Abolitionists Abroad

Abolitionists Abroad


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



These institutions, created and led by former slaves, were such a powerful example for the rest

of society that Christianity spread, beginning with the establishment of Sierra Leone in 1792.

 Nigerian and Ghanaian colonies were in some ways extensions of the Sierra Leone colony.



  Books by Lamin Sanneh

Whose Religion Is Christianity / Translating the Message The Crown and the Turban / The Changing Face of Christianity


West African Christianity / Encountering the West / Disciples of All Nations  /  Religion and the Variety of Culture


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Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks

and the Making of Modern West Africa

By Lamin Sanneh

Lamin Sanneh Speaks on African Slavery


Revolutionary Effects of Freed Slaves

American blacks who, as a result of the American Revolution, were eventually repatriated through Nova Scotia to West Africa. There they planted successful colonies for freed slaves, becoming antislavery champions.

In the medieval period, European missionaries went to Africa with the aim of converting the aristocracy, on the ground that if you convert the chiefs, that would inspire the rest of society to become Christianized. This “top-down” approach was tried in Africa for 300 years (between 1475 and 1785). It didn’t have much of an impact.

These new antislavery blacks, though, started from the bottom up, first converting former slaves, then instructing them in the Christian life; they showed them how to equip themselves through education, skills, and the institution of the family. They started benevolent societies that looked after the poor. These institutions, created and led by former slaves, were such a powerful example for the rest of society that Christianity spread, beginning with the establishment of Sierra Leone in 1792. Nigerian and Ghanaian colonies were in some ways extensions of the Sierra Leone colony.

Entrenchment & Moral Crisis of Slavery in Africa

The trans-Saharan Arab slave trade was in place for at least 700 to 800 years before Europeans started their own slave trade. Europeans realized that the trade was going on in Africa and that they could profit from it, and thus they introduced the transatlantic slave trade. But prior to that, African society had already been profoundly influenced by slavery. It was part and parcel of the African value system. Had there been no moral crisis in that value system, no matter who said slavery was wrong, people would still have practiced it.

It [the moral crisis] was actually based on a simple but profound evangelical or Puritan idea: we are each made in the image of God. Evangelical religion seized on that idea, of human personhood founded on divine right, and then targeted the individual as the fundamental unit of society–not the collection but the individual. These individuals–emancipated slaves, ex-captives, repressed women–formed the cornerstone of the new community. This was without precedent.

African captives themselves took to this kind of religion with gusto. They embraced it. You can see why: in their own societies, once a slave always a slave. You always carried with you this stigma. This doctrine said that the stigma is dissolved in the blood of Christ.

Bourgeois Liberal Values & Evangelicalism

You might say . . . bourgeois liberal values [individual responsibility, personal initiative, enterprise] have their roots in evangelical Christianity, because all of them are premised on the divine right of human personhood. All men and women are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. When Americans tried to create a fresh political community during the American Revolution, they fell back on a theocentric idea of human community; not a theocratic one, and certainly not a natural-law notion of community, but one that assumed that God has given us the gift of life, and created us in freedom. So liberty is our divine right. It’s not something that the king or state gives us.

Christianity & Colonialism in Africa

I [drive] two nails through the colonial argument, from opposite ends. I am saying that this radical view of Christianity and of society that came to West Africa in 1792 preceded colonialism, and that the political view of Christianity–first secure the chief as an ally of Christianity–was tried for 300 years and didn’t work.

I drive the nail in the other end when I point out that the greatest expansion of Christianity in Africa occurred not during colonialism but after colonialism. In 1960, which is the end of the colonial era, there were between 48 and 50 million Christians in Africa. In the year 2000, merely 40 years later, the numbers have increased to 340 million.

Most of the early Christian leaders in Africa were arrested by the colonial authorities. Many of them were tried and sentenced because preaching Christianity, especially from the Bible, was deemed a criminal offense.

