For several of the black Americans aboard, President Clinton’s African odyssey has been the emotional equivalent of President Nixon’s trip to China.
With their president, they have viewed the haunting shores of West Africa from which many of their ancestors had been taken in the dark days of slavery.
They have visited Robben Island, the prison home of Nelson Mandela, whose incarceration for many of them had been the symbolic fuel of a decades-long effort to persuade their U.S. government to act against apartheid.
And they stood by as Clinton apologized for the long neglect of the continent of their heritage.
The experience has been profoundly affirming for them personally. But, more important, they believe it finally will bring Africa into the mainstream, they said. “No longer is our history or our ancestry being marginalized or denied,” Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said on the boat back from a visit to Robben Island last week.
Just as Nixon’s trip to China gave Americans a glimpse of a society that had long been closed to them, the black members of the delegation said they believe this tour will open American eyes to a continent they have chosen not to see.
Perhaps the most emotional moment of the entire trip will be the tour Thursday of Goree Island, where they will peer through the “last door,” at the castle where perhaps some of their ancestors started their unwilling journeys to America and slavery - or death in the crossing.
“It never ceases to move you,” said Susan E. Rice, assistant secretary of state for African affairs. “It’s the door through which the slaves marched before walking down a plank to the slave ships. You look out across the Atlantic toward America. It’s the most powerful image.”
American blacks along for this journey have included leaders of the U.S. civil rights movement, members of Congress, business executives and officials from the Clinton administration.
For Waters and others, the trip felt like the high point of years of work on African issues, especially because their efforts seemed futile at times when the power structure in America did not seem to be listening. “This is not as though all of this happened at one time,” Waters said. “This is the culmination of years of work.”
In Waters’ case, the effort included struggling for and passing anti-apartheid legislation in the California Assembly in 1986. She protested U.S. support of the minority white rule in South Africa and was arrested. The United States did not impose sanctions against South Africa because of apartheid until 1987. “Our top priority was dismantling apartheid and obtaining the release of Mandela,” she said.
So for her, the highlight of the trip was visiting Robben Island, which became a museum about a year ago. She visited Mandela’s cell, walked though the courtyard where he exercised and labored breaking apart stones, and visited the quarry where he lost much of his eyesight from years of working with the glare of the limestone.
“It’s very moving,” she said. “I worked for so many years to end apartheid. This closes that chapter (of my life) for me.”
For others, the most powerful experiences were different.
Rice, who is black, said the trip combined emotions - from excitement to deep sadness. “The night before we left, I was like a kid before Christmas,” Rice said. “I did not sleep at all.”
The hundreds of thousands of people in Ghana who came to see the president, she said, was all she could have hoped for. She cried at the end of Clinton’s speech in Rwanda, in which he said the United States was wrong to stand by while 800,000 people died in a genocide there.
Some American blacks also found the scenes they witnessed along the trip reminiscent of their own experiences in the United States. “I found it striking how much Ghana and Uganda reminded me of growing up in the rural South,” Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said, referring to the inadequate schools and poor living conditions.
While Waters and a few other members of Congress accompanied the president throughout, a much larger contingent joined him just during his South Africa travel. The size of the contingent caused eyebrows to raise back in the United States, with some Republicans saying it was too large. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, called the delegation a “fund-raising safari.”
In addition to a large contingent of administration officials, there were 40 members in the delegation, 16 of them from Congress. Among those present were big Democratic donors such as Robert L. Johnson, president of Black Entertainment Television.
Clinton had no apologies for his expanded delegation, mentioning repeatedly the successful blacks accompanying him and expressing his hope that their presence on the tour will lead to better relations between the United States and Africa. “It wasn’t so very long ago in the whole sweep of human history that their ancestors were yanked from the shores of western Africa as slaves. Now they come back to Africa … as leaders of America. And we hope that their success will play a role in our common triumphs, the United States and Africa.”
Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called the criticisms preposterous, given the deep significance of this tour. “I think it’s a rather small delegation, given that he’s the first president to come here ever,” Mfume said after a Clinton-Mandela news conference in Cape Town. “There were many people who wanted to come who couldn’t be included.”