Giles Fraser: Cry out for mercy in the grey zone

28 January 2009

By the 18th century, Cape Coast Castle had become the centre for the British colonial government of the Gold Coast of Africa, and a holding bay for the transatlantic slave trade. It was here, in sweltering under­ground pens, that slaves were “stored”, waiting for the ships that would take them to another world and lifelong bondage.

I have been in few places so palpably evil. Slaves were packed so tightly into lightless dungeons that they had to sleep standing up. To fall was to die. The tour guide explained that the dirt beneath our feet was several inches of human waste. We were walking on the blood, the vomit, and the faeces of countless thousands of trafficked human beings.

It was a tour where I was acutely aware of my colour and my nation­ality, but also of my religion. Right above the dungeons, the British built the first Anglican church in what is now Ghana. As soldiers and traders sang and prayed, just a few feet beneath them, men, women, and children were struggling in unspeak­able squalor and dying for lack of food, air, and sanitation. Nowhere have I ever been so forcefully pre­sented with the rank hypocrisy of our Christian forebears.

Cape Coast Castle makes an inter­esting contrast with what it feels like to visit Nazi concentration camps. Having a Jewish background, I go around these dark places with an instinctive identification with the victims. It is often how the “visitor experience” is designed. Yet, while this is obviously deeply upsetting, it is not as morally transformative an experience as an identification with the perpetrators — the sort of experience I had in Ghana.

Holocaust memorials can be used in two ways. You can place yourself alongside the suffering, as an act of pious identification. Here little is demanded of you but your tears. Or you can imagine yourself a perpet­rator, and be terrified at your own capacity for evil. This ought to strengthen your capacity for the self-vigilance that is essential to the spiritual life.

Or you can imagine yourself in what Primo Levi called “the grey zone” — part victim, part perpet­rator. Take the Revd Philip Quaque, one of three Fante children taken to Britain by Anglican missionaries. He returned as the first black Anglican priest and chaplain to the Cape Coast fort, leading prayers in the church above the dungeons. Take the Jewish Sonderkommando, prisoners who were forced to be complicit with Nazi genocide.

In the grey zone, we are all both victims and perpetrators. In the grey zone, morality is no longer simple or easy to apply. Here Martin Luther (yes, the anti-Semite) makes most sense: the best we can do is to fall to our knees and cry out for mercy.

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