Friday, April 23, 2010


Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in an op-ed piece in the New York Times points out that the United States wasn’t the only country that profited from the U.S. slave trade. Many European countries did, too-- and the U.S. slave trade would not even have been possible without the eager participation of the leaders of a number of African nations:


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I disagree with his assertion that President Obama somehow is in a good position because of his biraciality to deal with the reparations question. A significant number of African-Americans are indeed of mixed racial background anyway, most likely including Gates himself. If anyone is in the best place to deal with the reparations question, that individual would most likely be a recent African immigrant that has come to identify with the African-American experience.

Gates fails to highlight the subsequent colonial period in Africa post-transatlantic slave trade. Although it seems obvious that there were Africans themselves that participated in the slave trade (how could there not be?) slavery did not operate as a societal institution such as it did in the United States and other parts of the Americas, where pervasive racist discourses made a particularly brutal kind of labor exploitation able to gain traction among large segments of the population.

Also, he says that the “Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold.” This statement is categorically FALSE. The very region of modern Ghana where the Asante Empire existed is rich in gold resources to this day – I have been to the gold mines. Why would the Asante import what they possess in abundance? Answer: they would not and did not.

While I do not condemn Gates seeking to discuss slavery in a more informed, more nuanced, and more holistic way, his deciding to link the discussion to the issues of reparations (with an implicit undercurrent that certain African states should pay some of those reparations to African-Americans) seems rather counterproductive. What he fails to realize is the exportation of human cargo from the Continent had a negative effect on the societies left behind (and their descendants) as well as on the descendants of those transported. The European colonial powers that participated in the trade suffered few tangible human losses in their engagement in the slave trade. Insofar as modern day Africans are responsible for the actions of their ancestors, so too then are African-Americans all of whose ancestors were both victims and perpetrators of the slave trade.

For Gates to selectively choose which Africans to associate African-Americans with (i.e. those Africans sold into slavery), he fails to consider that some of those sold left suffering families behind and that some of those captured very well may have been part of the slave trade themselves before their seizure.