Africans Have Apologized for Slavery, So Why Won’t the US?

Roundup
tags: reparations



Theodore R. Johnson III is a writer, naval officer and former White House fellow. His writing focuses on race, society and politics.

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.” ...




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