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Apology to Africa by the Rt. Rev. Catherine S. Roskam

Posted January 19th, 2008 by

Of the many significant moments during the Service of Liberation at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine last Sunday marking the bicentennial of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in the United States the one that impacted me the most was the apology to Africa offered by Bishop Roskam to close the service. As promised in my post about that service, here is the text of that apology.

Simply profound…

3 responses to “Apology to Africa by the Rt. Rev. Catherine S. Roskam”

  1. James says:

    I think this apology is fascinating, Tom. Bishop Roskam places a great deal of emphasis in her apology on the slave trade — yet Africa was a willing, even eager, participant in that trade, and in fact had been transporting millions of slaves for centuries before the arrival of Europeans and Americans (as I know you're well aware). Over time,Africans benefited enormously from the slave trade (in material terms, of course, not spiritual).

    I understand apologizing to Africa for the exploitation of colonialism, which Roskam eventually turns to. But I have difficulty in understanding the meaning of an apology for slavery offered to the descendants of those who engaged in the trade …. I would be interested in any elaboration you might be able to offer, since you do say that this moment in the service was the one which impacted you the most, and I've learned to trust your instincts on these issues.



  2. Tom says:

    Thanks for your comment, James. The whole concept of apology is tricky and emotional and this is a piece of the conversation that is important for people to discuss deeply.

    Just because one isn't alone in causing harm doesn't preclude one from taking full responsibility for one's harmful actions. In other words, though I may be only 50% responsible for a particular harmful act–in that another individual (or individuals) also bears responsibility–I am 100% responsible for my own part in it.

    The historical record is clear that African people willingly participated in, and benefited from, the slave trade for centuries. Consequently, European and American slave traders do not bear 100% responsibility for the trans Atlantic slave trade. But each individual, be they European, African, or Arab (in connection with the trans Saharan slave trade), bears full responsibility for their personal role in the trade.

    Fast forward to today. Why should any individual apologize for an act committed 200 years ago? Maybe they simply need as part of their own healing journey. Maybe they don't. Perhaps what rings true for some is not an apology, but an acknowledgment; one that carries the same deep intention for reconciliation as an apology may for another person.

    In the case of Bishop Roskam's apology, though I don' t know her personal intention, I don't believe it was meant as an apology to the descendants of African slave traders. I believe it was intended as a deeply meaningful recognition of the harm that was caused and the legacy of that harm that continues to impact people today.

    It is my hope that whatever actions people choose to take in trying to address the harm that has been caused over centuries of time, apology or acknowledgment of another kind, the result will be moving beyond guilt and beyond fear of each other into a deepening relationship that will help us overcome the legacies of slavery that we've all inherited.

  3. James says:

    Thanks for your response, Tom.

    I fully agree that issues like this are difficult, and I don't believe for a minute that shared complicity diminishes a perpetrator's responsibility. That said, I still don't believe that an apology "to Africa" for the slave trade makes sense. Africa as a whole participated fully, and benefited enormously in material terms, from the trade. Most of the harm was suffered on the middle passage, and in the Americas.

    I do recognize that there were those in Africa who were harmed by the trade (elsewhere, you've mentioned the example of the loved ones left behind when the enslaved were transported across the ocean). I think it makes perfect sense to acknowlege their loss, and the legacy of the slave trade for the peoples of Africa, both victims and perpetrators.

    Of course, the issue of whether the descendants of perpetrators can, or should, issue apologies is another matter. As is the meaning of offering apologies to the descendants of those harmed (as opposed to apologizing for the lingering harm they may suffer). But you're well aware of those issues, too, and I look forward to discussing them further in the future!



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