Fri 23 Apr, 2010
Tags: Barack Obama, Harvard University, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Reparations for slavery, transatlantic slave trade
Professor Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Jr. has an op-ed in this morning’s New York Times in which he takes on the issue of reparations for slavery.
Gates will, no doubt, attract enough controversy for his general approach to the issue. He is convinced that our society must address the issue of reparations, and that we must reach a “just and lasting agreement,” which he believes will have to be “a judicious (if symbolic) gesture to match such a sustained, heinous crime.”
Remarks like these will land any public intellectual in the U.S. in hot water these days. Just consider the case of Goodwin Liu, whose mild remarks related to reparations at one of our events in 2008 became a central issue in his nomination by President Obama for a seat on the Ninth Circuit.
However, this essay is most notable for telling difficult truths about the central role of Africans in the transatlantic slave trade, and thus about the shared culpability of people of different races in the resulting history of slavery.
What is unusual about this essay is not the historical facts which Gates relates about Africa’s role in the slave trade, or even the interpretation which he gives them. These are commonplace observations in the study of the slave trade, and are necessary to the most basic understanding of that historical phenomenon and its legacy today.
This essay is noteworthy because someone of Gates’ stature is telling these hard truths, and insisting that they are necessary to assessing responsibility for the past and for healing these historical wounds today.
Slavery was not about race
When I address audiences on the history and legacy of slavery, I will often say that slavery and the slave trade were never about race. Having offered that hopefully surprising statement, I will explain that while the concept of race gradually became important in justifying and perpetuating slavery in the United States, race played essentially no part in establishing the transatlantic slave trade or in bringing millions of Africans to the Americas.
This argument has two parts: first, that Europeans (and Americans) did not engage in the slave trade out of any sense that it was particularly appropriate to enslave black people, and second, that Africans were full partners in the slave trade, without any sense on their part, either, that race was relevant to what they were doing.
Gates addresses the second part of this argument, summing up by saying that “white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, [were] complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization.”
The historical truth about Africa and the slave trade
When we visited slave forts along the African coast in modern-day Ghana to film Traces of the Trade, we were walking in the footsteps of my ancestor, James DeWolf, and the other members of the DeWolf family who purchased more than 12,000 Africans in such slave forts.
As Gates asks, “How did slaves make it to these coastal forts?”
The reality is that nearly all who were sent across the Atlantic in chains were enslaved by Africans.
Gates cites two leading historians of the slave trade, John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University, for the proposition that roughly 90% of the slaves sent across the Middle Passage were enslaved by African traders and then sold to Europeans along the coast. Other leading scholars believe that the percentage is actually much higher, that only at the margins were any Africans enslaved directly by Europeans.
The leading role of Africans in the slave trade was a necessary one. The slave trade took place before Europeans colonized the continent of Africa, and white traders exercised little influence beyond their coastal trading posts. Only African societies could extract slaves from the interior of the continent, primarily by taking captives in wars or kidnapping in raids.
The vital role of Africans in the slave trade made for a highly profitable business for many African societies, lining the pockets of local rulers and of the many ordinary people who became involved in the trade. As Professor Gates notes, slaves were the primary export of many kingdoms in western and central Africa, including the Asante in Ghana, Dahomey in Benin, Ndongo in Angola, and Kongo in the modern Congo.
These facts dispel the myths that Africans were only tangentially involved in the slave trade, or that African societies were coerced into participation, or that the slave trade left a legacy of demographic or economic harm to those societies which participated in it.
Another myth which I often hear is that Africans participating in the slave trade had no idea what slavery meant in the Americas. The implication is that they were less culpable because they assumed slavery would be far more benign for the victims than it actually was. Gates outlines the historical evidence against this myth, too, noting that many African elites, including ambassadors and the children of African royalty, actually visited the Americas, and even did so on slave ships. Meanwhile, enslaved Africans would occasionally be freed and return to their homes in Africa, while later on, thousands of freed slaves returned to settle in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
As Gates puts it, “under these circumstances, it is difficult to claim that Africans were ignorant or innocent.”
Why this truth is so hard to talk about
I said above that what is noteworthy about this essay isn’t the history that Gates recounts, but that someone of his stature is telling this truth, and putting it front-and-center in the discussion about reparations for slavery.
Those of us who are descended from the DeWolf slave traders, and who speak out in Traces of the Trade about the dominant role of the northern United States in slavery and the slave trade, are generally quite well-received by those who want to push forward the dialogue about reparations, or the legacy of slavery generally. In other words, those who care about this issue tend to embrace the message that the complicity of (white) Americans in slavery and the slave trade was broader and deeper than has been generally acknowledged, that this complicity extended to the northern states and to most ordinary citizens.
