Thursday, October 1, 1998

One doesn't have to tread far into the minefield of race relations to know that acknowledgement of and healing for the past are still appropriate.

'The Mayflower that carried the Pilgrim Fathers to religious liberty in America went on her next trip for a load of slaves. The good ship Jesus was in the slave trade for our fathers. Is it to be wondered at that race and colour prejudice still exists in the West in spite of Christianity? It came with it.'

These trenchant words written in The Christ of the Indian Road by E Stanley Jones in 1925 are a reminder of an evil whose ramifications still dog us today.

One doesn't have to tread far into the minefield of race relations to know that acknowledgement of and healing for the past are still appropriate.

The movie Amistad reminded millions of people of the horrors of what was known as 'the middle passage', the portion of the triangular trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas along which millions of slaves were carried.

Now, in one of the more ambitious and imaginative commemorations at the end of the millennium, a Middle Passage Monument Project and Pilgrimage has been launched. It is an opportunity, according to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, 'to help broaden the understanding of African cultures and the heritage of people of African descent'. Next year a monument to those who died will be lowered to the Atlantic seabed along with a time capsule and a leather-bound volume of names of 'descendants of the people of the Middle Passage'. A sea voyage to Senegal, Ghana and Benin will follow the ceremony.

The project was the inspiration of 35-year-old Wayne James, a fashion designer and attorney from St Croix in the Virgin Islands who now works in Washington, DC. He woke with a powerful dream on Thanksgiving Day last year and within a few hours had written a ten-page outline of the project. 'It is by far the most powerful thing I have ever done,' the artist told me, 'but it came easily.'

The project was inspired in part by this year's 150th anniversary of the emancipation of enslaved people in what is now the US Virgin Islands, which came about through an uprising against the Danish empire in which his own ancestors participated.

James believes that antiquated ideas about race still prevail because lies told to justify slavery have never been untold. 'As a result of slavery many black people have an unjustified inferiority complex, a sense of shame and a resentment that is justified,' he says. 'Many white people have an unjustified superiority complex, a justified sense of guilt, and an unjustified sense of fear.' Black people had never had the luxury of pretending slavery didn't exist nor been able to shut it out as something that involved their ancestors but not themselves. 'The whole world has been infected by this crazy thing,' he believes.

A website dedicated to the project ( begins with Wayne's words: 'If the Atlantic Ocean's infamous Middle Passage were to dry up today, we would witness a trail of mangled human bones stretching from Africa to the "new world". With clenched fists and mouths agape, they call out to us from their distant grave. We are the descendants of those African people. We are honoured to pay them our respects.'

Wayne James is now busy raising some $25 million for the project. He says that the response has been phenomenal. Black people are being asked to contribute a dollar each and will have their names inscribed in the leather-bound volume. A competition has been launched for the design of the monument. He says, 'As the new millennium approaches, we should use slavery as a pedestal for us to stand tall amongst all people, celebrating the fact that we not only survived one of the most dehumanizing crimes committed by humans on humans in recorded history, we excelled.' He is now working on a book to mark the event. Its title, A Guide to Collective Healing.