By, Michael Shipler
GORÉE ISLAND, Senegal — It is an image which should be seared in our consciousness. Travelers, when they arrive, should look upon it and feel that a most familiar image had leaped from the pages of history into real life, and the horror of the place should wash over them. Yet, while it is widely known, and tens of thousands of visitors make a pilgrimage to this UNESCO Heritage Site each year, the Door of No Return on Gorée Island has not assumed its rightful place in the global public imagination as an enduring and iconic image of one of humanity’s greatest crimes.
Gorée is an island of doors. It is a strikingly beautiful piece of land just over a mile from the Port of Dakar. Its strategic location, on the westernmost point of Africa, made it a perfect place to launch a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, and for hundreds of years, European slave traders used it as starting point of the Middle Passage. The French, Dutch, Portuguese and British all controlled Gorée at one point or another, and over the years a quaint and quite beautiful town sprung up. The buildings are largely preserved and today house a small population which caters to tourists. There are several prominent schools on the island and some government offices too.
From the shores, you can see pirogues, Senegalese fishing canoes, trawling the shimmering sea, and the comforting cool wind gives the island an illusion of being a place of peace. But it was the doors which struck me the most; all of them are ancient, it seemed, all wooden and many arched and pretty. Hawks soar in circles above and land in the Baobab Trees, and children play happily on a sandy soccer field. It is easy to get caught in the breathless beauty of the place, and easy to forget that this whole town existed only to serve the slave trade, that traces of terror are etched on its streets.
In my travels I have come to learn that beauty and horror can exist simultaneously. From Rwanda to Afghanistan, the massacres of civilians in many wars have happened against the backdrop of soaring mountains or green rolling hills. Gorée Island’s allure could almost succeed at distracting its visitors from its true history, its sweeping beauty in cahoots with those who have sought to bury the histories of slavery and kept the true nature of its legacy from our consciousness. At the same time, the people who live on the island today are there to tell us the story of what happened in this place.
On a narrow lane a door which looks almost like the others opens into the Slave House, the building from which tens of thousands of West Africans were led for hundreds of year to begin their deadly journeys across the Middle Passage, either to their deaths or to a life of slavery. It is strikingly preserved; two sweeping staircases adorn the middle courtyard and frame the Door of No Return, which sits open with the glimmering sea visible beyond it.
The rooms where slaves were kept are in tact, where they were fed and fattened up for their journey across the sea or tortured or raped or beaten or held in solitary confinement. They are almost all empty except for the traces of those who suffered there, the echoes of pain which cross centuries, the crackle of racism, the shadow of the greatest crime which clings to its walls.
My guide — a 70-year old man everyone called Papy — told me that Nelson Mandela visited here and went into the solitary confinement cell, a dark and tiny space beneath one of the grand staircases. He stayed in there for 15 minutes alone and emerged with tears streaming down his face. Many people cry, Papy said, especially African Americans who come here in search of their histories.
In the United States, several 2020 presidential candidates have spoken tentatively about their support for reparations. The conversation, distressingly late, centers on the economic toll of stolen, unpaid labor and there is a search for a formula to redress the gap in wealth which emerged. Many obstacles stand in the way of even this modest approach. Yet no dollar figure begins to fill the human toll, the endless pain caused.
The consequences of slavery are even more far reaching; no one who stands there and looks out at the shimmering Atlantic can escape this place’s ultimate truth, that the slave trade was a singular force which shaped the inequities which define the modern world. The door offers not only a glimpse of what people saw as they were shuttled out the ships to carry them to the New World or to their deaths, but a window onto the profound inequity which defines humanity today.
Every American (and everyone from everywhere quite frankly) should visit Gorée Island and look through the Door of No Return to understand what happened there. The sweeping staircases, the dark hallway beyond and the door should be an indelible image, known by everyone, seared into our collective consciousness so that we remember.
Michael Shipler is the Associate Vice President, Strategy and Program Quality at Search for Common Ground. Follow him on twitter — Michael Shipler