Author presumes too much in probing 'Black Livingstone'

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If ever there was a man suited to go undercover to document Belgian atrocities in the inaptly named Congo Free State in 1899, it was the seasoned African-American missionary William Sheppard. Sheppard had mastered several African dialects, had gained privileged access to the impenetrable Kuba kingdom and had earned an unusual reputation as a Christian more devoted to improving African lives than to saving African souls.

So Sheppard was not altogether surprised when Malumba, tribal chief of the Pianga region, proudly showed him 81 hands: the evidence of a ghastly massacre he had just orchestrated.

In fact, it was not Sheppard's "Africanness" that had earned him Malumba's trust: It was his whiteness. He was the Mundele Ndom, "the black white man," and Malumba wrongly assumed that all white men (even the black ones) were loyal to the vast Belgian apparatus that had ordered the massacres in its pursuit of the country's coveted rubber riches.

With Malumba's unwitting help, Sheppard, decked out in his trademark Panama hat and white linen, collected graphic written and photographic evidence of the atrocities carried out at Belgian bidding. After personally counting through the clenched and open-palmed hands, a sickened Sheppard contributed reports to the century's first human-rights crusade: the campaign to end the Belgian horrors that pillaged the Congo and left more than 10 million of its citizens dead.

Pagan Kennedy offers this and other stories in her biography of the man she calls the "Black Livingstone." Sheppard's trail-blazing accomplishments certainly warrant the effort.

The son of a barber, Sheppard was raised in Virginia and schooled at Booker T. Washington Hampton Institute and at the Tuscaloosa Theological Institute in Alabama. For an African American even to reach Africa as a Southern Presbyterian missionary was a feat.

Sheppard gained fame not because of his race but because of his thunderous exploits, which ranged from big-game hunting and landscape architecture to anthropological foraging and art collecting. His most lasting contribution was probably the new image of Africa he communicated to packed churches on his trips back to the United States.

While other missionaries sought to impose Christian doctrine and Western structures on the African continent, Sheppard was an open-minded and curious observer. Kennedy offers a smoothly written tale of Sheppard's life, and is to be commended for bringing his extraordinary story to greater prominence.

But when she comes up against barriers to understanding, she is too quick to engage in what she herself calls "speculative biography." For example, she speculates that "most wondrous" for Sheppard "would have been his newfound liberation from the race hatred of the American South"; how he "must have looked forward" to the return of Sam Lapsley, his white friend and fellow missionary; and how Kubaland, the dazzling, orderly kingdom he was the first Westerner to penetrate, "must have reminded him of the American South."

Kennedy continues: "In both places, his survival depended on his ability to play-act, to go under a false identity, to hide his true impulses and feelings — and most important, to stay on the good side of men who could easily kill him."

For a biographer not to decipher fully the motives and fears of a character is forgivable. The surviving paper trail for Sheppard's life is far thinner, for instance, than the treasure troves of material that Edmund Morris brilliantly mined to depict Sheppard's contemporary, Theodore Roosevelt, with whom Sheppard shared considerable bravery, a love of the outdoors and a rare charisma. But Kennedy's flights of fancy and her constant efforts to superimpose on Sheppard's struggles in Africa the indignities he suffered in the Jim Crow South (not documented in any detail in the book) start to tire the reader.

To attempt to tie Sheppard's adventures together, Kennedy stresses his ability to adapt to an unnerving and often terrifying variety of wildernesses — that of the Deep South, the deep jungle and the inner unknown. But she worries about what she calls "the cost of such stupendous adaptability." She asks, "Who was he under all the different masks and costumes?"

Despite Kennedy's admirable and fond scavenging into Sheppard's past, he proves inaccessible. In her frustration, his biographer goes too far in offering answers and attempting to tidy up a character who defied categorization and simple moralizing.

"Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo"

by Pagan Kennedy
Viking, $24.95