin since many of their ancestors had sold Africans to Europeans. He declared: 'This conference is a spiritual conference. Listen to what your conscience will dictate to you.... The mission has been accomplished.... The forgiveness has been accepted and reconciliation made possible.'
The delegates were taken to the city of Ouidah and to the sandy shores across which Africans walked to board the ships which would separate them forever from their homeland. There, near 'The Gate of No Return', participants sang songs of faith and heard from British and American clergy.
I had noticed that, throughout the conference, only one woman had been allowed to speak. Here in the shadow of this infamous gate African men desired to kneel and offer their apologies to African Americans whose ancestors had been sold into slavery. As a cleric and a woman I noticed that there were no African women who had shared in the apology here or at the conference centre.
Each human being needs to apologize for his or her own sins. The men couldn't apologize for the women nor vice versa. I moved to the microphone and called for an African woman to come and take her place with African men in offering the apology as I had taken my place with African American men to receive the apology. For women were not innocent bystanders during the slave trade.
(The following day this was confirmed. My African guide shared the story of how the King of Abomey wondered why the King of Ouidah was getting so rich. He sent his daughter to marry into the family and 'spy out the source of his wealth' and report back to him. He then captured the King of Ouidah and took over his lucrative slave trade venture.)
I explained that in Europe and in America women shared in the horrors and the enjoyment of the wealth gained from having sold human beings into slavery. They were co-conspirators -- as Africans, as Europeans, as Americans; and, therefore, should not be left out of the process of forgiveness that leads to racial healing.
After I said this, a young African woman immediately moved from her seat, walked down the aisle and fell into my arms sobbing. As her African American sister, I needed to hear her say, 'Sorry!' We both wept deeply. The act of forgiveness was now complete: male and female.
There were fervent words of repentance steeped in agonizing cries and pleas for us to forgive. Few acts of forgiveness have ushered in more joy. There was something so right in the centre of my soul: full confirmation that God was in this process. Shouts of hallelujah concluded our time together. Reconciliation had begun.