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Journey Yields Glimpse of Missing Past
Africans in America

The Miami Herald
November 7, 2004

Photo by Sarah J. Glover
While traveling from Niger to Sierra Leone, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts had a layover in Senegal. He visited Goree Island, known as an exit port for African slaves that were forced into slavery. Pictured is the Goree Island shoreline and visitors enjoying the beach.
To local villagers
slave trade is unknown

It is morning and we are on the road again. We have a full tank of gas and are provisioned with tall bottles of water and sandwiches from the hotel. We have a new driver. We also have a passenger, Kedidia's 51-year-old cousin, Oumaarou Souleymane, a farmer and Koranic scholar. He is a tall man with a gentle, gracious air. I have been asking him questions about his life. Then, through his cousin, he says something that stops me cold.

"They've heard that in America there are a lot of black people and that the black people originated from this continent," says Kedidia, translating, "but how they got into America, they don't know. Whether they went there by themselves or somebody took them, they don't know."

He doesn't know how Africans got to America?!

Sarah and I trade a look and then speak simultaneously. "Can we tell him?"

But how are we supposed to do that? How do you convey it in 25 words or less to someone who has no conception? How to make him understand buying human beings on credit and building a pit so that a pregnant woman can lie her belly there as her back is whipped to tatters? How to explain black children in cages swinging above the fancy dinner table to fan flies from the white diners below?

We try, but I can see from his face that he does not understand. Kedidia adds some thoughts of her own, explaining to him that when Europeans went to America, they discovered native peoples living there and subjected them, too, to brutal mistreatment.

The natives' ordeal doesn't register either. "They were human beings?" he asks.

Yes, we say. They were.

Souleymane is not unique. It turns out that the fate of the Africans stolen away from these shores remains something of a mystery to many of those who have spent their lives in rural villages. Two hours later, Koulbeye Ousseini, Kedidia's aunt, wants to know about "our black people in America. What are they doing? What kind of work are they doing? What's the kind of life?"

So Sarah and I try to tell her, to capture in a few words that delicate dance between progress and pain that characterizes black life in America. Many African Americans are succeeding beyond the wildest dreams of their forebears, we say. Many others are mired in poverty and prison.

"They should continue to do the good jobs," she says. "That way they won't have problems."

Sitting in his open market, her husband, 84-year-old Ali Mossi, also has questions about America. "He has heard your ancestors were here and taken to America," says Kedidia, translating. "He says that unfortunately in this culture there is no written history, so they don't know what happened exactly."

So yet again I find myself trying to condense 400 years of African-American history. Finally, I tell Mossi that I am here because I am trying to understand my heritage because I took a test which said that I am Songhay like him.

The old man's eyes flicker, but he doesn't respond to this. Instead, he launches into a speech extolling the fierceness of the Songhay warriors, the fact that they were unbeatable in warfare until their arrows and spears came up against guns. He even sends for some of his war weapons and poses with them for Sarah's camera.

Afterward, I turn to Sarah and ask if she is ready to leave. But suddenly, the old man is speaking energetically to his niece. I wait for him to finish, then look to her for the translation.

"You've told him your ancestors came from here and he has heard also from his own grandparents that some people were taken from here to America. And because you took the time to come here to see him, he is very grateful that he has seen people who were lost. He says he is very, very thankful because you recognize that your ancestors came from here, that you honor him and he's very grateful to God for that."

People who were lost, he says. And the first thing that comes to mind is a lyric from an old hymn that is often sung in the African-American church. "I once was lost," it says, "but now I'm found."

I glance at Sarah, but I can see that she, too, is struggling for words.

I ask Kedidia to tell her uncle that the honor is entirely mine.