The Obamas and the Door of No Return

A guest-post by Renee at Womanist Musings

As a child of the African Diaspora The Door Of No Return has much emotional meaning for me. My ancestors were pushed through that door in chains and so began a legacy of slavery that would last for hundreds of years. The Obamas recently visited the Slave Castle in Ghana.


Architecturally it is quite a beautiful building. If one did not know of its cruel history, it might even be a pleasure to behold.

Looking out over an ocean that would serve as a burial ground for millions, its white stone belies the bloodshed that its very existence is responsible for. There are times when I vow that one day I will return for the sake of my ancestor who never had the chance. Perhaps they were a baby shackled with chains and therefore unaware of the cruel fate that awaited them. Their name has been erased from history and who and what they were will never be known to me. The name of their homeland has forever been lost to the ocean tides and I sit here today an African Canadian forever disconnected from my history. Even writing about this loss causes my throat to sting with tears.

Many times Blacks have been told to get over slavery because it was so long ago, but to me it will forever be personal. No, I was never a slave, fortunately I only have to live with its lasting effects but the thought of an ancestor of mine surviving on gruel, urine, menstrual blood and feces because they refused to die, is almost more than I can bear. She or he was made of more mettle and self will than I will ever be able to marshal and I shall never disgrace their faceless memory by forgetting about the inhumanity to which they were subject.

My children will never be ripped from my arms because they are considered chattel. I will never have to apply a poultice to my sons back because he has been whipped senseless by a psychotic overseer. My life is my own to do with as I will. I have the freedom that they could only dream of and in my blood flows their hopes and aspirations. It was for me, for my life that they continued on in the worst of conditions. To forget slavery or move beyond it, is to dishonour their memory and they have already given enough so that I could walk the earth today with my mind and body intact.

Those who refuse to see the seriousness of the African slave trade often try to blame it on Africans for their so-called collusion with Europeans. Slavery in Africa was completely different than that engaged in by European powers, in fact it resembled more of what would have been considered an indentured servitude. They had no way of knowing about the inhumane conditions to which they were subjecting people to. There was also a power imbalance between African tribes and Europeans; in some cases it was participate or be subject to slavery yourself.

Those that want Blacks to move past slavery do so from a position of privilege. It is not up to the oppressor to state when we, the oppressed should cease mourning for our losses. I am tired of hearing that other groups were also enslaved. How many of these groups experienced slavery in the same ways as the peoples of the African Diaspora? How many continue to be thought of as sub human? Even sharks thought of us a chum. They were known to follow the slave ships because it was only a matter of time before a slave was thrown over board.

As I looked at the picture of Obama at the slave castle, I knew that he could never experience in the same way that Michelle or any other child of the African Diaspora would. His return represents that of a native son made good whereas; Michelle’s return represents that of a lost child returned home. I have been told on many occasions that I should be thankful that an ancestor of mine was enslaved because it allowed me to be born a Canadian and to them I say, I would gladly give up that western privilege if it were to mean that no member of my family ever had to live through such a crime against humanity. Slavery did not improve the lot for the descendants of slaves or that of the African peoples and it is dishonest to perpetuate such a myth.

When Obama looked out over the ocean and heard the echo of the masses that had lost their lives and their freedom, on some level it must have haunted him. The slave castle will forever be a monument to the depths to which we are willing to sink to in the name of so-called profit and or advancement. I don’t now whether or not I will ever have the courage to return and look through the doorway that lead to the death of millions but I know I shall never think of it without a feeling of loss and sorrow.

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33 comments for “The Obamas and the Door of No Return

  1. Renae
    July 17, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Thank you very much for this post.

  2. July 17, 2009 at 10:15 am

    Beautifully stated. Watching the Obama family there was powerful, particularly at the door of no return. People who have visited say you can feel, smell, see the past.

  3. Kristen J.
    July 17, 2009 at 10:17 am

    Thank you, Renee. This was really powerful and beautifully written.

    I would gladly give up that western privilege if it were to mean that no member of my family ever had to live through such a crime against humanity.

    This reminds me strongly of Rebellion in Dostoevsky’s Brothers K which you’ve probably read already. That chapter crystallized an idea I struggled with for years…how can we accept our privilege when it comes at the price of the suffering another? Dostoevsky was of course talking of God and the price of salvation, but I find the idea no less salient when it comes to other benefits that are supposedly in the interests of peace and humanity.

    And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive…I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible.”