One senior colonial administrator in Nigeria said that Christianity was giving Africans the wrong ideas of equality and justice, and that these ideas did not belong to Africa. Christianity taught that God had accepted them, and so all believers could stand before God without prejudice. But this religious idea also gave Africans the political notion that they were equals of Europeans, and that was not acceptable. But political repression only strengthened the conviction of Africans that they had actually found the truth.

Still, the colonialists managed to disenfranchise these Christians. And they have remained disenfranchised to this day. Today Africa’s new political leaders behave like the old chiefs. They connive in looting the continent, traumatizing their citizens, and flouting the rule of law. Consequently slavery has remained in some parts of Africa. And there is no institution or structure to challenge it.

What is crucial is not just structures, institutions, general trends, and forces but what I call moral agency: human beings as moral agents. It doesn’t help to throw money at problems out of a sense of Western guilt. That only deepens the problem. The most important thing we need today is moral character and leadership, men and women who are not in it for their own gain. Identifying such people and equipping, training, and supporting them is one of the most important investments the church can make.

You find such people not among the privileged but among what you might call the flotsam and jetsam of society. These are people who have been to the depths of human experience and have come to their faith in Christ in a way that places them at the very center of God’s moral redemption of the world.

That is what happened with the antislavery movement in Africa. It was not a movement of the privileged but of those whom the world despised. Nevertheless, their faith was strong, because their work was plainly “the work of God,” as they put it. In spite of human obstacles, they were able to undertake this tremendous revolution of love, peace, and justice.

Source: Tim Stafford “The First Black Liberation Movement,”  Christianity Today, 07/10/2000, Vol. 44  (An Interview of Lamin Sanneh)

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Lamin Sanneh Speaks on World Christianity

Many of my colleagues make the assumption, when they say “Christianity,”

that virtually the sole instance of it is Western Christianity

and that Western Christianity is all of Christianity.


Family Background in Gambia?

[My family] had been empire builders, founders of the Kingdom of Mali, members of a royal line of the Mandinkas or the Manding nation. My father, though, worked as civil servant for the British colonial administration. His brothers continued the royal line, and they still are chiefs. The family is Muslim. My father’s older brother, in fact, was an Islamic scholar, as were my grandfather and great-grandfather.

I became a Christian as an adolescent. I was baptized into the Methodist church, although the English missionary who baptized me had asked me to go to the Catholic church. However, after a year of vain attempts to catch the eye of the Catholic priest, an Irish missionary, I went back to the Methodist missionary, and he agreed to baptize me. He stressed that I should remember my baptism is recognized by the Catholic Church. Many years later, in a private audience at the Vatican, I nearly told Paul VI that one of his priests had turned me down, but desisted.

Culture Shock & the 1963 USA Visit

I was . . .  surprised that there was anything called the United States. In my school, you see, my British history master taught the history of America only until 1776, and as far as he was concerned, there was no American history after 1776. When I arrived in the States we had an orientation program in Vermont, but I had never heard of the state of Vermont.

What struck me most, though, were differences summed up in the fact that my culture is very deferential toward elders and authority. It is a very coded culture. You have to know the invisible signals, the secret codes. I was surprised by how free and open everything was here, but especially in the civil rights movement. I was struck by the politics of confrontation, which had never entered my world growing up in Africa.

I was a seriously religious person even in those early days, and so I was surprised by the strength of secular culture in America. People felt as enthusiastic about that as many of us in Africa felt about religion. I see now that culture for the West is a kind of a religion, a rival religion to the Gospel, and that Christians are sorely tempted to express their Christianity in cultural terms. . . .

I still remember a remark, made in one of the first orientation lectures we were given in Vermont, that any of us were free to go out the following day and start a new church. Religion for us, at least in Africa, was not something you concocted.

So what we call the voluntary principle in American religion was a real shock. Indeed. Another surprise was the unformalized relations between men and women. As a boy growing up in an African household, I was never really equipped for this. I never related at all to women except my mother, my sisters and my aunts, so women for me were relatives, not a potential object of pleasure. I was impressed by the commercialization of sex in America. That was new to me, because in Africa, and especially in a small country like Gambia, every woman is either your relative or the relative of someone you know. My first adolescent stirrings were religious, concerned with the meaning and end of human life and creation.

