Without fail, every book, blog, and local we consulted insisted that we had to spend a day on Ile de Goree, an island off the coast that was infamous for the role it played in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
We’d hired a guide for the day-trip, though not necessarily by choice. As soon as we arrived at the docks a policeman said we’d need to go back to the hotel to fetch our passports if we wanted to board the ferry. Almost on cue, a man appeared and sweet-talked the officer into letting us through as long as we paid for a tour guide to show us around the island. Not surprisingly, the tour guide in question turned out to be our clever new pal who surreptitiously shook hands with the guard as we passed. Just a little extortion among friends.
Sometimes I describe myself as a “history buff,” but that really just means I like Oscar-bait period movies. Family vacations in my childhood, though, often revolved around historical sight-seeing and I was eager to share that experience with Mohammed as we waited for the ferry to arrive.
From the 15th to the 19th century, Ile de Goree is believed by many to have been the largest slave trading center on the African coast. Countless souls passed through the buildings that still stand as testament to the cruelty and unimaginable degradation to which they were subjected. As part of the westernmost continental African nation, the island has become a symbolic meetingplace between Africa and the West as the world comes to grips with this shameful chapter of its history.
Although the weather was perfect and the boat ride was pleasant, I had a pit in my stomach as we approached the island. The colorful architecture and rich foliage belied the lingering tragedy that seemed to have seeped into the soil, the cries of the previously enslaved still echoing in the wind.
That characterization may be a little maudlin, but to chalk everything I was feeling up to a simple case of “white guilt” would be reductive. After all, every white American benefits to this day from privilege built on the backs of those who have been whipped and tortured on islands just like this one. My education, my economic security, my standing in the presence of police — it had all been mortgaged once upon a time on the horrors of chattel slavery.
None of this seemed to be on Mohammed’s mind as we disembarked and he got to work photographing the sights. All my melodramatic musings aside, Ile de Goree is unspeakably gorgeous. Vibrant bougainvilleas cascaded over the tops of brick buildings painted in earthy yellows and rusted reds. Blossoming vines climbed the intricate wrought iron balconies overlooking cobblestone streets that wound through houses and yards, the distinct baobab trees rustling in the gentle breeze.
Our tour guide tried to hurry us along, clearly irritated by how charmed we were with every turn of a corner. He did his best to point out the sights. The house where the first black member of the French Parliament was born. The Church of St. Thomas Borromeo, where a singing procession was winding inside.
Several idyllic photos later, we arrived at the main attraction, the Maison des Esclaves, where an eerie and meditative calm gripped us almost immediately. Mohammed wandered away from the guide as I plagued our resident expert with questions. Soon, though, silence overtook me as the weight of the place sunk in.
The dark, dank rooms downstairs were designated for different groups: women, children, able-bodied men, and the master’s favorites, a phrase that made chills run down my spine. Narrow slits in the stone walls let in thin rays of light downstairs, but the upper quarters were lush and comfortable, now full of curated artifacts reminding visitors of the savagery of yesteryear. Shackles. Whips. Chains.
I found Mohammed near the back of the house, standing in silhouette at the “Door of No Return.” It’s chilling, to say the least, thinking of men, women, and children marched out this door and loaded onto ships that would take them to a foreign, hostile land.
We stood there looking out at the water, the sun sinking down on the horizon. I struggled to find words that would be sufficient, then gave up and simply muttered, “Pretty awful, isn’t it?”
Mohammed nodded and I realized in that moment that I’d had no idea what had been going on in his head since we disembarked the ferry. This was his history, in large part, a visible scar on the pristine Atlantic waters whose lingering pain he felt every day.
I never pretend, simply because our lives are so closely entwined, that I understand the unique struggles Mohammed faces as a young black man in America. I try my best to listen, to ask the right questions, to check my privilege and question my assumptions. One thing I know for sure is that the seeds sown by slavery have grown into our thorny present, a moment in which the tragedy of the Ile de Goree cannot be forgotten or excused.
As we lingered in that doorway, almost crushed under the weight of all the things unsaid, I remembered once again that I was on Mohammed’s turf, that this was a time to listen.
“Awful,” he simply echoed after a moment. Nothing else needed to be said.
We spent the rest of the evening admiring the local art and the stunning sunset. We had drinks on the beach as we awaited our boat ride back to Dakar. And we went to sleep in our hotel, safe for the moment. But the words that had been scratched into the stone wall of the downstairs holding cell at the Masion des Esclaves might as well have been etched inside my eyelids as I settled into my bed: “Never again.”
Matthew and his foster-son, Mohammed, traveled to Senegal for the first round of Passion Passports, “The Passport Project.” To learn more, click here. To read the next installment of Matthew and Mohammed’s journey, go to part five.