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Black Livingstone...

One Man's Crusade
BLACK LIVINGSTONE: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo,
By Pagan Kennedy, Viking: 238 pp., $24.95
Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2002

"No man--you apprehend me?--no man here bears a charmed life." So says a
frustrated agent in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Considering the
genocide that occurred in the Congo at the turn of the last century, a
charmless life does seem like the only option. But William Sheppard, the
"Black Livingstone" of Pagan Kennedy's fine new biography, possessed just
enough charm to make him the exception. His charm lay in his adaptability;
he understood that a multifaceted image is everything.

"To earn the trust of the Africans, you must become protean, a shape
changer, a man of a thousand faces," Kennedy writes. "You had to be a black
white man." And Sheppard was that: He was an American black man who had to
become a Presbyterian missionary to go to Africa. The combination of
surviving in Jim Crow America and an education at Hampton and Tuscaloosa
Theological Institute had already forced Sheppard to learn the skills that
would help him prosper once he arrived. He only needed the church to get him
there. Sheppard's adventure begins in 1890 when, at 25, he sails out of New
York with fellow missionary Samuel Lapsley, his priggish, pious and, most
necessarily, white companion. Lapsley is completely taken in when he meets
Belgium's King Leopold, who controlled the Congo. Kennedy skillfully shows
how the "apparent coincidences" that ease their voyage exist only because of
Leopold's evil schemes. In fact, King Leopold's master plan for the Congo
makes him as horrifying a figure as Hitler or Stalin.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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