Returning to Africa

My conversion to Christianity had hit my family like an earthquake. I later went back for visits with my South African wife and children, but initially it wasn’t advisable. I worked, though, in Freetown, Liberia, for a year and in Ghana for three. I had applied to work as a lay missionary to help the churches in their relations with the Muslims. I suppose my basic motivation stemmed from the African tradition of including outsiders. I felt that we in Africa had a legacy of religious tolerance and that we should develop this, bringing it forward as a formal, conscious element, in relations between Muslims and Christians.

Christianity and Islam in Africa

That there was never much of a violent struggle between Christians and African traditional religionists in the conversion process on the continuum from African traditional religion to Christianity, whereas Islam in West Africa had a history of jihad (holy war) against unbelievers. But also that the African ethos of tolerance and inclusiveness somewhat pacified and neutralized this. Islam spread through Qur’an schools and the establishment of Arabic as the framework for religion, faith and devotion.

Christianity, by contrast, spread through the vernacular translations of the Scriptures. And these translations required the invention of alphabets and vernacular literacy. Thus Christianity was accompanied by a profound vernacular awakening of traditional cultures, whereas the success of Islam was almost a function of the extent to which Africans were able to leave vernacular cultures behind and simulate the ethos of the Arabic language and orientation toward Mecca and Medina as the center of religion. For Christians, especially for Protestants, there was no geographical focal point. It’s really a remarkable contrast between the two religions.

Territorial Religions: Islam & Christendom

Islam represents the fundamental shift from a kin-based territoriality to religious territoriality, with faith finding expression in demarcated boundaries. Believers were assembled under the one mandate of the Prophet Muhammad within the city of Medina. Eventually Mecca was incorporated into the Pax Islamica, which soon grew to become the Islamic empire. Religious identity, political authority and territorial allegiance were combined to define who or what a Muslim is. Later jurists developed this by fusing religion, politics and territoriality into one as Dar al-Islam, the realm of faith, versus Dar al-Harb, the domain of unbelief.

We in the West have abandoned the “Christendom” version of religious territoriality, in part because the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries made it necessary to separate church and state, but also because Christianity was born without territoriality and could, under the right doctrinal stimulus, overcome its “Christendom complex” as an aberration.

Given the fact that modern Christianity has grown and flourished as non-territoriality, and Islam’s success as territoriality, how can these two gnat civilizations encounter each other without costly misunderstanding? This is a crucial issue, because Muslims imagine, for example, that America is a Christian country on the principle of cujus regio ejus religio [“a territory’s religion will be that of its ruler”], while Christians, nurtured in religious voluntarism, assume that Islam is a matter of free individual choice. We press Muslims on human rights issues, while they press us on issues of religious territoriality. This misunderstanding destabilizes our relations.

Benign View of Christian Missionaries

I am writing, after a fashion, to prove that you can tell the story of Christianity in places like Africa without those raised hackles that Westerners seem to have about religion. I believe that you can tell the story of Christianity from within its own internal dynamics and come up with a rather complex picture . . . one that is neither wholly good and holy, nor bad and disastrous. It is a story with ambiguities, with its own clarity, its own dullness, its own strengths, its own weakness. Therefore, that makes Christianity in Africa an intimate part of the story of the human enterprise. The stereotypical way of looking at Christianity in Africa as a result of missionary Western imperialism is a caricature.

Many Western writers are profoundly alienated from the Christian tradition, and therefore they are unable to “leave Christianity alone.” They must continue to combat Christianity as if it were in danger of making a comeback and imposing compulsory religious observances. There is a kind of Enlightenment prejudice against Christianity. Some anthropologists, for instance, assume a prejudice against third world Christianity and go on about their work while ignoring it . . . except, perhaps for a few nods toward liberation theology. Even then, they mostly select aspects that fit a social and political agenda that they embrace for other reasons.

