Reviews of Bitter Legacy

Review in International Journal of Historical African Studies

“When Jake Obetsebi Lamptey, Ghana’s minister of Tourism and Diasporan Relations, announced the start of the so-called Joseph Project in 2006, the goal was quite clear. By casting African Americans and others in the diaspora in the role of the biblical Joseph, Lamptey and the Ghanaian government sought some semblance of historical reconciliation. Like Joseph, African Americans had been sold by their brethren and exiled to a distant land, only to return “home” in positions to provide economic aid to their long lost family. The Joseph Project, then, aimed to spur diasporic tourism in Ghana and to offer reconciliation as a means of attracting diasporic investments. Though clearly a superficial attempt to increase the infusion of tourism dollars, the existence of Ghana’s Joseph Project and similar efforts in Senegal, Benin, and the Gambia begs a few questions. What of the many descendants of slaves living in contemporary Atlantic African states? How have states or the descendants of slave raiders, dealers, and holders sought to reconcile with the descendants of the enslaved living among them? The ten essays included in Bitter Legacy provide a corpus of evidence and sharp analyses about the troubled spaces occupied by the slave past in the postcolonial present.

As outlined in the introductory chapter, the essays in this collection seek to understand memories of slavery and the slave trade in contemporary Atlantic African societies—through proverbs, songs, narratives, religious doctrines, and children’s stories. The collection comes out of a larger project launched by the editors who, along with Carolyn Brown, organized two conferences—at the Bellagio Center in 2007, and two years later in Toronto—that emphasized African voices on slavery and the slave trade. The first edited collection from this collaborative effort was published by Cambridge University Press—Bellagamba, Greene, Klein, eds., African Voices on Slavery and the Slave Trade (Cambridge, 2013). What distinguishes Bitter Legacy from the Cambridge collection is the exclusive focus on contemporary understandings of slave ancestry and the slave past. While some of this ground has been covered in Robert Baum’s Shrines of the Slave Trade (Oxford, 1999), Rosalind Shaw’s Memories of the Slave Trade (Chicago, 2002), and Bayo Holsey’s Routes of Remembrance (Chicago, 2008), there has been a dearth of book-length treatments on this topic and the attempt by the editors and the collection authors to give voice to former slaves or those of slave ancestry in Bitter Legacy makes the volume an essential starting point.

Evoking slave ancestry in contemporary Atlantic African societies can elicit a range of reactions—silence, hostility, or, in the case of Mami Tchamba, reverence. Perhaps the most bitter legacy of African slavery is the persistence of social restrictions and divides that work to limit the life chances of those who continue to carry the taint of slave ancestry. Just a decade before the Joseph Project was launched, the editors point out a case in which Ghana’s Supreme Court stripped an educated businessman of his chieftaincy because of his slave ancestry—an act that found precedence in the country’s 1992 constitution. As Damian Opata relates in an insightful chapter on Northern Igbo, modern memories of slavery conferring a permanent, trans-generational, debased status and slaves as dishonored strangers without a homeland are embedded in a range of popular proverbs. Indeed, the descendants of slaves in Northern Igbo are still referred to as ndi ohu or “slaves”—a term offering no historical or chronological qualification. From an ignoble past, they continue to carry the inferior status of their slave ancestors into the present.

In some cases, not only does slave status transfer to descendants, but the descendants of slave raiders, traders, and holders have maintained social positioning or continue to benefit from status distinctions forged in the past. G. Ugo Nwokeji’s chapter on the Aro of inland Biafra, as well as Bellagamba and Klein’s chapter on the Badibu region of the Gambia highlight how the descendants of slave traders and owners still cling to concepts of family or maintain social divides forged in the slave past.

African slavery began earlier and lasted longer than slavery in the Western Hemisphere, and as the editors highlight, more slaves were kept in Africa for internal use than were embarked on ships and exported to trans-Atlantic destinations. Simply put, slavery touched more lives in Africa than in its diaspora of peoples. As a collection of balanced, accessible, and insightful commentaries, Bitter Legacy is ultimately a call for some needed temporal and geographic reorientation in the study of Atlantic World slavery.”


Walter C. Rucker

Rutgers University-New Brunswick