Posting will be slow (though I hope not nonexistent) as I continue my work developing a computer literacy program in the Dominican Republic (more on that here).
One of the things I hated most growing up was being banished to run off and play with the children while the adults were talking. Sitting inconspicuously in the corner, eyes eagerly jumping from one speaker to the next as they recounted family gossip and island folklore, was far more entertaining to me than a game of tag. It was during those sessions, sometimes lasting hours into the night, that I learned about Cousin Allen’s baskets, Uncle Dan’s harrowing night with the jack o’ lantern and the healer who was born only after God raised his mother from her coffin and sent her home with a remarkably sanguine husband in order to conceive him. I would go to bed with a head full of scraps of stories about spirits and spells and people with strange names like Fortune, Scipio, and Liberty.
I didn’t know anyone in the world who had stories like these, who had family like this, and it made it seem as though my forebears had been born not just in another time, but in another universe. Those summers when we made the long drive from Jamaica, Queens to my Aunt Clara’s house, just across the water from Sapelo Island, were like stepping into another reality. There, everything—from the drawls to the biscuits to Aunt Clara’s ancient Mustang–was hotter, slower and sweeter than back in the real world.
Thanks to those long sessions of eavesdropping, by the time I was an adult I could recount most of the stories and run off the names in order from the patriarch Bilali through the seven generations that ended with me and my younger brother. But the names were still strange and disembodied and the stories still floated in my head without context. I had no idea how my family’s story fit into any larger history—of America, of slavery, of West Africa. I knew that Bilali was Muslim, which was unusual but no more so than the rest of the stories on the island. I knew that he’d written a journal that had been housed in various museums around the country. This was even more unusual but still just another fun fact about the family.
I decided to seek out what information I could about Bilali’s history. I wanted to know why so many unusual little fun facts seemed to converge around the same man—his faith, his mastery of multiple languages, his journal. I didn’t expect to find much—the history of the vast majority of individual slaves has been lost to the apathy of their owners—but I hoped to answer the odd question and fill in a few blanks.
What I found, just scratching the surface, is a history much more rich and nuanced than I’d ever expected. Bilali’s story—beginning with his birth into a world marked by the struggle for domination and wealth by various European and Senegambian powers; his eventual purchase by a British loyalist who fled the American revolution; and marriage to a slave possibly smuggled away by an owner escaping the Haitian revolution—is the story of fallen empires, betrayed ideals, and the frustrating human tendency to define justice as the substitution of one tyranny for another.
The disconnect I felt between my family’s story and that of the larger story of American slavery mirrors the place the slave trade itself occupies in the popular imagination as a sort of supplementary chapter in both American and European history. We know that Europeans arrived on the West African coast as they arrived elsewhere, in search of wealth and conquest. We know that their presence was disruptive; that they committed atrocities. We know that millions of nameless, faceless victims were forced to leave everything they’d ever known behind in order to realize the promise of New World wealth for their captors.
Yet all these things we know are confined to subordinate clauses in our statements about history, even after decades of attempts to give them their due. Histories of the slave trade often begin with European interests and motivations, with little more than a nod to the complex, centuries-old political structures disrupted and reshaped by invasion.
Worse, the story is often told as a two dimensional morality tale, with noble victims and soulless perpetrators, each serving as stand-ins for factions in modern social and political debates. The conflicts and inconsistencies within both groups, instead of being allowed to provide necessary depth and nuance to the story, are relegated to inconvenient footnotes.
This is particularly true when it comes to the role of Africans and Arabs in the buying and selling of human beings, both before and after the 15th century. The systematic kidnapping, rape, torture and enslavement of West Africans is the only atrocity in human history that is thought to be mitigated by the involvement of perpetrators of the same race of the victims.
But the people who lived this history did so with motivations and interests oblivious to modern pigeonholes. The peoples of Senegambia did not view themselves or each other as members of a particular race-based team, scoring moral points against the away team. They were Wolof, Peul, Manding and Sereer, fighting for wealth and power in struggles that mirrored those of the French, English, Portuguese and Dutch.
Likewise, Senegambian reformers, rising up to oust the leaders all too happy to sell off their own subjects in order to consolidate power, were no more pure than their revolutionary counterparts in Europe and the Americas. In all cases, the fight for reform was less likely to usher in an age of enlightened leadership than to slightly improve certain injustices while introducing new ones.
Properly told, Bilali’s story weaves its way through multiple regional struggles for power in Senegambia, Europe, the Caribbean and North America. The following is an effort to place that story in this larger context, maintaining both the humanity and inhumanity of those involved.
It is a labor of love that began with sitting quietly in the corner, listening to stories six generations in the making…