The Amistad Revolt: Memory, Slavery, and the Politics of Identity in the United States and Sierra Leone

By Iyunolu Folayan Osagie | Go to book overview

Afterword

Attempts by scholars, activists, and artists to represent the contested, elided, and often unacknowledged historical past not only expose the deeply submerged problem of race relations between Africa and the West, but also bring us closer to transcending our cultural, social, and political differences. In Africa, the experiment of slavery throughout the nineteenth century and the systematic colonization of Africans by Europeans into the twentieth century plunged the continent into structural underdevelopment. Recently, President Bill Clinton’s task force on race relations and his apologies to the people of Africa for American participation in the slave trade are attempts, at the institutional level, to confront denial, acknowledge complicity, and initiate dialogue. The present crisis of contradictory racial discourses in America has its parallels in the Amistad court trials.

The Amistad case was singular not just because its successful outcome was unprecedented but mainly because its legal victories did not foster a just pattern of development in other court trials involving race. On the one hand, the Amistad case drew wide support from the American public in Northern states and was the most celebrated case in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, it could not dislodge the deep racial sentiments among whites, nor could it destabilize entrenched legal policies that acknowledged the rights of the slaveholder.

Just as paradoxical is the re-emergence of the Amistad narrative at a time of major political setbacks for blacks in the United States—the rescindment of affirmative action policies, cutbacks in social programs, and challenges to school integration—and for Sierra Leoneans caught in the throes of a series of “civil wars.” This is not mere coincidence. Although

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