DAKAR – It was a brief but symbolically powerful moment.
President Barack Obama stepped alone into the frame of the Door of No Return on Senegal’s Goree Island on Thursday afternoon, peering out at the Atlantic Ocean from the same vantage point that thousands of African slaves once did on their way to North America.
The United States’ first African-American president was then joined by his wife, first lady Michelle Obama. Their daughters, Malia and Sasha, also took a turn.
For Obama, the tour of the former slave house was one in a series of emotionally weighty visits that the president intends to accentuate his bid to spread U.S. values and strengthen his administration’s ties with three budding African democracies during a weeklong trip.
“This is a testament to when we’re not vigilant in defense of human rights what can happen,” he told reporters at the scene.
Historians, however, say the door actually faced the ocean so that the inhabitants of the house could chuck their garbage into the water, the preferred means of waste disposal in preindustrial Senegal. No slaves ever boarded a ship through it, they say, because no vessel could have sailed through the rocky shoal that surrounds that edge of the island.
And while the house may have housed slaves, they were likely those belonging to the family who lived there, rather than slaves intended for the trans-Atlantic passage.
Ana Lucia Araujo, a history professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., whose work deals with the history and memory of the Atlantic slave trade, said that the very real need for a place where slavery can be remembered has overridden the objections of scholars.
Even though historians have debunked the memorial, the pink building has become the de facto emblem of slavery. It is the place where world leaders go to acknowledge this dark chapter. In addition to Obama, the museum has hosted former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, former South African President Nelson Mandela and Pope John Paul II. Its guest book is bursting with emotional messages from black Americans who made their own pilgrimage here in an effort to make peace with their ancestors’ roots.
Obama on Thursday also urged African leaders to extend equal rights to gay men and women but was bluntly rebuked by Senegal’s president, who said his country “still isn’t ready” to decriminalize homosexuality.
Obama opened his weeklong trip to Africa one day after the U.S. Supreme Court expanded federal benefits for married gay couples. In his first in-person comments on the ruling, Obama said the court’s decision marked a “proud day for America.” He pressed for similar recognition for gays in Africa, wading into a sensitive area in a region where dozens of countries outlaw homosexuality and a few punish violations with death.
“When it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally,” Obama said during a news conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall at the grand presidential palace in Dakar.
But Sall gave no ground. Senegal is “very tolerant,” he assured Obama, but is “still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality.” Sall said countries make decisions on complex issues in their own time, noting that Senegal has outlawed capital punishment while other countries have not — a pointed jab at the U.S., where the death penalty is legal in many states.