Elmina Castle / Dave Ley
Elmina Castle / Dave Ley

I trudged along the rocky beach, with a dull, empty sickness. Turning back I squinted at the massive, bleached-white structure surrounded by swaying palm trees on a nearby bluff: Elmina Castle. The castle, built on the former African Gold Coast in modern-day Ghana, was the holding cell and point of embarkation for black Africans who were sold into slavery during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Established by the Portuguese in 1482, and also known as St. George of the Mine Castle, it was one of the earliest European forts on the African continent and one of more than twenty castles built by European colonial powers along this part of the Atlantic shoreline. These castles were originally made for the gold trade, but after the year 1700 a more lucrative commodity emerged: black bodies. Estimates range, but scholars believe that approximately 1.8 million black Africans were housed in Elmina Castle and then shipped off to various ports in Europe, the Caribbean, and South and North America to be sold as slaves. During this time the castle also served as a missionary sanctuary and housed a church.

I recently visited Elmina Castle with a group of fellow board members from the Theological Book Network, a nonprofit that facilitates the donation of scholarly books to libraries in the developing world, including Ghana. After we toured the castle church, our guide led us to the infamous “Door of No Return,” where black women and men and children had marched, chained and single file, onto awaiting slave ships. We lingered for a few excruciating minutes, then finished the tour before wandering in stunned silence toward the beach. The irony was not lost on us: all of these morally horrific activities were carried out within a fortress named for a martyr of the church who has been revered over the centuries by Christians and Muslims alike.

There is no post-racial America, Ta-Nehisi Coates has argued in the Atlantic. Despite decades of legal and social progress on race, there remains a massive gulf between our actions and our moral aspirations. This is not unique to the United States. Every nation, region, city, and village struggles with racial difference. It is a tragic fact of our nature, and of our shared history. The moral arc of the universe may bend toward justice, as abolitionist Theodore Parker first wrote and Martin Luther King Jr. famously repeated. But as Parker and King also noted, the moral arc of the universe is long. Our collective journey toward racial reconciliation, filled with jubilant victories and devastating setbacks, is seemingly endless. 

Our collective journey toward racial reconciliation, filled with jubilant victories and devastating setbacks, is seemingly endless

From what we know of the era, faithful Christians were responsible for Elmina, for St. George’s Castle. They worshipped God in the midst of utter depravity. Yet we can presume that they saw nothing morally hypocritical about this—no cause to condemn it or even to challenge it. They were blind to this collective moral failure, and today we condemn them, rightly, for this blindness. But as we do this, we should acknowledge that we, too, remain enslaved by our own collective moral failures. Racism endures. Can there be any doubt that in another three or four hundred years our progeny will look back at us, appalled, and say much the same thing as we do today about our ancestors? Yes, slavery is legally prohibited. But what is our Elmina Castle?

There are signs of promise. Georgetown University, where I work, recently acknowledged its historical ties to slavery with an astonishing report from an internal working group on slavery, memory, and reconciliation. Representatives of the university are seeking out and meeting with the descendants of the slaves, known as the GU 272, whose sale assured the financial future of the institution. Redress is a work in progress; there are many questions, and not everyone will be satisfied. But this is a good-faith effort to confront a legacy of moral blindness and complicity—not to tear down Elmina Castle and scrub it from history but to recognize its heinousness and combat it in a very public way.  This is yet another step in the long journey toward racial reconciliation.

And this is the essence of moral hope—to acknowledge our collective blindness while at the same time envisioning a world of justice and right relationships; to trudge collectively along the beach, occasionally looking back at the Elmina Castles of our own making, humbled and chastened by them, then peering seaward to the horizon of our moral aspirations.

Published in the May 19, 2017 issue: 

Richard Brown is the director of Georgetown University Press.

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