Apology to Africa

A bishop reckons with sins of slavery, racism
March 24, 2008

Editor's note: This reflection was delivered at the Service of Liberation in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York marking the bicentennial of the American abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

I am sorry, Africa.

Of all the places we have exploited -- and we have exploited many -- it is only from you that we also have stolen the people.

I am sorry that we took your people and held them in bondage for centuries, a holocaust of perhaps 20 million souls.

Africa, we transported your children in conditions unfit for any living creature. When they became sick or died, we threw them overboard, like so much unwanted ballast. Those that completed the excruciating journey, we sold like cattle, auctioning them off to the highest bidder.

This past summer, after going to Tanzania on pilgrimage with Carpenter's Kids, my husband and I spent two days in Zanzibar. We visited the Anglican cathedral there, built over the site of the old slave market. We saw the tiny airless chamber below, the only one preserved to show how inhumanely the slaves were kept while waiting to be sold. We saw also the inlaid marble circle in front of the altar marking the place of the whipping post where slaves were tied one after another and whipped to see if they would cry. If they did, they brought in a lower price.

What allows such brutality to rest in the hearts of those purporting to be Christian? Where was compassion?

I am sorry, Africa. I benefit still from that brutality. The whole U.S. economy is based on stolen goods. It was built on the backs of slave labor, on the trafficking of human beings and on the precious gems and metals ripped out of the bowels of Africa over the years. The first stock sold on the stock market were African people. I am sorry. Africa, we deprived your people of language and culture, forcing upon them new names, new language, new identities.

We heinously stole their stories from them. We continued to abuse them physically, using the whip and working them to early death. We split up families, selling off children, separating husbands and wives. And to our deepest shame, we raped your women and your girl children, using some as sex slaves.

And we blasphemed against the Bible by using it as an instrument of oppression instead of liberation.

Our evil did not stop with slavery, Africa. Even after abolition, we continued to abuse your children. Every time black folk started to climb up the ladder of success behind us, we put a foot in their face and kicked them down. When they began to get just a taste of equality under the law, we changed the laws, or ignored them. We ambushed, beat and lynched in the name of Christ, burning crosses as warnings, turning our symbol of love and redemption into one of hatred and damnation. We would not let your people get ahead.

Bishop [Mark] Sisk and I returned yesterday from a Province II Bishop's meeting in Haiti. Haiti was the first independent free black nation in the world. We did everything we could do to undermine its founding, for fear our slaves might get the “wrong idea” about running away to Haiti to get their freedom. Much more recently, we kept in power modern-day slave drivers, the Duvaliers, who beat, tortured and killed Haitians at will. Africa, you had a wonderful son (among many wonderful children I could name). His name was Martin. And for a brief blessed moment we had a glimpse of the Kingdom, of black and white and brown working together for justice and freedom. But we killed him too, and the legacy has been hard to hold onto.

The progress we made is slipping away. Our schools are as segregated now as they were at the time of Brown vs. the Board of Education -- only the worst states are no longer Mississippi and Alabama, but New York and California, Illinois and Michigan. We white folks in the North congratulate ourselves on not being racist, but we don't send our children to school with black children. Our prisons are filled with young black men who should be in college, not jail. And for sure not all black votes are counted even today -- especially today.

In 1923, white people massacred the people of Rosewood, a prosperous, self-sufficient and peaceful black town in Florida. We cluck our tongues and shake our heads at this old brutality. Surely this could not happen today. But there is no outrage as the black
people of New Orleans are dispersed, disenfranchised, and unable to return to their homes. Katrina ruined some of the housing, but white people just recently voted to tear down some of what was left standing, even though it was sound and of some architectural value.

The foot dragging around rebuilding black neighborhoods is a scandal and a sin. Throughout history, our church has worked both sides of this particular street, participating in oppression and also liberation. Most recently I give God thanks for Bishop Charles Jenkins and the people of the Diocese of Louisiana who have named the racism and continue to work for relief and development in the black community in New Orleans, rebuilding homes as part of a project called Jericho Road. But as you can
imagine, it is an uphill battle.

And we and other developed nations still hold your continent in bondage through global economics.

So then, what of reparations, Africa? I can't wait for something official to happen. I am too old, and these things grind exceedingly slow. So I offer you this -- the education of your children in Africa and here. I offer you Carpenter's Kids and All Our Children. I offer you awareness from which I pledge not to retreat. I offer my voice to speak up for justice, and I offer my ears to hear your cry and your call, lest I presume too much.

For as you know, I, too, am a racist, dear Africa, but I hope I am in recovery a day at a time. My eyes have been opened to so much by my black friends both here and in Africa, who by the grace of God have risked telling me the truth. Then I was able to see Martin's truth more clearly, and Malcolm's also.

I have been called to repentance, and I do repent and I pledge amendment of life, so help me God.

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