In the core of theology, however, what we’ve called variously “third world Christianity” or “world Christianity” has made almost no impact whatsoever. And I have found this to be true even in divinity schools. Western academic theology has by and large been able to ignore the worldwide movement of Christian mission. Theologians who have assimilated into the Enlightenment worldview and ethos have accepted Western culture as the definitive source even of Christian identity.

At Yale Divinity School, for example, I think that many of my colleagues make the assumption, when they say “Christianity,” that virtually the sole instance of it is Western Christianity and that Western Christianity is all of Christianity.

Western Cultural Prejudice & the Vigor of Christian life

This is what I mean by the Enlightenment heritage that sees culture transformed into the definitive source of identity and understanding. And since Western culture is regarded as the highest form of development, we think, even if only unconsciously, that therefore it follows that Christianity in other cultural levels and forms of expression must be inferior. Thus African or Indian Christians are at an earlier stage of development, which the international agency bureaucrats, the intellectuals or the West in general have gone through and superseded.

This has profoundly unsealing effects and results in an unwillingness to allow third world Christians a significant voice in theological debate and discussion. I have a difficult time trying to speak up for non-Western Christian people in places like faculty meetings because the assumption is that Westerners know better what this phenomenon of Christianity is and that it is up to non-Westerners to catch up with them. The fact that one may, for example, view Christian theology differently, if one looks at it from the horizon of world Christianity, scarcely enters the consciousness of Western academic theologians.

Western Culture of Suspicion 

I think the whole intellectual tradition of suspicion  [Freud, Marx and Nietzsche] is itself based on a position that is not open to debate. That is to say, Western scientific methods are really believed to be superior to religious experience, tradition, and imagination as ways of knowing and living in reality. [It assumes] a posture of doubt about religion because [it think it has] a firmer foundation, one that overturns authority and tradition, for example, as reliable.

As a result, [it has] a kind of secular Western cultural exclusiveness and ethnocentrism that holds that the West knows the best methods to answer moral and cultural questions, and that the West is the best arbiter of what is normal, rational and humane, including how one can be emancipated from religion. This secular attitude is at least as imperialistic as the worst examples we know of Christian mission.

I also believe that such postmodern movements [feminists and ecotheologians touched by Buddhism or Native American religions] are a dramatic demonstration of the inability of the West to accept pluralism and inclusiveness. And that is one reason why the West is still suspicious of third word Christianity. Persons in such movements are often suspicious of particularity and represent neo-Enlightenment gnostic movements that say we must work from universals. But their universals aren’t really derived from the richness of human diversity; they’re “composed” to advance an agenda. Such movements deny the very notion of cultural particularity, and they are thus unable to take either Christianity or any other religion seriously. . . .

Buddhism may provide the metaphysical framework for what I call a culture of exclusion. It is “better” than other ways of describing the world, so you must exclude these other ways, for instance, by becoming anti-Christian.

As a former Muslim and now a committed Christian, I accept the great affirmations of Christianity. But as a non-Western Christian I see nothing that requires me to reject Islam in its insights. The same for Buddhism or Hinduism. My Western counterparts, however, find it impossible to accept that Christianity has something meaningful to say. Their form of religion is a dramatization of the incapacity of the West to accept pluralism. We are still working with exclusive norms in the West, whether these norms are cultural, as in the case of the liberal secular tradition, or religious, as in terms of your convert to Buddhism. I think it’s disastrous for our society that the West cannot transcend its own cultural self-righteousness.

Who Is Right/Who Is Wrong?

The problem, though, is that instead of serious conversation about differences, people in the West tend to take on a posture of exclusivism. A theorist on family law, for instance, tends to adopt a posture of “objective neutrality” that excludes the possibility that the Jew, the Christian, the Buddhist or the Muslim has anything of major importance to be taken into account in a debate on a matter of public policy.

My approach is somewhat different. I would say that if there is something really right in Christianity, then it must be the case that some of these insights must occur and be morally valid in other religious traditions as well, as in other streams of consciousness in the human enterprise, however differently cast they may be. And vice versa. You don’t need to play off one against the other. I think that it is only with such a religious faith that we can have a genuine pluralism with real conversation about matters of importance. . . .

