Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times last week that has begun to stir a controversy because he has dared to extend the blame for trans-Atlantic slavery to more than the Europeans who kidnapped unwilling Africans into servitude in the Americas. It is uncomfortable to examine the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade because the truths are inconvenient and terrible to contemplate. However, at a time when the African Diaspora is growing closer to the people of the continent, it is critical that we see and understand the truth.
Professor Gates stated correctly that African kingdoms, such as the Akan of Asante in what is modern-day Ghana, the Fon of Dahomey in modern-day Benin, the Mbundu of Ndongo in modern-day Angola and the Kongo of today’s two Congo nations trafficked in slaves. In fact, the economies of kingdoms such as the Yoruba of Nigeria depended on income from the slave trade, and the Nyamwezi of Tanzania built an economic system by exporting slaves from the interior.
To state these facts does not absolve the Europeans, who systematically kidnapped and exported human beings on long sea voyages many would not survive. Those who did survive were dehumanized in ways to which slaves had not been subjected in the history of slavery on Earth. Their language, culture and very names were taken from them. Families were prevented from forming or later destroyed, and punishments were devilishly inhuman.
Nevertheless, despite the effort by African government and traditional leaders to take responsibility for the part their people played in this dehumanizing system, many of us among the African Diaspora would prefer to maintain that it was all the fault of white people. To hold this position is to say to those Africans who have accepted the responsibility for the actions of their ancestors that their apologies are meaningless. That is not only disrespectful, but it prevents us from truly understanding people with whom many of us now say we want to establish kinship.
In this history of misery, let us not ignore the role Arabs played in the trans-Saharan and Red Sea legs of the international slave trade. They added to the degradation of the African people as well.
“The African continent was bled of its human resources via all possible routes. Across the Sahara, through the Red Sea, from the Indian Ocean ports and across the Atlantic,” wrote Congolese historian Elikia M’bokolo in Le Monde in April 1998. “Four million slaves exported via the Red Sea, another four million through the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Sahara caravan route, and eleven to twenty million (depending on the author) across the Atlantic Ocean.”
Another reason we must be honest about the trans-Atlantic slave trade is that on this side of the ocean there were African Americans who added to the misery of their own people. The late historian John Hope Franklin once wrote that by 1860 in the city of New Orleans, more than 3,000 free Blacks – 28% of the free Black population in that city – owned slaves. Throughout slave-holding states in the South, free Blacks were slave owners, and not just those who bought slaves to gain their freedom.
Records show, for example, that William Ellison, a freed Black man in South Carolina was the state’s largest Black slave owner in 1860. After his owner had him apprenticed to learn a trade and then emancipated him, Ellison first hired slaves from local owners and then became a slave owner himself. Using the free labor of a rising number of slaves, Ellison’s cotton gin manufacturing company actually put some white competitors out of business. To make matters worse, Ellison became a slave breeder, selling male and female offspring, including his own daughter with a slave woman.
There is much blame to go around for the centuries during which Africa was drained of her people, some of whom might have become the leaders, scientists and inventors who could have allowed Africa to join the Industrial Revolution and compete on an equal basis with the rest of the world.
So who is more at fault? Is it the Arabs who started the international trade of slaves from Africa and reportedly continue that trade in a different form even today? Is it the Europeans who took the international slave trade to new lows in the New World? Is it the Africans who went out of their way to find their own kind to sell to foreigners? What about the African Americans who dehumanized their own people and used their free labor to become wealthy?
As I said earlier, there are many of us who would establish our blood and legal ties to Africa today, but how will this linkage become real if we pretend that white people alone came from the skies and made our kinsmen disappear into slavery on another continent? Someone else sold African slaves in the first place, someone else also bought African slaves and someone else also owned African slaves when they got here.
At the eighth Leon H. Sullivan Summit in Arusha, Tanzania, in June 2008, Benin’s Ambassador to the United States, Cyrille Oguin, speaking in a forum on Diaspora-African linkages, asked this question: “How can you say you love me if you don’t know me?” By refusing to acknowledge all of the guilty in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, we create a false history. That is a poor foundation on which to build family ties.