Five years ago I stood in a slave castle on Senegal’s Gorée Island at the infamous Door of No Return. Our guide told us that once Africans walked through this doorway, which opened right into the Atlantic Ocean, they were gone forever. During the slave trade, shackled blacks were led out the door and forced onto ships that waited on the other side. If a slave tried to turn back, he could be shot and fed to the sharks that loitered nearby.
After the group had moved on, I lingered a few minutes and wondered if any of my ancestors walked through this door on the way to a life of brutal enslavement. Just then, a Senegalese man walked up to me and asked if I was American. When I told him I was, he put his hand on my shoulder and, with his voice cracking with emotion, said, “I’m sorry, brother.”
Five years ago this week, just months after President Barack Obama took office, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution apologizing for slavery. The Senate acknowledged “the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery” and apologized “to African Americans, on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery.”
The House of Representatives had passed a similar measure the previous year. But Congress could not resolve the two apologies because of differing views on how the resolution would be used in any discussion of reparations. The Senate version was insistent that an apology would not endorse any future claims. The House could not agree. Significantly, the office of the president of the United States has never issued an apology.
In other words, the United States has never given an unconditional apology for slavery. For a nation that can’t even agree on an apology, the recent conversation around reparations could be seen as little more than an exercise in oratory.
It’s a little absurd that I had to travel across the Atlantic Ocean to West Africa to hear the words “Sorry, brother.”
As it turns out, mine was not a singular event. Many West African nations and tribes have issued apologies for their role in the transatlantic slave trade to black Americans, and even to specific African-American individuals who have traced their ancestry to certain locales and who would otherwise have never received an apology.
In 1999 the president of Benin, a neighbor of Nigeria, apologized for his nation’s role in slavery. In 2006 Ghana apologized to American descendants of slaves. A few months ago a Cameroonian chieftain apologized to an African American who’d traced his lineage to a couple of local clans. Other West African tribal leaders have done the same.
The reason for these apologies is the role that some West African tribes and clans played in trading away people from neighboring tribes that they’d captured in war or kidnapped. Though this may appear to have been Africans selling Africans into slavery, it was not that simple. As many scholars have noted, calling all participants “African” presumes a unified identity among captors and captives that did not exist during the transatlantic slave trade. Different tribes saw themselves as completely distinct and held no inherent loyalties to one another, just as people today in Montreal, Mexico City and Washington, D.C., do not see one another as American brothers simply because they sit on the same continent.
However, many West African nations now feel compassion and a sense of responsibility for the descendants of those taken from African soil. They recognize the atrocity and the complicity of some of their ancestors in allowing it to occur. And so they have apologized—without condition. The United States, on the other hand, has not. Though it has formally apologized for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and for subjecting black men to syphilis research during the Tuskegee Experiment, the nation has not mustered the will to do the same for slavery.
And it’s not just the government. In a recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll, only 28 percent of Americans thought that slavery warranted an apology, while 54 percent thought the country should not apologize (18 percent had no opinion). In other words, it is not the will of the American people or of the government to apologize for slavery. This is a significant declaration and communicates to black Americans what the nation thinks of their story.
As a black man and military officer, I was especially proud to see President Obama and the first lady stand in the Door of No Return when they visited Gorée Island last year. The visual of our first black president standing in the spot which symbolizes the victimization and subjugation of generations of black people was incredibly powerful. But for me, what is just as significant is that on the very spot where my commander in chief stood, a man from another country said the words that the nation I love and defend will not say.
Here’s hoping the incentive to apologize will take the same course from Africa to U.S. shores as many blacks did centuries ago.
Theodore R. Johnson III is a writer, naval officer and former White House fellow. His writing focuses on race, society and politics. Follow him on Twitter.