Most people who are in conversation about the legacy of slavery in the United States are, however, deeply reluctant to acknowledge the role of Africans in the slave trade. As Gates describes it,
Excuses run the gamut, from “Africans didn’t know how harsh slavery in America was” and “Slavery in Africa was, by comparison, humane” or, in a bizarre version of “The devil made me do it,” “Africans were driven to this only by the unprecedented profits offered by greedy European countries.”
Why is this? One problem for many African Americans, in particular, is that it is always difficult to acknowledge that one’s own people were complicit in wrongdoing. We see this again and again in our work, as people freely acknowledge the horrors of the DeWolf slave trade, but are reluctant to embrace the truth that their own northern ancestors were probably involved in the slave trade, as well. Or people will embrace this truth, but reject that their own ancestors were complicit in slavery, as well, whether because they had settled in the midwest or the west during slavery, or came to this country as immigrants following the end of slavery in 1865.
Another reason why many black activists, and their white and non-white allies, are often reluctant to acknowledge the African role in the slave trade is that this reality explodes the myth that the enslavement of Africans occurred because of racism. While history amply demonstrates that this belief is false, the myth lives on because it is a convenient way of understanding the past and of explaining the truth that the burden of these historical events and their legacy has fallen to black people to bear.
Likewise, it is convenient to believe that the blame for slavery can be allotted on the basis of race. This mythology not only allows for the demonization of white people historically, but it provides ammunition for claims of reparations for slavery.
The argument for reparations is generally framed as a claim that black people continue to bear considerable disadvantages as a result of slavery, and that white people are responsible for correcting that situation. The first part of the argument is hard to refute, but the second part is much more problematic. Why should those who played no part in the history of slavery be held accountable for it? The easy answer, but one which is historically false, is to claim that it was white people perpetrated slavery and must now be held accountable for it.
(There are other ways to make the case for reparations, which is how Gates can emphasize this history and still suggest that reparations is an issue that cannot simply be dismissed. One approach, for instance, is to point out that white people today still disproportionately enjoy the benefits of the history of slavery. Another response would be that society as a whole, and not white people per se, are responsible for correcting an historic injustice perpetrated by this society.)
How conservatives misuse this history to silence the conversation
A final reason why many people are profoundly reluctant to talk about the African role in slavery is that this history is commonly abused by those who would shut off all discussion of the history and legacy of slavery in our society. I will refer to these people here as conservatives for simplicity, although I’m talking specifically about those who, regardless of their politics in other respects, argue that the history of slavery no longer has any effect on our society and that we should simply stop talking about it.
Their reasoning is simple: if African societies participated in the slave trade, then there is no reason to hold our society accountable for its own role. If black people participated in the slave trade, then there is no reason for white people to pay attention to this history today.
This is, of course, a misuse of history. The fact that various societies, and people of various races, participated in the slave trade says nothing about who must grapple with this history, and its legacy, today. Indeed, most people would reject out of hand the notion that one person, group, or nation may avoid dealing with an historical legacy because others have inherited that legacy, as well, or have not yet owned up to their own inheritance. In fact, however, many African leaders and nations have been addressing their historical responsibility for the slave trade in recent years, acknowledging responsibility and asking for forgiveness.
The importance of telling this history
Why must we openly acknowledge and engage this history, despite the risk that doing so will be difficult and that others may seize on these facts for their own purposes?
On one level, this is a strategic issue. As long as we do not include the complicity of Africans in how we tell the story of slavery and the slave trade, those who would silence this conversation can continue to play “gotcha” by unveiling that aspect of the story, as if it were a dramatic surprise and an unexpected argument which undermines the entire discussion.
More broadly, I believe firmly that the starting point for addressing an historical legacy must be to tell the truth, and the entire truth, at that.
In the case of slavery in particular, we have long suffered in the U.S. from a collective national amnesia about certain key aspects of this history. The path to a comprehensive national dialogue, to healing in whatever form, and to moving forward together must lie in encouraging the telling of the whole truth. Deliberately obscuring inconvenient aspects of this truth will only hinder this effort and aid those who would keep other other important facts buried forever.
We also need to learn important truths about human nature from the long, terrible history of Atlantic slavery. In particular, why have we chosen to enslave others so often in our history? How is it that we are able to do so, and to justify what we do to ourselves? We can’t explore these questions if we aren’t open and honest about who participated in slavery, as well as how and why they did so.
I’ve also suggested that we have dramatically overstated the role of race in the history of slavery, as well as in our response to this history today. In the end, race did play a vital role in this history: circumstances conspired to bring about a situation in which the free citizens of our society were primarily of one race, while those who were enslaved were primarily of another race. This fact, in turn, led to profound racial inequalities in contemporary society, and to the development of ideas about race which retain a tight grip on our thinking even today. It is this last aspect, however, which explains why we have in some ways overstated the role of race in slavery and in our response to it today.
I am convinced that in order to move forward together, we need to both acknowledge the role which race has played, and continues to play, in our society, and also to confront the limitations of race as a way to think about ourselves and our society.