  4. freddybak
    July 17, 2009 at 11:06 am

    First let me say that seeing coverage of this trip educated/reminded me about how truly horrific everything really was. CNN has done a decent job not only covering the trip but also providing context about what went on in around the Door of No Return as well as how slavery was practiced in the U.S. Your post is touching. However, two sentences struck me:

    “Slavery in Africa was completely different than that engaged in by European powers, in fact it resembled more of what would have been considered an indentured servitude.”

    Is this some kind of established fact about all slavery in Africa at the time? You make this statement as if this were the case all over Africa but you don’t describe any differences nor do you cite anything. Africa is vast and diverse as is West Africa and I’m sure many of the practices there were just as horrific as European controlled slavery.

    “They had no way of knowing about the inhumane conditions to which they were subjecting people to.”

    Reallly? They had no way of knowing? And who is “they”? All African involved in the slave trade? I don’t understand your need to absolve the Africans of effectively all blame for this indescribable tragedy, especially without citing anything. We should continually condemn this indescribable horror, acknowledge it’s remaining effects today and work hard to fight those effects. But I don’t see the point in trying to simplify the very complex and nuanced history.

  5. freddybak
    July 17, 2009 at 11:08 am

    Oh, and let me add that I completely agree that Europeans were generally the driving force behind the slave trade and absolutely deserve the bulk of the blame. I just don’t understand why the full picture can’t be acknowledged.

  6. Chelsea
    July 17, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Thanks very much for this post.

    I read Frederick Douglass’ “My Bondage and My Freedom” recently and what struck me most about it was that the structural methods of oppression that Douglass describes in this 160-year-old book haven’t changed much today. The social, economic, psychological bulwarks supporting slavery just before the Civil War are the same ones that do the oppressing today–they’re just dressed up a little differently.

    I think that it’s an easy trick to tell oneself that slavery is dead because the people who engaged in it are. But the ways that individuals don’t hold themselves accountable for inequality; the way that communities tolerate discrimination; the way that religion is perverted to support oppression; the way that economic growth is used to justify dehumanizing people– that’s all alive, just like Douglass describes it.

  7. shah8
    July 17, 2009 at 11:24 am

    I think understanding the Native American slave trade is a good proxy (with better records) for what happened in Africa. It is much more clear in showing how white slave-traders drove the slaving process.

  8. Chelsea
    July 17, 2009 at 11:31 am

    “Slavery in Africa was completely different than that engaged in by European powers, in fact it resembled more of what would have been considered an indentured servitude.”

    Is this some kind of established fact about all slavery in Africa at the time?

    There are a lot of great books out there about the history of global slavery and about the history of African slavery. You should read them.

    The seriousness of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is an academic consensus, but more importantly, I don’t think that a debate about it is an acceptable response to Renee’s important post.

  9. July 17, 2009 at 11:48 am

    Thank you, Renee.

  10. freddybak
    July 17, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Not sure where anyone was questioning the seriousness of the slave trade. Hell, seriousness is probably a gross understatement.

  11. July 17, 2009 at 11:58 am


    The insensitivity and ignorance of your commentary hardly comes as a surprise to me, as there is much invested in perpetuating the lies surrounding slavery that White Europeans have constructed. I offer you a heart felt piece about the triggering effects of thinking about the door of no return and you seek to use rhetoric to detract from the emotional trauma that peoples of the African Diaspora experience.

    Please explain to me oh knowledgeable one, if the people of Africa were not traveling to the geographic North to witness first hand the effects of slavery how they knew what they were sentencing people to? Oh while you are at, please explain to me why Africans fought battles in which many lives were lost with the slave traders if they were so invested in the slave trade? People love to point to the collusion of African peoples as though the power between the two groups were equal. I suggest you read and decolonize your mind.

    Finally, this post is not about who is the guilty party but dealing with emotions that arise when one thinks about the disconnection that slavery caused. It is about knowing that a part of you is forever lost and that it can never be retrieved.

  12. July 17, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    Beautiful comment, Renee. As you know, I was exposed to white supremacist ideology at an early age, and one thing I always noticed: they try to minimize the slave trade. They know what it means, and what it says: whites can’t possibly be ‘superior’ if this is what we are capable of.

    A good guide to whether someone is a racist is whether they try to make it “less” than it was, as antisemites try to deny the Holocaust, first thing on the agenda.

    A castle that size cannot be minimized or hidden; it is a testament to the truth. We must show the children, explain and educate. Never again.

  13. Mandolin
    July 17, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    Excellent post, Renee.

  14. freddybak
    July 17, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Renee, I’m not questioning the legitimacy of your emotions one bit. The scale of what went on is so infuriating and heartbreaking one can only imagine the kind of emotions it invokes. I appreciate you sharing yours.

