What Obama Really Saw At The ‘Door Of No Return,’ A Disputed Memorial To The Slave Trade

Source: Max Fisher / The Washington Post

When President Obama visited Senegal’s Goree Island on Thursday, pausing for a moment to gaze West across the Atlantic Ocean from the “Door of No Return,” a famous symbol of the slave trade, you could almost hear the echoes of a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that he often cites: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Obama, speaking to reporters after the rare moment of solemnity, said it had been “very powerful” for him to see the world-famous site, which helped him “fully appreciate the magnitude of the slave trade” and “get a sense in an intimate way” of the hardships slaves faced. He called the trip a reminder that “we have to remain vigilant when it comes to the defense of human rights.”

“This is a testament to when we’re not vigilant in defense of human rights, what can happen,” he said. “Obviously, for an African American, an African American president, to be able to visit this site, gives me even greater motivation in terms of human rights around the world.”

No one doubts the vast scale or horrific consequences of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which destroyed countless communities in Africa, tore families apart, forced millions into bondage and killed perhaps one in 10 just during their voyage across the ocean. But it turns out that Senegal’s famous Door of No Return might not actually have played a very significant role in that story. And the wide gulf between the myth of the door and its reality may actually be, in itself, a revealing symbol of our relationship to this dark chapter in world history. What Obama really saw at Goree Island’s famous, pink-walled building may not have been a monument to slavery’s history so much as its haunting legacy and ineffable memory.

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