Renowned Harvard Professor Henry “Skip” Gates recently wrote an Editorial Opinion piece entitled “Ending the Slavery Black-Game” which was prominently featured in the New York Times. Professor Gates argues that certain African nations and leaders played major roles in capturing Africans and selling them to European slave traffickers. Therefore, from his perspective, Africans were equally complicit in the holocaust of enslavement, thereby nullifying any claim for reparations for the cultural, mental, spiritual and physical damages inflicted on Africans in America. It appears the point of Professor Gates’ Op-Ed piece is to silence the demand for reparations once and for all by shifting the burden for enslavement and the subsequent centuries of enforced labor, colonialism and apartheid on to the shoulders of Africans. In short, if Africans had not captured and sold their own people, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and development of the “peculiar institution” would not have transpired.
I am sure Professor Gates’ position provides relief and comfort to some in White America who are tired of hearing African Americans “complain” about the adverse effects of enslavement on the evolution of the Black community in the U.S. and the demand for reparations. After all, if an African American of such prestige and prominence can say that there is no need for reparations, then it must be so. Of course, this is not the first time Professor Gates has fancied himself standing up against “misguided” claims and positions by his own people. It was not so long ago that he emerged as the self-appointed hit man on a mission to discredit Afro-centricity and African-centered education as “pseudo” disciplines. When leading scholars like Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Dr. Leonard Jeffries, and Dr. Charshee McIntyre, Dr. James Turner, Sonia Sanchez, Dr. Molefe Asante, Dr. Maulana Karenga and a host of others were contending that the goal of Black Studies/Africana Studies must be “education for liberation,” Professor Gates sided with the academic establishment in castigating this approach. Indeed, he became the “darling” of conservative White academia by denouncing African-centered Black Studies programs as ”separatist” enterprises, lacking in scholastic rigor and objectivity. It was also from this perspective that he advanced the notion of African culpability for enslavement in a television documentary.
The New York Times Op-Ed piece is simply the most recent effort by Gates to assure the world that Africans did it to themselves and therefore is at least as complicit in the horrors of the African Holocaust as Europeans are. Despite his highly controversial arrest at his home in Cambridge, in an obvious case of racial profiling, Professor Gates is perhaps attempting to demonstrate that we really do live in a “post-racial” America by relieving a Black President of the burden of dealing with the “divisive issue of slavery reparations.” Unfortunately, wittingly or unwittingly, he has allowed himself to become an apologist for peoples and nations who do not want to accept responsibility for the greatest transgression against human rights in history, the holocaust of enslavement. This dangerous posture must be repudiated.
No reasonable scholar would dispute that some African nations played a role in the slave trade. First and foremost, it is important to remember that the institution of slavery is as old as humankind and Africans were not immune to engaging in it. Though slavery in any form is never to be condoned, there was no comparison between the kind of involuntary servitude evident among some nations in Africa and the British American form of chattel slavery. Indeed, the latter form of servitude was the most dehumanizing and brutal the world has ever known. Moreover, slave trafficking never evolved as the principal means of economy for African nations. In fact, the holocaust of enslavement seriously disrupted the development of the continent.
However, that’s not the major point. Two of the best sources on the origin and impact of African enslavement are Capitalism and Slavery by the former Prime Minister of Trinidad, Sir Eric Williams and the classic work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by the brilliant Guyanese scholar/activist Walter Rodney. The major point is that Africans did not initiate the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which was the impetus for enslavement, nor were Africans the primary beneficiaries of this system of exploitation/oppression. The demand for huge numbers of human beings to be utilized as free labor in the western hemisphere was not a function of developments in Africa. Rather it was a direct consequence of the ruthless subjection, domination and colonization of regions in what came to be named the “Americas.” It was the insatiable need/demand for free labor to make the colonies of the Americas profitable which triggered the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the horrific enslavement of Africans by Europeans – in some instances with the forced or voluntary collaboration of African leaders and nations.
Similar to the drug traffic which plagues many urban Black communities, this destructive enterprise was not initiated by Black people and Black communities are certainly not the primary beneficiaries. The drug dealers and so called “kingpins” of the drug traffic in the Black community may live relatively large in comparison to others in the hood, but their take is a mere pittance compared to the huge profits reaped by the global drug cartels. In addition, while it is legitimate to condemn the drug dealer as a “menace to society,” it is clear that dealers are bit players in the broader and more lucrative drug traffic controlled by forces external to the Black community.
The holocaust of enslavement may have provided a pittance of benefits for African collaborators, but it led to the amassing of obscene fortunes for the initiators of this vast global system of exploitation. As Walter Rodney documents, the commercial and industrial revolutions in Britain, France and other European nations was fueled by the capital extracted from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Triangular Trade produced a similar effect in terms of dramatically accelerating the commercial and industrial revolutions in North America. However, as referenced above, while Europe and America thrived/developed from the holocaust of enslavement, Africa and African people were devastated by the horrendous loss of millions of lives, the displacement of millions more, the destruction of community and the underdevelopment and stagnation of the continent.
In the United States, the capital extracted from enslaved Africans, with the complicity of the government and active involvement of numerous financial institutions and corporations bolstered the expansion of the economy and benefiting Whites at all levels of society directly or indirectly. Meanwhile, enslaved Africans were considered less than human beings under a system of chattel slavery that defined them as property by law. Africans in the U.S. suffered generations of cultural aggression, separation of families and brutal treatment while their free labor enriched the slave masters and the nation.
Apparently, Professor Gates does not believe these factors are of consequence when attempting to apportion blame for the holocaust of enslavement. In this regard, his gravest mistake is to suggest that the perpetrator/initiator/principal beneficiary and victim of a crime are equally guilty because some within the victimized community collaborated with the victimizer. This is utter nonsense and must be rejected for what it is, a crude attempt to relieve the perpetrator from the burden of responsibility for the crime. Hence, Professor Gates is an apologist for the system of oppression that enslaved our forebears and invented theories of white supremacy that are so deeply ingrained in the fabric of American culture that he could be arrested by a White police officer for attempting to enter his own home in the first decade of the 21st Century.
Africans in America are due reparations, and the process must begin with an acknowledgement of the horrific wrongs committed against our people. Rather than apologists, whose mission is to confuse the issue, we need an appropriate apology from the U.S. government and all private and public institutions that were complicit in perpetuating and profiting from the peculiar institution. Moreover, to be meaningful, ultimately the apologies must be backed by significant initiatives to repair the damage inflicted on Africans in America as a collective whole, a corporate body that was underdeveloped by centuries of enslavement. Then and only then, can we achieve the reconciliation that apparently Professor Gates’ Op-Ed piece superficially and prematurely seeks to attain.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Founder of the Haiti Support Project. He is a Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.