Identification vs Conversion

One tradition with all its inadequacies [may bring] you to the point where you are able to see truth in another tradition. But you still should recognize that the first tradition is like a midwife who has safely borne you to the point of the crossover. . . .

Christianity & Secular Culture

Christianity in the West is a cultural flag of convenience, invoked for things one wants to do or believe for other reasons. Another: It also serves for many as a kind of cultural precursor that gives you a taste for what is really important–for instance, human rights, equality, or the emancipation of women; but for the full flowering of these things, in this view, you must go outside Christianity to movements such as those for civil liberties or the women’s movement or black nationalism or development projects.

Another characteristic is that it plays second fiddle to national identity. Citizenship is primary. What church you belong to or what it demands is secondary to what passport you carry. I don’t think that Christianity can make a contribution to Western culture when it remains in the subordinate realm of enforcing either national identity or a kind of activism in the secular realm, say in black nationalism or feminism or in gay and lesbian rights. You can articulate these agendas equally well in secular organizations. . . .

The conservative response often merely repeats a superficially “Christian” idiom and goes in a different direction, basically denying the validity of all other cultures and restricting the benefits of Christianity to their own culture and to their own tradition. It’s an extension of what Illinois Senator Everett Dirkson used to say about American virtue residing in rural areas and about urban centers as sources of evil in American society.

He was saying it with tongue in cheek, but the conservatives are generally taken up with rural virtues and seek to elaborate them within the Christian scheme of things. They say, “Let’s go back to the Bible.” But they don’t mean, “Let’s go back to Hebrew and Aramaic,” because that means embracing the cultural particularity of the Jews, which they reject.

What they really mean is, “Let’s take you to our interpretation of the Bible.” It is, in fact, the King James version of the Bible, but it is also a King James English that has been torturously strained through Victorian morality of which it is largely unconscious, ending up in a position one hears caricatured in the adage, “If the King James version of the Bible is good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us.”

The Challenge of Christianity & the Religious in Religion

The real challenge is that of the universal community within the fellowship of believers, the Corpus Christi. For the Western Christian church, that may be concretized as realizing that someone who shares your faith has claims on you equal to persons who share your nationality and culture. In other words, if I may put this more concretely, the challenge for American Christians is that they should not feel more comfortable with their fellow Americans, who may be non-believers, than with fellow believers of a different nationality. In short, the evidence of world Christianity is a challenge to the idolatry of cultural and national identity and citizenship.

The heart or thrust of religion–as I’ve encountered it in Islam, Judaism and Christianity–is that God speaks, bears testimony to the things of God. God is God’s own testimony. The issue comes up again and again in the Gospels. “How do we know,” the followers of Jesus ask, “that you are speaking the truth?” I would say that religious truths are those truths that are corroborated by God. Having been addressed, our part is to recognize God as true and to submit to God. To bring all the talents we have–the tools of understanding, ethical engagement and commitment, of being faithful servants–to commitment to the God who speaks. Religion must teach rather than just encourage me to moralize or be self-reflective. . . .

Plurality of Religious Voices

Recall that other, non-Christian religions are “kosher” today in the academic community in ways Christianity is not. You dialogue with Muslims. You dialogue with Hindus. The real problem, though, seems to occur when a Christian knocks on the door, someone who doesn’t share your personal positions. In the West today Christians are relegated to an inferior position. In the academic realm, it is not much different. For both, they are considered less mature and unsophisticated. It is a judgment not made on other religions. . . .

In many ways, the liberal or mainline churches and their suprachurch organizations are intolerant of religious plurality and particularity, even if their vocabulary is more open. The World Council, for example, often seems an extension of the Western liberal tradition and its intolerance of religious particularity.

There’s a kind of Enlightenment heresy there that believes that eventually all religions will converge if we look for a common ground. That view sees concrete religions as truculent, intransigent and mischievous. It appears to believe that as the acid of secularity and liberalism works on religion, it will dissolve its particularity to reveal the essence of religion. The results will be a human, genial, liberal and tolerant world.

