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Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Ending the Slavery Blame-Game

Roundup: Historians' Take




[Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard, is the author of the forthcoming “Faces of America” and “Tradition and the Black Atlantic.”]

...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....

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.”...

For many African-Americans, these facts can be difficult to accept. Excuses run the gamut, from “Africans didn’t know how harsh slavery in America was” and “Slavery in Africa was, by comparison, humane” or, in a bizarre version of “The devil made me do it,” “Africans were driven to this only by the unprecedented profits offered by greedy European countries.”

But the sad truth is that the conquest and capture of Africans and their sale to Europeans was one of the main sources of foreign exchange for several African kingdoms for a very long time. Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold....

...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.

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Randll Reese Besch - 4/30/2010

So Gates is doing a service in showing that the blame is far wider than is usually promulgated. No less blame just that it is more widely spread.

Once you and they understand that then we can start exploring the exploitation and slavery going on right now---for economic reasons. No change from the past except now it is back to the poor of many colors.


robert matteson - 4/30/2010

So according to Gates we couldn't have this discussion of responsibility without Obama? This level of immaturity belongs in some grade school sound bite of history, not amongst serious adults. No one is alive that took part in these things.

Yes, we should acknowledge history so as not to repeat it, although the great Obama has already violated that rule.

But to assign some sort of blame?

Get over it, Gates, and grow up already. That includes every other race hustler and whiner out there. History is exactly that. PAST HISTORY. It happened, we should learn from it, and move on.

Unless of course guilt peddling is your stock in trade.


Ruel J. Eskelsen - 4/30/2010

I admit to being a bit green on this subject, but based on what I know now about the Atlantic Slave Trade, Gates' acknowledgment of elites from both Europe and Africa being complicit in the slave trade seems to be a more honest historiography than the Euro-America-bashing that gives us a dramatized good-guy, bad-guy story ala-Hollywood.

Slavery was a terrible institution that we as a human family made illegal. Now we have to eradicate the practice of de-facto slavery that still exists in our current world.


fige bornu - 4/26/2010

Henry Gates is a strange person. First, he dares to act as an authority on everything "African." Then, he boldly attempts to save the vast majority of white society who has been working for centuries to destroy Africa by telling them, ‘Don't worry, you are not the single blame for the millions of African's killed and enslaved. Those Africans themselves assisted with their own demise.’

Well, it isn’t going to work, you mis-educated, and highly paid, wannabe accepted into white academia fool Gates. Because while there was, as Dr. ML King said, "Traitors in every ethnicity," the vast majority of Africans, including the Zulus, fought and killed to keep those ghostly Europeans at bay.

But, no, the Europeans, near their own dead-bed where in their native lands they were being overtaken by disease, violence, and worse, ventured out to African where they found fertile soil, and an abundance of life, and used every weapon they could find to take her, i.e. disease, and the first weapon of mass destruction, gun powder.

Gates and his Harvard elite group of miseducators need to shut-up with trying to excuse the real creators of mayhem, the Europeans. Instead they need to lobby and more, those entities that have become superpowers as a result of silencing, stealing, and destroying the richest continent on Earth: Africa, to change their deadly policies that dry up land, and starve millions in Africa.

My goodness, you'd think that a full-belly would take a break from their greedy pursuits.