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Healing from Slavery, War, and Genocide:
Lessons from John Woolman and Friends in Rwanda and Burundi

By David Zarembka

Presented at the 59th John Woolman Memorial Lecture
October 22, 2006

John Woolman is my favorite Friend. My second favorite Friend is Levi Coffin. My worse favorite Friend is my daughter, Joy. Let me explain. When Joy was about 12 years old, she would come home with her “First best friend, her second best friend, etc.” and each day the “First Best Friend” would change. This constant rotation of friends annoyed and intrigued me so one day I asked her where I fit in this hierarchy of best friends. She replied, “You are my worst best friend.” Although as the parent of a 12 year old I was at the bottom I was pleased to have made the list.

These three favorite Friends have something in common. They all opposed slavery. Joy is director of the Break the Chains Campaign of the Institute for Policy Studies which rescues people from conditions of servitude and slavery—in Washington, DC no less. In his book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, Quaker Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves reports that there are twenty-seven million people in slave-like conditions in the world today—more than ever before in recorded history! Hence John Woolman’s and Levi Coffin’s work to end enslavement is still with us.

Another trait they share is that they have written books. Levi Coffin’s Reminiscences of Levi Coffin: The Reputed President of the Underground Railroad does not have the literary qualify of John Woolman’s Journal, but he surely lived an action packed life as he and his wife, Catherine, helped 3300 slaves on their way to freedom. Joy’s book about Black/White families in England, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Jamaica is called The Pigment of Your Imagination: “Mixed Race” in a Global Society. As a biased reader, I will not comment on its literary merit, but I will say that I have read it about ten times. At this point I can probably quote large passages of her book, but that is another lecture.

Instead I want to start out with one of my favorite quotes from John Woolman: [Pause] “It‘s good for thee to dwell deep, that thou mayest feel and understand the spirits of people.” I like the “dwell deep.” This is why the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams--AGLI as we call it--sends people to Africa for five week workcamps. The purpose is to get to know people and their condition. Note that Woolman does not talk about language, exotic customs, and other external characteristics, but rather “feel and understand the spirits of people.”

In that vein, Joy has a nice passage on this issue in her book. She was visiting Kenya, where her mother is from:

I decided to head off to the McMillan Memorial Library to begin my research on race relations in Kenya and found that most of the relevant books were written during the colonial period. Books on race frequently came in the form of outdated how-to manuals on handling servants and poorly written travelogues by Europeans about the quaint customs of “primitive people.” Few books mentioned interracial offspring and those that did, predictably did so in a negative manner. One book published in 1916 professed that “contact between the races at an increasing number of points would lead not only to miscegenation, which between persons widely differing in origin produces a weak progeny, but also to the degeneration in the white community.” After several frustrating hours of reading repeated references to Africans as “backward savages” and “animals,” I felt an overwhelming need to leave the oppressive library for a breath of fresh air. I began thinking about the traits attributed to animals: the exotic, dangerous “other” to be observed from afar. Were the Kenyan photo models at the tourist hot spots seen, even now, as part of this animalistic stereotype? I figured the best way to calm down was to go outside and join the Kenyans sitting on the front steps of the library, enjoying their lunch. The melodic sounds coming from the mosque next door helped soothe my irritation and I took in the sights around me.

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