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History works best unsanitized: from Woman King to Jefferson Davis

December 2, 2022

This piece represents the opinion of the author .

The year 2022 was a thrilling year for Black film fanatics to enjoy empowering representations of Black or African excellence, from NOPE to Black Adam to Woman King. Woman King was a particularly special full-length feature that presents Dahomey women soldiers (often dubbed the Dahomey Amazons) who, in actual history, shocked French troops with their discipline and military might, defied Western European notions of female gender roles and showed promise of potential gender equality before French colonization thwarted it. Having watched Woman King, I will admit that as powerfully moving as it was to see an all-Black women squadron called Agojie (Dahomey Amazons) fight against European slave traders, directors of the film followed the same pattern as Americans have done to sanitize Confederate solders’ legacies in the US.

However, King Ghezo, played by the immensely talented John Boyega, was historically a warmonger who viciously intensified the Atlantic slave trade through slave raids of neighboring states for wealth. Directors could have chosen a fictional name for the film’s king, considering that the story takes significant dramatic license, aside from them being called the Dahomey Amazons. Instead, directors chose to use his name and sanitize King Ghezo, leaving out the fact that he soon resumed the kingdom’s engagement in the slave trade and slave raiding not long after agreeing to end it. Propping up King Ghezo in the film as a liberator who ceased slave raids of other villages is like making a film with Jefferson Davis as a cultural hero of sound moral character, as Bowdoin had done for so long until 2015.

President Clayton Rose, in his first year as Bowdoin’s President, discontinued a Department of Government and Legal Studies award called the Jefferson Davis Award—yes, that Jefferson Davis who received an honorary degree from Bowdoin three years before leading one of the bloodiest wars in human history for the preservation of slavery. Let’s not forget, Davis lost the war. President Rose succinctly said then, “It is inappropriate for Bowdoin College to bestow an annual award that continues to honor a man whose mission was to preserve and institutionalize slavery.”

Although Bowdoin’s Board of Trustees might not have known Davis would start a civil war, Davis was already a known advocate of slavery before the war in 1861, and the Jefferson Davis Award was endowed by “an association of descendants of Confederate soldiers” in 1972. Why Bowdoin students would have wanted to be granted an award with such a namesake for so many decades is still a mystery to me. I was still a young undergraduate, trying to decide between majoring in Government—Bowdoin’s most popular major—or History. Popularity won me over then, as I ended up choosing Government, but popularity will not blindly win me over now.

Popular history is the reason why many have believed that the founder and namesake of Johns Hopkins University, was an avid abolitionist, Jefferson Davis was a war hero worthy of praise, slavery was just one of many causes for Southerners to wage the U.S. Civil War, and our African ancestors were so accepting of the slave trade that they profited from it and did not resist it. We cannot allow popular history to whitewash our collective memory of past atrocities. Contrary to popular sayings, these problematic figures are not absolved from guilt when one simply looks at them as “products of their times.” Jefferson Davis was a proponent of slavery while the abolitionist movement was reaching its peak in the United States and was led by a great number of white men.

Why do we need to whitewash history in favor of contentious figures, especially when they had morally upright contemporaries that we could be honoring instead? Make no mistake, various African monarchs and chiefs resisted the Atlantic slave trade, especially upon realization of frequent kidnapping and depopulation—from King Afonso of the Congo to Jaja of Opobo to Queen Nzinga of Angola. In fact, new historical and archaeological research recently reveals that a warrior king from present-day Ghana named John Canoe stood up to European slave traders selling his people and expelled them out of his territory, so his story became immortalized as the Junkanoo festival by descendants of slaves throughout the Caribbean. If I can categorically denounce the whitewashing of a greedy Dahomeyan monarch and slave trader, the United States institutions can stop refashioning history to honor losers who tried to defend the indefensible: slavery.

So let’s get the history right. John Hopkins was actually a slave owner, as recently revealed by Johns Hopkins University after years of rewriting his past, Jefferson Davis was a loser in the war and did not deserve monuments or awards for his character and Africans from various parts of West Africa resisted the slave trade.

Bowdoin is gradually improving on at acknowledging its more uncomfortable past, as more mention that the founder of the College owned slaves. The United States’ history has been ugly—the world’s history has been ugly. But it will only get uglier if we don’t start practicing transparency, acknowledgement, reconciliation and atonement.

 Osa Fasehun is a member of the Class of 2018.


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