Man on a Mission: Black Southerner made a name for himself in Africa
A True Tale of African Adventure
By Pagan Kennedy
VIKING; 256 PAGES; $24.95
In his 1905 tract “King Leopold’s Soliloquy,” Mark Twain imagined the Belgian colonialist king seething over “meddlesome missionaries” mucking up the rapacious plundering of the Congo he had in the works. Twain’s polemic, Pagan Kennedy informs us in her new book, “Black Livingstone,” was largely born of the writings of one of those meddlesome missionaries, a black Southerner who by that time had been in Africa for the better part of 15 years.
That missionary, William Sheppard, is the subject of “Black Livingstone.”
During his 20 years in Africa, Sheppard discovered the last forbidden city of the continent, helped expose the genocidal brutality and blind greed — and set in motion the fall — of Western colonialism in Africa. He became “one of the world’s most outspoken black critics of white oppression” and was celebrated as a reincarnated king, a fabulous swashbuckler and a great explorer. Then he was forgotten.
Which is to say, he was a black man who didn’t quite qualify for the few spots reserved for black men in American history as it has been written, by and large, until recently. Even considering this, it is remarkable that so little attention has been paid to Sheppard’s life and accomplishments, both because of his extraordinary adventures and for the material his unusual vantage point makes available. As Kennedy puts it, he was “a man caught between the nineteenth century and the twentieth, between white colonialism and black pride. Sheppard had stepped through the looking glass, gazed back at his own country, and begun to question which point of view was real.”
Sheppard left the Jim Crow South in 1890, less in search of adventure, it seems, than of escape. Born in Virginia in 1865 (six years before Stanley’s famous words to Livingstone), Sheppard began as a student at Booker T. Washington’s Hampton Institute at the age of 15 (supporting himself by working on a farm and in a bakery) and moved on to study for the ministry in Alabama. He began his career in Atlanta and was a minister for the overwhelmingly white Southern Presbyterian Church. He was ready for missionary work — ready for Africa — but could not go alone, for his church was unwilling to send an African American by himself.
The white man matched with Sheppard was Samuel Lapsley, the son of an Alabama judge. Though Lapsley (who died a year after arriving in the Congo) was nominally in charge of the mission, it was Sheppard who led the expedition up the Kesai River, founded a town, learned the local languages and made the greater impression on Africans (at the
outset, by shooting 36 hippos; later on, in more subtle ways), who called him the “black white man.”
In 1892, he set out to find the hidden kingdom of the Kuba, whose king “dwelt in a city that lay at the end of a labyrinth of secret paths; anyone who told the way into the city would be beheaded.” Explorers would be executed as well, but because of the city’s fabled riches the Belgians had searched for it, without success, for nine years (some years after Sheppard’s discovery, they would sack the civilization and turn its citizens into slaves).
Sheppard set off with nine men, intending to follow the roads between markets, hoping they’d take him to the city. In each village, the people refused to tell him how to get to the next market, explaining that the king had forbidden it. Sheppard explained that his men had eaten all the eggs the villagers had to offer and asked if they would take one of his men to the next market, “on an innocent errand of egg-buying.” The man would memorize his route, and after a short time, Sheppard’s band would follow.
So from market to market, Shepard and his men found their way to the village closest to the king’s city. But instead of putting to death Sheppard, his men and the villagers who had allowed him to get so close to the monarch, old King Kot aMweeky decided to “strengthen his hold on the throne” by declaring the “black white man” to be a ghost, the reincarnation of an ancient king.
“Black Livingstone” is at its best with such stories, which read like glorious fairy tales, and Kennedy’s extensive research yields a trove. But she often fails at crucial moments, for instance, managing to turn the arrival at the Kuba king’s city into an anticlimax, giving us little sense of what the hidden city looked like. She spends an inordinate amount of space explaining the obvious and repeating herself, which contributes, along with a strangely clumsy, gee-whiz style, to the nagging sense that “Black Livingstone” is a history for young adults, misclassified, somehow, during the marketing process.
Kennedy makes gestures toward the complications of Sheppard’s life and place in history but addresses them with little depth of thought.
Still, if the teller falters, the tale never does; “Black Livingstone” may have deserved a surer writer and a more sophisticated historian, but it very much deserves to be read.
Alex Abramovich writes about culture and the arts for Slate and other publications.