Almost four centuries after Africans started being shipped to North America as slaves, the first U.S. president of African ancestry will on Thursday visit an infamous embarkation point for those destined for lives in chains.
In his first – and, many Africans say, long-overdue – extended tour of the continent, President Barack Obama will focus on political and economic issues, but is also paying homage to a painful chapter in American history.
On the first leg of his eight-day visit he is taking his family to the House of Slaves, a fort built in the late 18th century on Goree Island, off the coast of Senegal, as a transit point for the human traffic and now a museum.
The visit will be a somber reminder of a shameful period in U.S. and world history and provide a powerful contrast between Obama’s stature as leader of the world’s most powerful nation and the historical status of Africans, once treated as property in the country he governs.
“We have moved from a society in which African Americans were not viewed as citizens, in which social, economic equality was not provided, to one in which we could elect an African American president,” said Junius Rodriguez, a historian at Eureka College in Peoria, Illinois.
“It’s a remarkable transformation that we’ve made.”
Many Africans feel a bond with Obama but have voiced disappointment that he has not engaged with the continent as much as previous presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
During his first term, Obama’s only African trip was a one-day stopover in Ghana and many Africans have been impatient for him to make an extended tour of the continent.
“It’s a real pleasure for us, that the world has advanced enough that a black man can be president of the United States,” said Abdoul Aziz Signane, a tailor, purchasing an Obama T-shirt at a shop in the Senegalese capital Dakar.
“It makes us very proud. That’s why I came to buy a T-shirt so I can welcome him and tell him ‘We love you Obama, a lot’.”
While George W. Bush gave a speech at Goree Island in 2003 in which he called slavery a sin, Obama is not scheduled to use the occasion to make a speech.
The president’s major address during his three-country swing through Africa is scheduled for Sunday at the University of Cape Town.
Obama – who visited Cape Coast Castle, another slave port, during his Ghana trip in 2009 – will meet civic leaders in Goree before returning to the mainland to talk with lawyers and judges, keeping the emphasis of his trip on African political stability and economic opportunities.
For all the symbolism involved in Obama’s trip to Goree, it raises the question of whether the time has come for a U.S. president to apologize for slavery.
“The magnitude of slavery is unimaginable,” Harvard historian Johnson said. “Can Obama heal that wound with a single speech and with the extraordinary symbolism of his visit as U.S. president, is that going to close the circle? Absolutely not.”
But an apology is seen as unlikely. A sovereign admission of culpability would open the door to a reparations process, something the Obama administration is unlikely to initiate.