    However, you made a couple of statements about historical fact and I was trying to figure out what the basis was. My point was only that Africa was and is a continent with a vast diversity of people and cultures. Some of those cultures and societies couldn’t fathom slavery as legimitate. Others practiced it in cruel and horrific ways. Just like on every other continent, ther are thousands of different stories. It seems a bit reductive to say “he Africans” did this or “the Africans” did that. The story is complex, as are all stories.

    To me this isn’t 101-lacking ignorant rhetoric but common sense. It doesn’t in any way detract from the fact that what happened was a European driven catastrophe on an immeasurable scale. If you think my mind is colonized because I want to tell this horrific story as accurately as possible, so be it.

  15. ielisa
    July 17, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    Thank You.

  16. Dan
    July 17, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    English is not my first language, so forgive me for any possible mistake.

    After reading this touching post, I am willing to say that the abolition and criminalization of slavery was Western civilization’s most important contribution to the world. It is shameful that it took a tragedy of such proportions (the Transatlantic slave trade) to realize that slavery was, and always had been, morally deplorable. I might get fire for saying this, but I also believe that it is shame that no other civilization (as a whole) thought that slavery was a problem either. It makes you hate the human race.

  17. Mandolin
    July 17, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    Freddy — what I remember being told in academic contexts, which I can’t back up with a comprehensive understanding of the facts (so grains, salt, take my comments with, etc) is that American slavery was different than any other kind of slavery that had ever existed. This isn’t necessarily even a cruelty claim, although my understanding is that American slavery tended toward the crueler end of the contiunuum. The claim is that no other kind of slavery existed with the same kind of heritable, systemic institution behind it — which ended up unremittingly spreading cruelty through generations.

    Again, salt. Etc.

  18. Pega
    July 17, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    @freddybak – I was taught in elementary school that the slavery that had existed throughout Africa was a very different form than what existed in the Americas. It was, as Jill stated, more along the lines of what Europeans considered indentured servitude. Maybe my education was unique, but most of the historical reading I have done since then backs up that claim. Maybe it’s my privilege showing, but I thought that was an accepted fact that was, and is, still being taught in American history classrooms.

  19. Pega
    July 17, 2009 at 11:33 pm

    My apologies, I missed the ‘guest post by Renee’ and credited Jill with the post above. Mea culpa.

  20. July 17, 2009 at 11:41 pm


  21. July 17, 2009 at 11:46 pm

    Since it won’t let me edit: not wow, cheaply, or sarcastically; wow with awe and respect for this post and, even more, for every person who was tough enough to fight through that journey to try and stay alive + retain some shred of their human dignity. And wow for everyone who tried and, because of the sheer violence, didn’t make it.

  22. Pega
    July 18, 2009 at 12:00 am

    Renee, extremely good post. I had to read it through a few times before really responding. I have read a few articles that reference Michelle Obama’s lost ancestry and while I can sympathize, I can never really empathize. This post really brought that home for me.

    I’ve asked my daughters to read this. I think it’s something they need to see from the perspective of a real person, instead of just something from a history book or a news article; something that has nothing to do with them. Now they can (hopefully) see that this is something that’s still relevant to POC.

    Again, excellent post. Thank you for making it.

  23. July 18, 2009 at 8:47 am

    Wonderful post about a tragic legacy. Your point about those who state that other groups were also enslaved and how that experience is uncomparable is excellent.

  24. Napalm Nacey
    July 18, 2009 at 9:12 am

    Thank you so much for this post. May we never, ever forget the crime of slavery. My heart aches for your ancestors. All my love and gratitude for sharing your feelings on this.

  25. July 18, 2009 at 10:24 am

    Thanks for your support everyone. This post was probably the most difficult one that I have written since I started blogging. I cried and held my child as I typed for sheer gratitude and pain. I am so glad that so many were able to take something from it.

  26. Az
    July 18, 2009 at 11:32 am

    This is a very powerful post. Thank you, Renee.

  27. Stuart Sesuande
    July 19, 2009 at 3:38 am

    Over the years I have discovered three historical works written about the Atlantic slave trade that seriously challenge the traditional, popular idea of European victimization of Africans. Those books are: “Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade” by Daniel P. Mannix and Malcolm Cowley; “Slavery: A World History” by Milton Meltzer, and, most significantly, “The African Slave Trade” (formerly titled, “Black Mother”) by the late Basil Davidson. The authors validate what I and others concerned about the issue already knew about the evil and the suffering aspect of the whole expereince. However, they do not hestitate to tell both sides of the story.

