Novelist Kennedy (The Exes, 1998, etc.) portrays the first African-American missionary in the Congo.
Virginia-born William Henry Sheppard (1865–1927) wanted to spread the Presbyterian gospel in Africa, but only when a white man agreed to go with him would the church allow Sheppard to travel to the Congo. Of the two missionaries, however, it was Sheppard who had the longer and more distinguished career. He hunted hippos, discovered lost cities, and amassed the West’s first collection of Kuba art at the same time that he fought tropical diseases, survived many attempts on his life, and raised international awareness of Belgian atrocities in the Congo. Sheppard was a celebrity in his own time. Nicknamed “Black Livingstone” after the famous British explorer, he drew large crowds in the US to hear his tales of danger and adventure in Africa. He is mostly unknown today, partly because in 1910 he was sent home in disgrace by the Presbyterian Foreign Missions department, which according to Kennedy was as affronted by Sheppard’s advocacy of human rights as by the illegitimate African child he fathered. The author relies mainly on Sheppard’s journals and letters, as well as documents from other missionaries to tell his story. There are gaps in this material, particularly concerning Sheppard’s motivations, but Kennedy makes graceful use of her novelistic skills to imagine and fill in. (E.g., she speculates plausibly that his desire to work with the Kuba was prompted as much by erotic attraction as the desire to save souls.) Her portrait of 19th-century Africa is neither over-romanticized nor condescending, and she captures the excitement and complexities of Sheppard’s life there. Kennedy explores only gently the paradox that Sheppard was successful in the Congo, yet suffered under segregation and prejudice in the US.
A convincing brief to make an honored place for this now-forgotten adventurer in both African and American history.