In This Review

Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo
Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo
By Pagan Kennedy
Viking, 2002, 256 pp

William Sheppard, a black American, went to the Congo as a Presbyterian missionary in 1890 and left 20 years later, widely recognized as a heroic defender of African rights. This biography deftly explores the reality behind the hype generated by Sheppard's style as a performance artist. Conditioned early on to avoid confrontation with whites, Sheppard successfully built a life where he could exercise his multiple talents to the full, "challenging racism the way a cross-dresser challenges gender." Only reluctantly did he eventually enter the international fray surrounding Belgium's violent exploitation of the Congolese, an involvement that led to his acquittal on defamation charges in Leopoldville in 1908. Like David Livingstone, he was less a saver of souls than an adventurer, explorer, anthropologist, and popularizer. At 28, he was invited to join the Royal Geographical Society because of his success in penetrating the xenophobic Kuba kingdom. Although Kennedy takes pains to distinguish between her own speculations and hard facts drawn from the evidence left by Sheppard and his contemporaries, she oddly chooses to disparage repeatedly Sheppard's correct observation that most African babies are born white.