    Individually and collectively, these three historians wrote about (and documented meticulously) how utterly enthusiastic many West African kings were to participate in the rush to provide Europeans with the bodies of their own people for profit; how they would set fire to their own villages, then station soldiers at pre-arranged exits to capture the fleeing, terrorized children, women and men and march them off in chains to waiting slaver ships moored off the Coast(s).

    They report how, late in the slave trade, during the early nineteenth century, certain members of this or that African monarch’s court began to realize dire and unforeseen consequences of feeding Europe’s demand for more and more slaves. Some of these former “yes-men” with bad consciences wrote desperate letters to their European business partners begging them to stop the trade in black bodies, because they couldn’t convince their own king to do so, and their villages were so depleted of people lost to slavery that there weren’t enough of them left to harvest their crops, and starvation was rampant.

    Elsewhere, they tell the story of how certain tribes seeking to cut the losses to slavery from their own tribes went to war against other tribes to capture their people and sell them to the Europeans.

    There is much, much more of this, obviously, and it gets progressively, sickeningly and disgustingly worse, believe me. Not one of these careful and studious historians denies the fact that Europeans saw a good thing in Africa and that they went for it like gangbusters. However, I think my point is obvious, isn’t it? Trade in slaves was one of the earliest forms of commerce and continues to be, from prehistoric times to the here and now. And the slave trade would have languished, if not dried up altogether, without the willful, and at times gleeful participation of many African rulers.

    The hell that African people have caught the world over as result of the slave trade is a curse that our ancestors put on their descendants by their decision to profit from the sale of the bodies of their own flesh and blood. We are paying for their corrupt, callous thinking and actions. I don’t think it’s going to last forever, but that depends on how much of the truth we as a people can stand, and how we deal with it.

    Of course, it’s possible to dismiss all this using various lines of defense such as, “You can’t believe everything you read,” or, “White people are self-serving and would never fully admit to their complicity in the trade,” and so forth and so on. I won’t argue about this with anyone, here, in this blog, or in any other venue. I’d like to, of course, but I won’t.

    My Sister Renee…and those of you who are moved in your hearts and souls by the horrible suffering of our slave ancestors, please, please, please don’t think I am attempting to discredit, invalidate, condescend to, or trivialize the true and real sorrow and pain you experience when you meditate on colossal impact the “Black” slave trade has had on our people. Please don’t think that, because that’s not at all why I posted this. All I am trying to say is that the roots of our suffering involve terribly fateful decisions made by people who were not thinking about the future. That’s what got us into trouble, but we can change that. It’s our responsiblity to clean up this horrible legacy by owning up, and then building up.

    I’m sorry if the length of this post is problematic for anyone.

    Most Sincerely & Very Respectfully to All,

  28. July 19, 2009 at 5:18 am

    This post was amazing, Renee. Tough to read, but in a good way (although if it was tough to read, it must’ve been much worse to write, so thanks for your courage). I am so very very very, very bookmarking this post for future reference.

  29. July 19, 2009 at 11:20 am

    The sad reality is that if there weren’t actual proof that the African slave trade and slavery actually existed, there would be some trying to deny that it actually occurred.

  30. July 20, 2009 at 10:54 am

    @Freddybak: I’m Nigerian. Besides Ghana Nigeria was pretty much the biggest slave port on the West African coast. Our portion was known specifically as The Slave Coast which is why most African Americans, African Canadians, African Carribeans, Afrolatinos and Afro British people have Nigerian ancestry.

    “Slavery” in the area now known as Nigeria and indeed most of Africa resembled the servant system of Europe in the middle ages (i.e. one family might serve a higher class family for multiple generations).

    People entered into slavery mainly if there was a mini-war and their town was captured then some people from that town might be taken to the victors and become servants. In our system the masters did just as much work as the “slaves” and “slaves were not maltreated, flogged or anything like that. Also “slaves” were not discriminated against. They could eat the same food as their masters from the same pot, they had the same accommodations, etc. They were not treated like animals as was done in America and slaves could rise in the community like everyone else. The only exceptions were that slaves could not take certain titles and they could not inherit from their master’s family. They could be given gifts like plots of land, houses, wives, etc but in a clear-cut inheritance case where the master died they could not inherit.

    Another way people became slaves were people who had committed taboos. For example, in my ethnic group (Igbo) people that committed murder were exiled, bestiality, killing sacred animals and cutting down sacred trees, that kind of thing. Mostly people would be exiled for a number of years but if the crime was especially heinous then such a person would be sold into slavery. According to our traditional rules (Igbo) girls must never be sold into slavery.

