Anne C. Bailey: It's Time We Research What the Slave Trade Meant to Africans

Roundup: Talking About History

Anne C. Bailey, assistant professor of African history at Spelman College, in African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame, published by Beacon Press, as excerpted in the Chronicle of Higher Education (3-10-05):.]

In southern Ghana along the stretch of land off the Atlantic coast formerly known as the old Slave Coast, now known as Eweland, on many a night the striking rhythms of the drums can be heard from many miles away. They are so sure, so insistent in telling their story. With the Ewe talking drum leading the pack, stories of long ago are revealed one by one.

Yet we do not know the whole story. Here and on the other side of the Atlantic, in fact wherever people of African descent are to be found, there is a deafening silence on the subject of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. All that remains are fragments, which, like the scattered pieces of a broken vase, do not represent the whole. Under the silence are palpable sighs of regret, pain, sorrow, guilt, and shame.

Even before the publication in 1969 of Philip Curtin's seminal book, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census, historians and others have been engaged in debates and analyses of the effects of the trade on African societies. In A Census, Curtin attempted the first scientific study to determine the numbers of Africans who were taken from the shores of Africa and brought to the New World. ...

The story of the trade, however, has rarely been told from the perspective of those who suffered the most. What remains to be done is the placing of African voices of this era at the center of any historical enterprise. No full and thorough analysis of African records -- in particular oral records -- has been attempted. Most historians have written about the trade using records of European traders and American planters, with only marginal references to oral history material. Yet European and American records, while important and critical to the study of the slave trade, do not sufficiently illuminate the African view of the trade as remembered by chiefs and others whose families were profoundly affected.

One possible reason that such a project has not been undertaken is because of the silence on the issue of slavery in Africa. With the exception of slave narratives such as those from the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration -- over 2,300 accounts of history as told by former slaves to mostly white interviewers from 1936 to 1938 -- this silence is mirrored in African-American, Caribbean, and South American communities. ... Growing up in Jamaica, I was engulfed by this silence. Slavery and the slave trade were not exactly taboo subjects, but they were not subjects that many Jamaicans readily discussed. But in the midst of the prevailing silence, there were intriguing whispers of the stories of our past.

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