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Henry Louis Gates – On Slavery and Reparations

25 Apr

Think Professor Gates misses a half a dozen points here in this article, including the issues of generational slavery and Jim Crow being the actual driving issues behind much of the Reparations discussion…

So I believe Gates is wrong here on a number of points. After a snippet from the Gates piece, I will include a response by Boyce Watkins response, which isn’t very dissimilar to my reaction, except for the personal shot at Gates’ ego…

Ending the Slavery Blame-Game

THANKS to an unlikely confluence of history and genetics — the fact that he is African-American and president — Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to reshape the debate over one of the most contentious issues of America’s racial legacy: reparations, the idea that the descendants of American slaves should receive compensation for their ancestors’ unpaid labor and bondage.

There are many thorny issues to resolve before we can arrive at a judicious (if symbolic) gesture to match such a sustained, heinous crime. Perhaps the most vexing is how to parcel out blame to those directly involved in the capture and sale of human beings for immense economic gain.

While we are all familiar with the role played by the United States and the European colonial powers like Britain, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain, there is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa. These included the Akan of the kingdom of Asante in what is now Ghana, the Fon of Dahomey (now Benin), the Mbundu of Ndongo in modern Angola and the Kongo of today’s Congo, among several others.

For centuries, Europeans in Africa kept close to their military and trading posts on the coast. Exploration of the interior, home to the bulk of Africans sold into bondage at the height of the slave trade, came only during the colonial conquests, which is why Henry Morton Stanley’s pursuit of Dr. David Livingstone in 1871 made for such compelling press: he was going where no (white) man had gone before.

How did slaves make it to these coastal forts? The historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders. The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred.

Advocates of reparations for the descendants of those slaves generally ignore this untidy problem of the significant role that Africans played in the trade, choosing to believe the romanticized version that our ancestors were all kidnapped unawares by evil white men, like Kunta Kinte was in “Roots.” The truth, however, is much more complex: slavery was a business, highly organized and lucrative for European buyers and African sellers alike.

The African role in the slave trade was fully understood and openly acknowledged by many African-Americans even before the Civil War. For Frederick Douglass, it was an argument against repatriation schemes for the freed slaves. “The savage chiefs of the western coasts of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily accept our moral and economical ideas than the slave traders of Maryland and Virginia,” he warned. “We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave trade than to stay here to work against it.”

To be sure, the African role in the slave trade was greatly reduced after 1807, when abolitionists, first in Britain and then, a year later, in the United States, succeeded in banning the importation of slaves. Meanwhile, slaves continued to be bought and sold within the United States, and slavery as an institution would not be abolished until 1865. But the culpability of American plantation owners neither erases nor supplants that of the African slavers. In recent years, some African leaders have become more comfortable discussing this complicated past than African-Americans tend to be.

In 1999, for instance, President Mathieu Kerekou of Benin astonished an all-black congregation in Baltimore by falling to his knees and begging African-Americans’ forgiveness for the “shameful” and “abominable” role Africans played in the trade. Other African leaders, including Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, followed Mr. Kerekou’s bold example.

Our new understanding of the scope of African involvement in the slave trade is not historical guesswork. Thanks to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, directed by the historian David Eltis of Emory University, we now know the ports from which more than 450,000 of our African ancestors were shipped out to what is now the United States (the database has records of 12.5 million people shipped to all parts of the New World from 1514 to 1866). About 16 percent of United States slaves came from eastern Nigeria, while 24 percent came from the Congo and Angola…

 
10 Comments

Posted by on April 25, 2010 in Black History, The Post-Racial Life

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

10 responses to “Henry Louis Gates – On Slavery and Reparations

  1. CNu

    April 25, 2010 at 9:53 AM

    Have I not been paying attention and is this par for the course, or, is this some or another token appeasement required by his patrons for continuing public intellectual HNIC status?

    I know you’re not a mind-reader, but tell me in your opinion why Gates felt compelled to pronounce this obviously embarrassing and ahistorical foolishness?

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    • btx3

      April 25, 2010 at 10:42 AM

      I think Gates somehow wants to position himself as the leader of conciliatory thought, and wants to be seen as the guy who “helps” Obama. This is a very tired argument that has been advanced by white supremacists for a while. Hard t believe that a man of Gates’ purported acuity hasn’t punched through the fact that this one is counterfiet.

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  2. Dwjazzlover

    April 25, 2010 at 10:18 AM

    I guess we never get too old to want to be teachers pet..

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    • btx3

      April 25, 2010 at 10:43 AM

      Yeah – I think Watkins is on to something!

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  3. Antonio Maurice Daniels

    May 8, 2010 at 5:28 PM

    What Gates said in his article is more damaging than anything a racist could have ever said. I have written a response to his article at http://revolutionarypaideia.wordpress.com

    Best wishes,
    Antonio Maurice Daniels
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

    Like

     
  4. Nabhendu Kothari

    August 20, 2012 at 8:00 AM

    Interesting site 🙂 I am so looking forward
    to reading more articles.

    Like

     

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