    Of course there were also royal slaves/servants. It was not uncommon for kings and queens to give slaves to visiting Europeans as a sign of friendship.

    Either way I am just giving you examples of how people came to be slaves (on the African side). Now I will admit, on the coast, there was a particular woman (I forget her name) who was notorious for selling slaves to the Europeans but as far as our history goes, besides that particular woman in the Lagos area and of course those slaves that were initially given from royal houses there really were not any people that were selling people into slavery.

    Now as for the Europeans, they were actively involved in kidnapping people and putting them on ships, either by force (guns) or by trickery. For example, in Igboland long before the first white people stepped foot in the Nigeria area, there was a famous oracle called The Long Juju. This oracle was pretty much obeyed without question and people used to travel insane distances just to consult the Long Juju with their most serious problems. Now my grandmother told me that her grandmother narrowly escaped being enslaved because a summons arrived at her village from The Long Juju asking that her village send fifty of its strongest and healthiest young men and young women to The Long Juju. Like I said in those days nobody questioned such a great oracle, or the priestess of a god or that kind of thing so of course they were sent and my grandmother’s grandmother was among them.

    They were ambushed by white men on the way and most of them were captured and taken away as slaves. My great-great-great grandmother escaped with a couple of other people and warned the rest of the village that the Long Juju summons was a trick so the men in the village went to war and lost because the Europeans had guns and THEY TOO were taken as slaves.

    I’m just saying. Yeah, maybe one or two Africans sold slaves, but it wasn’t a concerted effort by even a group of Africans to betray and sell their fellow people. On top of that there were people that betrayed others to save themselves but at the end of the day the vast majority of the enslavement was carried out by the Europeans.

    There were a lot of Africans that gave servants to the Europeans because they didn’t know how different the European culture was from theirs. Indentured servitude in Africa (at least in West Africa and particularly Nigeria) has never been done on the basis of hate. We had a very stratified society before the Europeans came and it was more on the basis of class and wealth as opposed to the European model of declaring themselves the Chosen Ones and everyone else a sub-human barbarian. (I’m not saying all Europeans are this way, I’m just saying the Europeans of the time AND the Arabs of the time – because the Arabs enslaved Africans too – were).

    There were many Africans that were positively horrified when news of what the those that were taken away had to endure. A lot of whites now try to claim that it was Africans doing the selling and the Europeans were just passive benefactors of the Africans’ determination to sell off their people. This is extremely untrue.

    We know what happened. It happened on our shores and it ripped our families apart. So many of us have grandparents and great grand parents that told stories of their brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts, fathers, mothers, that went to the farm or went to the stream or went to the market and were never seen again. There are so many people that went on journeys to see family in far away towns that never came back because they were kidnapped. Those stories are scattered all over the south of Nigeria. And the Europeans didn’t discriminate. They took the high and the low. There were kings that fell victim to European slavery, there were queens, there were princes and princesses, chiefs, priests, priestesses, doctors, musicians,hunters, artists, dancers, wrestlers, warriors, the list goes on. Those people were highly placed in society, you think anyone could have sold them? You think anyone could have just walked up and sold a whole KING?

    I understand that whites are weary of being blamed for slavery but to deny the truth is deeply wrong. Sure we all need to move on eventually but trying to downplay the effects of slavery and the role of your ancestors in something so devastating that they orchestrated is unfair. It is unfair to those that are now trapped on the other side of the world with no way of ever knowing their history and it is unfair to those that stayed up countless nights on my side of the world searching the horizon for loved ones that would never come back.

  31. lizvelrene
    July 20, 2009 at 11:55 am

    This is so powerful. I need to share this with everyone I know. Thank you Renee.

  32. jemand
    July 24, 2009 at 9:03 am

    @Mandolin, I think the Hindi caste system of untouchables seems on par with the heritable, generational, and institutional slavery of persons… as especially the lowest classes of untouchables were virtually slaves to a family or town to do the dirtiest and most dangerous work.

    Also… thanks for this post. It was extremely emotionally touching.

    Thirdly, I want to interject that slavery honestly is not over. In fact, the price of a slave is very low today, given the high numbers of desperate people living on the planet, so much so that slaves are often treated as very, very disposable in the “unseen” underworld of human trafficking. Let’s not congratulate ourselves that highly visible slavery has been stopped so that the underworld can step in. Slavery in sex work, and domestic work, is still a big problem in the west, and in third world nations slavery for very dangerous physical labor is still going strong.

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