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Dividing Line: My Dungeon Shook

And so will Clinton's, at slavery's Door of No Return

By Jack E. White

TIME magazine

(TIME, March 30) -- I broke down and cried when I stood in The Door of No Return for the first time, nearly 20 years ago. Bill Clinton will too, when Joseph Ndiaye, the 74-year-old curator, holds up a rusty set of chains and begins his matter-of-fact recital of the mundane facts about the slave trade that flourished on Goree Island for more than 200 hundred years.

That little speck of rock in the harbor of Dakar, Senegal, is the black-American equivalent of Auschwitz or Treblinka, a blood-drenched monument to a genocidal past that all too often is ignored. On it stands the House of Slaves, where tens of thousands of Africans were herded into cramped holding pens to be fattened up for the Middle Passage to a life of slavery in the New World. Their last contact with the African motherland came at the Door of No Return, where they were whipped across a narrow gangplank to the slave ships.

When I stood in that doorway, looking out at the rolling Atlantic, and realized that some despairing, shackled ancestor of mine might have passed that way...well, in the words of a great Negro spiritual, "my dungeon shook" and I was moved beyond my power to describe it. After Hillary and Chelsea Clinton visited Goree Island last year, the First Lady declared it "one of the most heartbreaking monuments anywhere in the world." The Door of No Return, she said, "represents nothing less than the depths of human depravity."

Hillary insisted that Goree Island be included on the President's African tour, according to White House sources, because she felt it would be the emotional high point of his trip. Of course, she knows her man. This is a President who connects with blacks so strongly that some of us jokingly maintain that he's only passing for white. No President has forged such abiding personal relationships with African Americans, or put so many in positions of real authority. That helps to explain why blacks, more than any other group, have remained loyal to Clinton through his current ordeal: we've been treating him like one of our own. Just as black voters re-elected Marion Barry to a fourth term as mayor of Washington after his drug conviction, and black parishioners refused to oust the Rev. Henry Lyons from the leadership of the National Baptist Convention after he allegedly embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars, we're sticking with the President come hell, high water, or a new plague of bimbos. As Jesse Jackson, who has become Clinton's Billy Graham, puts it, blacks tend to reject the sin but not the sinner. We believe in forgiveness--when transgressors ask for it.

Clinton should keep that in mind when he considers his response to the clamor from the Congressional Black Caucus for an official apology for slavery. White House spokesman Mike McCurry has already declared that the President will not make such a gesture on this trip because "that is not an issue that is central in the minds of many Americans." But surely Clinton knows that it is on the minds of many African Americans, who are convinced that the great rift between the races cannot be healed until America seeks forgiveness for one of the most monstrous eras in history. What better place to ask forgiveness than Goree Island, the scene of the crime?

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: March 30, 1998

Why Clinton Is Still Buoyant
Outrageous Fortune
The Lives Of Kathleen Willey
Viewpoint: The Trouble With The Present Tense
Africa Rising
Dividing Line: My Dungeon Shook
Courting Controversy
The KGB Of Mississippi
Romancing The Widow?
The Notebook: Primary Colors, Part II

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