I was sitting in my Sociology of Minority Groups class today, only half listening while my professor rambled on about global population changes throughout history. In passing, she mentioned that the first slaves to arrive in America were a group of West Africans brought in a Dutch ship.
And suddenly she had my full attention.
I had a startling realization that it is extremely likely I have stood in the very same cell where those people were held before making that horrific journey.
Elmina, in Cape Coast, is the largest and oldest slave fort in West Africa, the center of the slave trade for the Dutch for decades.
And I've been there.
I've been in the prisoner cells. Listened to the story from the other side of history.
Suddenly the world seemed like a much smaller place. It was shocking for history to become so immediately and unexpectedly real for me with just that one offhand comment. I may have learned about slavery since grade school... even visited the slave forts themselves... but oddly, it had never seemed more real to me than it did in that moment. Perhaps it took the two coming together for me to realize how interconnected our lives can be. To know with sudden clarity that history isn't just names and dates, but the stories of real flesh and blood humans who lived and breathed in places where I too have lived and breathed.
I felt a genuine sorrow for them. Not an abstract reaction like history lessons might normally generate, but a true sadness, as if I'd known them. I also felt gratitude, that I have been fortunate enough to have these life experiences that give me this perspective. I do not take for granted that the things I have seen and touched and tasted have allowed me to personally identify with so many varied situations.
Sometimes things aren't as far away or as irrelevant as we might like to think they are.