How to Apologize for Slavery

What the U.S. can learn from West Africa
The "Door of No Return" at the House of Slaves museum on Goree Island, near Senegal's capital Dakar (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

In June of 1961, Ambassador Malick Sow of the newly independent African nation of Chad was en route to Washington, D.C. to present his credentials to President John F. Kennedy and stopped for coffee at a diner on Maryland’s Route 40. The diner’s white female owner greeted him with the announcement that black people were not welcome there. When asked about the incident by Life magazine, she felt no need to apologize, explaining, “He looked like just an ordinary run-of-the-mill nigger to me. I couldn’t tell he was an ambassador.”

Sow’s experience was not unusual even for an ambassador. A string of similar incidents had already occurred along Route 40 as Jim Crow rolled out the unwelcome mat for African ambassadors traveling between New York and the nation’s capital. As the embarrassments accumulated, international observers saw duplicity in American claims of liberty and equality, as Cold War competition for influence in Africa made the continent a high priority for the U.S. and Soviet Union. Under the circumstances, the Kennedy administration was forced to offer an official apology to the many offended African ambassadors. Soon afterward, the president appointed a federal task force to enforce desegregation along Route 40.

But where international politics succeeded in securing an apology for the discrimination suffered by a handful of black African statesmen, more than 50 years later, black Americans still haven’t received a state apology for subjugation and discrimination at the hands of their own country. This is not because of some national stance against apologies. In 1988, for example, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation, complete with reparations, extending a formal apology for Japanese-American internment on American soil during World War II. In 1997, President Bill Clinton offered a presidential apology for the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study that the U.S. Public Health Service launched in the 1930s, to study the disease in hundreds of infected black men while falsely claiming to be providing them proper treatment. By contrast, congressional resolutions apologizing for slavery, passed separately by the House in 2008 and the Senate in 2009, were never reconciled or signed by the president. Far from constituting a state apology, they carry all the weight of resolutions passed to congratulate Super Bowl victors.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent article in The Atlantic on “The Case for Reparations” has reignited the debate about the politics of American remorse and forgiveness for its treatment of black people. As Coates and many others have pointed out, reparations are not only—arguably not even mostly—about remuneration, but about unequivocally acknowledging the wrongs the state has inflicted on black people. They’re about apologizing.

In this context, Sow’s experience is instructive for what it reveals about international politics, state apologies, and racial discrimination. Social scientists who study these issues argue that apologizing is an essential component of reconciliation between an offending state and its victims. But apologizing on the state level entails real costs, just as it does on the individual level. In both cases, an apology signals a shift in the power dynamic between offender and victim in favor of the latter. Moreover, as Azuolas Bagdonas of Turkey’s Fatih University has written in a paper on the subject, state apologies “require changes in state identity. … [S]tates refuse to apologize when apologizing would significantly disrupt their self-narratives.” Given America’s narrative of freedom, self-determination, and success for all who work hard, apologizing for the intentional suppression of liberty forces the nation to confront the fundamental truth that we weren’t who we thought we were.

Given these costs, Kennedy apologized only because it would have been more costly not to, given U.S. hopes of preserving its position on a Cold War battleground. In other words, the apology to Sow and others came from a calculation of national interests. It did not arise from a sense of moral obligation—which would have mandated an apology to all black Americans, who had suffered far worse.

So what would it take for the U.S. to see an interest in apologizing for slavery?


The experience of several African countries is instructive here. Many West African nations have now acknowledged the role they played in the enslavement of black people in the Americas. Some have apologized on behalf of members of previous generations, who captured black men, women, and children from neighboring tribes and bartered their lives away to European slave traders. But they have offered or withheld apologies for different reasons.

Nigeria, Ghana, and Benin have taken different approaches to the question of apologizing for slavery. The resulting models reveal what interests might compel, or prevent, a U.S. apology for slavery, and how such an apology could get the buy-in of the American people.

In Nigeria, some tribal leaders have taken the position that since slavery occurred long ago, the perpetrators of the crime own their sins and did not bequeath remorse to their descendants. In 2009, when Nigerian tribal chiefs sought a constitutional amendment formalizing their influential role in the country’s governance, the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, a human-rights organization, encouraged them to apologize for their role in the Atlantic slave trade. These efforts failed—in declining to apologize, one elder told a Nigerian newspaper that his people were “not apologetic about what happened in the past,” explaining that the slave trade was “very very legal” when his forebears were involved in it. Henry Bonsu, a broadcaster researching African apologies for slavery, told The Guardian at the time that among those he interviewed in Nigeria, “People aren't milling around Lagos … moaning about why chiefs don't apologise. They are more concerned about the everyday and why they still have bad governance.” Public opinion polls reflect this concern. The corruption watchdog Transparency International ranks Nigeria among the most corrupt countries worldwide; in 2013, 72 percent of Nigerian respondents to the NGO’s corruption-perception survey reported that the problem was getting much worse.

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Theodore R. Johnson is a writer and naval officer. He has served as a military professor at the Naval War College and as a 2011 – 2012 White House Fellow. 

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