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Vol.24, No. 04 Sept. 25, 1998

Using Smooth Stones, "Warrior-Philosopher' Fights African Slavery

By Kim Brockway

Protesting with placards in front of an embassy might be an effective means of demonstrating opposition for some, but not for Columbia University alumnus and doctoral candidate Samuel Cotton.

Instead, Cotton is fighting slavery and human rights abuses in Mauritania and Sudan by testifying before Congress, producing a documentary that features interviews with slaves and anti-slavery activists, and authoring newspaper articles, essays, and the book, Silent Terror: An African-American's Journey into Slavery. And this fall, as the first Willma and Albert Musher International Fellow at Columbia's School of Social Work, Cotton will work to create a prototypical victim's relief initiative for Mauritanians. Learn More About Mauritania Learn More About Sudan

"I prefer to use smooth stones in my battles," says Cotton, "and look for concrete interventions that can make a measurable difference. Because of our work, people who used to operate in the dark now can't."

A self-described "warrior-philosopher," Cotton became aware of the continued practice of slavery on the continent of Africa - most specifically, in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania and the Sudan - as a reporter with the City Sun, the New York weekly. Assigned to investigate allegations of enslavement of black Africans by Arabs in the region in 1994, Cotton produced articles and research that set off a storm of controversy in the African-American community, and drew particularly heavy criticism from the Nation of Islam. An issue that had been largely ignored by both black and national radio and television was soon the subject of a series of radio and television debates involving Cotton, Louis Farrakhan and others, as well as a number of Village Voice articles by the respected columnist Nat Hentoff.

It became painfully clear, according to Cotton, that "black political and spiritual leadership had closed the doors on the African refugee communities here in the United States," so he created CASMAS, the Coalition Against Slavery in Mauritania and Sudan, to organize abolitionists and human rights groups to collectively fight for the eradication of slavery and other forms of human rights violations in Africa, especially in Mauritania and Sudan, and to raise awareness of the issue in America and abroad.

In addition to the research collected by its executive director Cotton, who went undercover into Senegalese refugee camps and in the desert capital of Mauritania for three weeks in 1995-96 and conducted the interviews that would form the basis of his documentary and subsequent book, CASMAS has delivered over a ton of clothing to refugees, sponsored national and international summits, and conducted constant information-awareness campaigns across the country, from teach-ins and radio interviews to television appearances. The organization is now working on a project to deliver much-needed food and medicine into the region.

Unusual work for an academic, some might say. Entirely appropriate, says Cotton, who received his M.S. degree, with a concentration in social research, from Columbia's School of Social Work in 1995, after earning his B.A. in sociology from Lehman College. "As intellectual centers, our universities should be involved in helping to affect change," says Cotton. "Too often, academics conduct research and those findings are acted on by others. I decided that I wanted to be the one to do the study, and be the one to sit before Congress and say, 'do something about this.'"

The academic community's high regard for Cotton's scholarly achievements has yielded opportunities that he might not have had if he had not pursued his formal education to such an advanced degree. This fall, for example, he begins work as the first Musher International Fellow, charged with advancing the cause of world peace through research and technology, but not limited to those means. The fellowship will provide entrŽe to valuable research and contacts at the United Nations as Cotton creates the Mauritanian Refugee Relief Initiative to produce and distribute food and thus help to alleviate the tensions between Senegalese citizens and Mauritanian refugees.

Cotton has already secured permission from landholders and Ghana's Ministry of Food and Agriculture to place 2,500 acres of land into production for food relief to the refugees. The fellowship will allow Cotton to further plan and implement the project, coordinating the logistics with the appropriate U.N., International Red Cross, Senegalese and Ghanaian agencies.

"I believe that the more stable and politically mature nations of a region should intercede both diplomatically and practically in the conflict resolution process of another sovereign nation," Cotton said. "As a Musher Fellow, I hope to build relationships and connections that will allow me to turn the $5,000 grant into $50,000 that could significantly improve the agricultural and economic situation in the area."

The selection of Cotton as the first Musher International Fellow, an important part of the continuing collaboration between Columbia's School of Social Work and the United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs, is only one illustration of the academic community's respect for Cotton. Earlier this year at a conference marking the School of Social Work's Centennial he received the Centennial Award for Young Leadership, and last year, he was awarded a Petra Foundation Fellowship, recognizing individuals making an important contribution to human freedom.

The "warrior" will surely agree that awareness is rising - a fast-fax system is in place to notify officials in the U.S. State Department of black Africans reported missing in Mauritania and Sudan, and abolitionists across the country - and in such important cities as Chicago, Detroit and Atlanta - are mobilizing. Cotton's film footage has been acquired by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and his book, Silent Terror, will soon be published by Harlem River Press.

But the "philosopher" is driven by the reality that more work needs to be done. In the conclusion to Silent Terror, Cotton writes, "when evils are exposed, such as those related to slavery, invariably the character of those who grasp the horrors of the revelation is tested. It is easy to rant and rage against horrors lost in antiquity, to express bitterness and anger for those tortured souls now asleep in death, or to shake one's fists at ghosts. The difficulty lies in opposing a living adversary whose rapacious appetites are hell-bound to decimate all that one holds dear in the here and now."