How do we teach the painful history of transatlantic slavery? As a series of distinct facts relating to the past? Or, to paraphrase the great Toni Morrison, as a weight working itself out in our lives? The former has, we are slowly coming to admit, led to collective amnesia. In this forgetting, the families, institutions, cities and countries that grew rich through the enslavement of Africans could perform a neat excision of this diseased part of themselves.
When, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, protesters pulled down the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston, something else broke too: the neat lens through which history is understood as events that occurred in another time whose reverberations are dimmed in the present and which we have no power to redress.
I could not say much of the above to the pupil who, during a lesson on Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, asked what good Black History Month was, if all that was taught related to slavery. The question revealed a great deal, not least a belief that this history had nothing to do with him. My response as his teacher was to emphasize that, yes, there is much more to black history than enslavement, but that, still, this bitter history matters to us all.
Think, I prompted, of Caliban’s curse to his master, Prospero, because he taught him his language: “You taught me language; and my profit on‘t is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you, for learning me your language.”
What parallels could we draw between that and UNESCO’s prediction that of the 6,000 languages spoken in the world today, half are threatened with extinction? Their biggest predator? English. Had Shakespeare, I asked, anticipated how the UK’s history of conquest and dominion would be made manifest each time millions opened their mouths to speak? For educators like me, the challenge, then, is not only the fight to have this history included in our curriculum, but to contextualize for our pupils how it relates to the world today.
This neat trick of viewing the past as concluded was on display again on a recent family holiday to the Republic of Benin. Determined to give my children a sense of the history elided in the English curriculum, I booked a walking tour following the slave route in what was once west Africa’s busiest slave port, Ouidah.
We began in Auction Square. Here, those captured in the raids by the Dahomey kingdom were “exchanged.” Our guide, Oscar, who apologized for his excellent English, pointed to an imposing building known locally as Place Chacha. It was named in honor of Francisco Felix de Souza, a Brazilian viceroy and powerful slave merchant; Oscar told us that on auction days, De Souza would try to speed up the process of selling humans by using the neologism “chacha.”
De Souza would go on to settle permanently in Ouidah. Today, Oscar informed us, De Souza’s descendants continue to reside on the site of their ancestor’s former residence. A grand four-story palace stared down at us.
Stunned by the revelation, I asked about anger and reparations, but Oscar waved my question away. Since De Souza married local women, his offspring were “one of us.” Bygones are bygones. And as for reparations? They had been paid when, post abolition, a contingent of formerly enslaved people returned from Brazil demanding compensation. The king of Dahomey agreed to this, giving land, now the town’s Brazilian quarter, to the returnees. Oscar guided our gaze to a district of dilapidated single-story buildings directly opposite Place Chacha. If we had not already been to Brazil, he joked, we now could say we had.
I could not laugh at the well-meaning joke. Was this not a stark visual of the past in the present? Was this not the history of plunder visible right there in the grandeur of Place Chacha? Was it not the cheapness of compensation paid by those made powerful from accumulated wealth, who set the terms of what is “fair,” evident in the crumbling structures of Ouidah’s Brazilian quarter?
‘DOOR OF NO RETURN’
The tour ended with the group standing beside the “door of no return.” A huge concrete arch covered in etchings of shackled bodies, it symbolizes the embarkation point of enslaved people being sent to the Americas. However, it was undergoing renovation and thus was ringfenced. Our guide pointed instead to a blue imitation arch adorned with Chinese script and the name Yunnan Construction and Investment Holding Group. This was the new Marina Project, Oscar said.
The project — an extensive tourist complex containing several hotels with restaurants, memorial gardens and a spa — also features a full-scale replica slave ship, which visitors apparently would be able to enter to experience the horror of the hold.
Benin, keen to promote itself as a place to which Afro-Brazilians, African Americans and Caribbeans can “return,” is, to be sure, doing important work in elevating the presence of this painful heritage. However, watching the Marina Project promotional video released by the government detailing the look and feel of the site, I felt nothing but dread.
Animated people, dressed in western garb, sitting at tables on restaurant terraces overlooking those sunning themselves on loungers or taking a dip in pools. It promised a sanitized walk through history. Would those descended from slave traders simply pass over the actions of their ancestors, and ignore the social hierarchies that exist to this day as a result? What space would be given for Beninese descended from the enslaved to engage in memorial? Rendering their trauma invisible would, surely, demonstrate that this constituency remains, to paraphrase the academic Saidiya Hartman, imperiled by “a social calculus entrenched centuries ago.”
For educators in England, the lesson is clear. It is not enough to simply give our pupils knowledge of this history. There is work, too, in helping them draw the links between the past and how it has shaped the world we know. In doing so, we might be able to accept the truth: that it is a shared history with which all of us must reckon.
Lola Okolosie is an English teacher and writer.
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