The Pope & Theologians

I can imagine the terrible time he is having with his mostly Western theologians. I doubt whether he is getting that kind of flack from third world bishops. It’s paradoxical that, in the age when we think we are most liberal and open-minded, we find that the West is actually more intransigent than ever about what it believes and does not believe. It’s an interesting time to be living as a Christian. I feel a little bit out of place in modern secular culture. I really don’t share its outlook. I don’t believe that the secular means the West is using will get us to our destination–to the tolerance, inclusiveness, humaneness, compassion, charity and so forth that we proclaim. The vehicle of cultural and moral relativism that characterize Western secularity and liberal theology just won’t get us to the promised land. . . .

They’ve been corrupted. They’ve been captured. It’s something like the situation portrayed by Adrian Hastings (in his book English Christianity: 1920-1985) as “anti-romantic, anti-ideological, a dry-man-of-the-world cynicism, as bored with left-wing enthusiasms as with religious credulities . . . the safest core of a conservative establishment.” Such cultural elitism was what took over the neo-orthodox movement of the 1960’s and is quite comfortable just sitting there and enjoying its privileged position.

Christianity & Cultural Causes

I have a question about anything that defines religion in terms of possibilities reachable by human effort. I put the question in the form of the story of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who died for another man in a Nazi concentration camp. I wonder whether Kolbe would say that religion for him was political liberation only, and that, instead of giving his food self-sacrificially to his fellow inmates, he should have proclaimed liberation as what “religion” demanded.

The Gospel, for me, has more nuance than that. It’s much more than a rational thing that is approved by the wisdom of the age in the way sociopolitical liberation is today. That is an inadequate way of dealing with the full range of religious claims and the richness of religious life. But it seems increasingly the one that both liberal and conservative American Christians–although facing in quite different directions–are fixed on, and it is a reductionism that is turning away many thoughtful people from the church, as the statistics show.

Source: William R. Burrows. “World Christianity from an African Perspective,” An Interview With Lamin Sanneh. America,  4/9/94, Vol. 170, Issue 12. William R. Burrows was managing editor of Orbis Books, Maryknoll, N.Y., which has published three of Professor Sanneh’s books: Encountering the West: Christianity and the Global Cultural Process (1993), Translating the Message (1989) and West African Christianity (1983).


Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks

and the Making of Modern West Africa

By Lamin Sanneh


The heart of Sanneh’s book concerns the role of Black leaders in carrying Christianity, as well as antislavery and antistructure ideology, to Africa and in reshaping Christianity to meld with indigenous needs and religions. Their success in Sierra Leone and Nigeria contrasts starkly with the failure of the former American slaves who emigrated to Liberia to implant a vibrant Christianity in their hinterland, or even to suppress the slave trade. Sanneh argues that this was largely due to the fact that only a few thousand recaptives were taken to Liberia and that they were treated as second-class citizens by the dominant Americo-Liberians who created a racist society of their own in Liberia.

The outlines of Sanneh’s story are well known, but the book is of interest for its perceptive insights. It is at its most readable in the thumbnail sketches of the people who tried so hard to establish a Christian democratic society in Africa. He sets each of them in their own time and place and assesses their problems, achievements, and failures. The roles of some of them, Olaudah Equiano and Samuel Ajayi Crowther, for instance, are already familiar, but here they are discussed side by side with lesser-known figures.


Suzanne Miers, Professor Emerita, Ohio University

Sanneh’s antistructure motif pits the abolitionists directly against “chieftancy rule,” implying that African governance was inseparable from slavery and that slavery’s clear antithesis was freedom. Given these oppositions, Sanneh can only call Edward Blyden mistaken for not rejecting chiefly rule, and cannot explain why Bishop Crowther tolerated domestic slavery. West African governance and slavery were of course much more complex than Sanneh’s rhetoric allows.

Chiefs did survive abolition; slavery was but one mode of labor control. Sanneh’s focus on ideas also leads him to overplay the Niger Mission’s role in transforming Nigeria; surely this transformation was also wrought over time by the dynamics of peasant production, the limits of the colonial state, and urbanization. Sanneh, it seems, accepts too readily the Africa imagined by his abolitionists in which slavery and antislavery were the determining forces, at the expense of appreciating West Africa’s complex history more fully.

