Slavery—the crude ownership of a person and his exploitation like a beast of burden—has two major venues in the contemporary world, Sudan and Mauritania. The Sudanese practice results in large part from a war conducted by Muslims against Christians; when the former conquer the latter, they frequently enslave them (and often convert them to Islam). Mauritania has no war and no religion other than Islam—it is close to being a purely Muslim country—but it does have a racial divide of (light-skinned) Arabs and (dark-skinned) "Negro-Africans," as they are known. Out of a total population of some 2 million, some tens of thousands of Mauritanians are enslaved.

When Cotton, a graduate student at Columbia University and part-time journalist, learned about this situation, it horrified and absorbed him. His short but intense trip to Mauritania in early 1996 showed him first-hand of the existence of this foul institution; and as a black American, he felt the servitude of the black Mauritanians with special poignancy. Cotton began his researches as a reporter, thinking that the mere exposure of facts would affect other African-Americans much as it did him, who saw in the racism and servitude in Mauritania, something comparable to the experience of his own ancestors. But they did not. He found that black leaders (Louis Farrakhan, mainstream black American Muslims, former congressman Mervyn Dymally, and academics at Howard University) not only pooh-pooh the issue but in many cases actively apologize for the slave system. So he became an activist. Thus far, he has found that even his seeming successes, such as passing a NAACP resolution condemning slavery, have turned out to have no operational significance.

Cotton's account of the Mauritanian scene is harrowing, his personal story moving, and his report on African-American reactions depressing. Nearly two centuries after the great American abolitionist effort, a new iteration is needed, this time focusing on the Muslim world.