Although my opinion of Henry Louis Gates is rather low on many matters, I have to give credit where credit is due when I say that he wrote one hell of an effective op-ed for the New York Times last week. Gates took on some of the myths and misunderstandings used by proponents of slavery reparations for today's black Americans.
Gates mentioned many of the same pieces of misinformation that I address with my students every year. Both the 7th grade World History and 8th grade U.S. History standards I teach address the issue of slavery, and many of my students are always shocked to find out that slavery wasn't just a white/black phenomenon, nor was its practice limited to just the United States. Many of these students are floored to discover that the vast majority of African slaves who were sent to the New World were first purchased from African slave owners. The European slave traders were merely buying Africans who had already been enslaved by their fellow Africans.
Gates addresses this and other pertinent points in his excellent piece. Here are just a few gems:
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...I highly suggest you read the whole of this informative and important column. There was, however, one position taken by Gates with which I disagreed. Right near the end, he wrote the following:
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...
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....
Fortunately, in President Obama, the child of an African and an American, we finally have a leader who is uniquely positioned to bridge the great reparations divide. He is uniquely placed to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization. And reaching that understanding is a vital precursor to any just and lasting agreement on the divisive issue of slavery reparations.What is humorous about that is that Obama's white side of the family had the last name of Dunham. With an old-school British name like that, it is highly plausible that this side of his family could have slave owners in its past. Meanwhile, the African side of his family comes from Kenya, which is in East Africa. American slaves were from West Africa. This adoption by Americans of African descent of East African cultural features such as the Swahili language and the east African-influenced pseudo-holiday Kwanzaa never made sense to me. It would be like someone of French ancestry adopting aspects of Lithuanian culture as part of his heritage - after all, both countries are from the same continent!
It would have been so easy for a man of Gates's stature and ideology to take the easy way out and put all the blame on the European contribution to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Instead, he stuck to his academic integrity and called it like it is. For this, Professor Gates has my respect regarding this matter.
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free... it expects what never was, and never will be." -Thomas Jefferson