The image that I have chosen to be the icon of TZR is a picture of what has been called “the Door of No Return.” The picture is looking outward from the rock-hewn opening of a slave depot, commonly known as “the House of Slaves,” on the harbor Island of Gorée in modern Senegal. These depots–which were called barracoons by the Spanish, feitorias by the Portuguese, and forts, castles, or factories by other colonial powers–were extraordinarily cruel and inhumane places. It was here, in courtyards of cold, dark stone, that African prisoners, brought from caravans known as coffles and bounded in wooden yokes and chains called corrientes, were questioned, inspected, branded, fondled, stored, worked, and shipped across the Middle Passage to the burgeoning colonies of the New World. And it was also here, in prisons of ledgers, log books, account books, company manuals, and an unending supply of bottles of rum and palm wine, that African chiefs and European traders explored the worst potential of the human soul.
But these slave depots were more than just sites of international crime. They were also places of unimaginable cultural contact. Mande chiefs, Susus drivers and grummetes, Sape commoners, Portuguese lancados, mulatto traders, Italian pilots, Dutch investors, Fulani translators, English merchants, and Bullom servants all came together from across vast distances–cultural, racial, ethnic, linguistic, and geographic–in order to discuss something that is unthinkable for most of us today: the international trade in human bodies. For over four long centuries, these people conducted one of the oldest forms of commerce in some ways that were strikingly new. But, while the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade are something that we do not frequently like to remember, the significance of its history in the making of the modern world is something that we cannot afford to forget. For these reasons, the depots have become World Heritage Sites in the West African nations where they reside.
The slave trade changed everyone that it touched, not only those who were unfortunate to pass as chattel property to the New World. On the one hand, the slave trade ensured that the history of the West would be built upon a foundation of racism, violence, inequality, and moral compromise. It would be built upon a mingling of commerce, power, and action. Among other things, the capital for the industrial revolutions, and the capital for the United States of America, would be partly coerced from the labor of black bodies. The inherited wealth of untold generations would be cultivated in the blood of the plantation complex. Modern day police systems, prison systems, and education systems in America are among the institutions that cannot be understood without knowledge of the slave trade. On the other hand, the slave trade also ensured that the history of the Western world would be a shared one. It would be a multi-ethnic history whether we liked it or not; it would be based on many experiences, all radically different and all somewhat valid, whether in historical fact or invented memory. In that sense, one of the greatest legacies of the transatlantic slave trade is the ongoing struggle for racial co-existence in the United States today (among other countries in the Americas).
Of course, we still live with the legacies of slavery and the slave trade. Every so often, an event passes through the news and, in doing so, abruptly reminds us that we are still struggling to understand the radically different origins, experiences, and perspectives that shaped and continue to shape our history. When I look at this image of the grotto in the stone slave castle at Gorée, I wonder, “Who am I, and which way am I facing?” Can I try and see the world from the perspective of one of the African slaves, one of the African chiefs, as well as one of the European traders or slave ship sailors? More importantly, can I see the world as one of the many individuals who was caught somewhere in between, trying to survive, trying to make a profit, or simply trying to navigate or understand the strange forces that were at work, guiding my circumstances? As a citizen of today, can I understand the past from the viewpoint of someone facing the Old World, as well as someone facing the New?
Finally, can I use the past in order to ask important questions about what lies ahead? Which way am I going? More importantly, how much power do I actually have–provided that I am brave enough to either ask for it or take it–as only one person within a complex web of global structures, to direct the course of our future? And, finally, how can I be so sure that I would recognize such an opportunity when it presented itself? These are some of the many questions that I contemplate when I look at “The Door of No Return.”