In the end these problems do not negate Sanneh’s accomplishment. He has composed a compassionate account of how basic human rights ideals became embedded in the foundations of modem West Africa. If these are to flourish in the future, contemporary Africans would be well advised to appreciate what Sanneh has discerned about their history.


P. S. Zachernuk, Dalhousie University

Sanneh effectively demonstrates that black abolitionists challenged the slave trade at its African base while creating a distinct gospel of African Christianity that would become a model for the continent.

The last major chapter of the book, “American Colonization and the Founding of Liberia,” is an important supplement to the standard work on the subject by P. J. Staudenraus, The African Colonization Movement: 1816-1865 (1961). Although settlers in Sierra Leone and Liberia (founded as a free settlement in 1822 and as an independent republic in 1847) experienced the ravages of malaria, attacks by African chiefs, and lack of supplies, Sierra Leone benefited from Britain’s long experience with colonial administration, whereas Liberia was virtually ignored by the government of the United States, with its anti-imperial inclination and its own national dilemma over the pursuit of racial justice.

Indeed, the free settlement of Liberia came into existence only through an armed confrontation between agents of the American Colonization Society and King Peter that left a legacy of hostility between settlers and the chieftaincy. Only in 1862 did the administration of Abraham Lincoln sign a treaty of friendship with the country. After 1847, a mulatto social class of settlers dominated Liberia and virtually excluded indigenous Africans from civic participation.

During its early years, Liberia was not only unable to extirpate the slave trade, but settlers found it economically expedient to engage in commerce with slave traders. Nonetheless, antislavery and missionary efforts to end human bondage eventually triumphed in transforming a slave-ridden Africa. Sanneh includes interesting vignettes of African American abolitionists, such as Paul Cuffee, Martin Delany, Joseph Brown Russwurm, Alexander Crummell, and Edward Wilmot Blyden.

This sophisticated and well-researched book will appeal mainly to scholars. Sanneh’s focus on Africa, the use of comparative history, the oppressed as active historical agents, and the melioristic role of evangelical religion make Abolitionists Abroad an important achievement.


Lawrence B. Goodheart, University of Connecticut at Hartford

In this absorbing study, Sanneh, a historian and professor of world Christianity at Yale University, argues for the historical significance of the settlement in Freetown, West Africa, established by nearly 1,200 freed slaves in 1792 as the foundation for a powerful antislavery movement that influenced social policy in both America and Europe. Using journals, letters and other evidence gleaned from public records, he shows that freed slaves and former captives such as Olaudah Equiano, David George, Paul Cuffee and others believed that abolitionist sentiment, together with Christianity, with its theme of God-given humanity, could become an effective liberating force.

While the settlements of freed slaves in Sierra Leone and, later, Liberia were often plagued with controversy, political infighting and epidemics, Samuel Ajayi Crowder, an ex-slave from Nigeria, used the models of earlier antislavery communities to build new ones in Nigeria. Sanneh suggests the zeal of the repatriated ex-slaves and their evangelical Christianity not only threatened the old traditional African tribal chieftain hierarchy, but challenged Christian practices in Europe and the New World.


Jeff Zaleski and Charlotte Abbott, Publishers Weekly

Sanneh, Lamin. Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern Western Africa Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. 352 pp.,

Lamin Sanneh is professor of world mission, Yale Divinity School, and chair of the Yale University Council on African Studies. Professor Sanneh was born to a Muslim family in Gambia, West Africa, where he received his early education as a Muslim before becoming a Christian. He came to the United States in 1963 to study at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., after which he worked in Nigeria at the Study Center for Islam and Christianity. He continued Islamic studies in Lebanon and England, obtaining his doctorate at the University of London. He has taught at the University of Aberdeen and Harvard, and is in demand internationally to talk on his studies of Christian mission and Muslim-Christian relations. Contact:

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#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—


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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 30 December 2011




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