By HENRY LOUIS GATES Jr.
THANKS to an unlikely confluence of history and genetics — the fact that he is African-American and president — Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to reshape the debate over one of the most contentious issues of America’s racial legacy: reparations, the idea that the descendants of American slaves should receive compensation for their ancestors’ unpaid labor and bondage.
There are many thorny issues to resolve before we can arrive at a judicious (if symbolic) gesture to match such a sustained, heinous crime. Perhaps the most vexing is how to parcel out blame to those directly involved in the capture and sale of human beings for immense economic gain.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
In 1999, for instance, President Mathieu Kerekou of Benin astonished an all-black congregation in Baltimore by falling to his knees and begging African-Americans’ forgiveness for the “shameful” and “abominable” role Africans played in the trade. Other African leaders, including Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, followed Mr. Kerekou’s bold example.
Our new understanding of the scope of African involvement in the slave trade is not historical guesswork. Thanks to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, directed by the historian David Eltis of Emory University, we now know the ports from which more than 450,000 of our African ancestors were shipped out to what is now the United States (the database has records of 12.5 million people shipped to all parts of the New World from 1514 to 1866). About 16 percent of United States slaves came from eastern Nigeria, while 24 percent came from the Congo and Angola.
Through the work of Professors Thornton and Heywood, we also know that the victims of the slave trade were predominantly members of as few as 50 ethnic groups. This data, along with the tracing of blacks’ ancestry through DNA tests, is giving us a fuller understanding of the identities of both the victims and the facilitators of the African slave trade.
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. Queen Njinga, the brilliant 17th-century monarch of the Mbundu, waged wars of resistance against the Portuguese but also conquered polities as far as 500 miles inland and sold her captives to the Portuguese. When Njinga converted to Christianity, she sold African traditional religious leaders into slavery, claiming they had violated her new Christian precepts.
Did these Africans know how harsh slavery was in the New World? Actually, many elite Africans visited Europe in that era, and they did so on slave ships following the prevailing winds through the New World. For example, when Antonio Manuel, Kongo’s ambassador to the Vatican, went to Europe in 1604, he first stopped in Bahia, Brazil, where he arranged to free a countryman who had been wrongfully enslaved.
African monarchs also sent their children along these same slave routes to be educated in Europe. And there were thousands of former slaves who returned to settle Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Middle Passage, in other words, was sometimes a two-way street. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to claim that Africans were ignorant or innocent.
Given this remarkably messy history, the problem with reparations may not be so much whether they are a good idea or deciding who would get them; the larger question just might be from whom they would be extracted.
So how could President Obama untangle the knot? In David Remnick’s new book “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama,” one of the president’s former students at the University of Chicago comments on Mr. Obama’s mixed feelings about the reparations movement: “He told us what he thought about reparations. He agreed entirely with the theory of reparations. But in practice he didn’t think it was really workable.”
About the practicalities, Professor Obama may have been more right than he knew. 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.
And now, Tim Wise's response:
Pardon You: Racism, Reparations and the Politics of Blame (as Explained by Henry Louis Gates Jr.)
By Tim Wise
May 4, 2010
As a writer, there are times when you have something to say, and yet no particular "hook" upon which to hang the missive you are burning to release. In these moments, it is often best to wait, to hold on to the material you find so compelling, secure in the knowledge that soon enough something will happen--some personal experience or news event--that will render the intended screed relevant at long last.
Apparently, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. believes not in this sagacious advice. To wit his recent essay for the New York Times, in which he addressed the issue of reparations for slavery, imparting therein the completely unoriginal and long-recognized wisdom that Africans were implicated in the enslavement of their continental peers. This, to Gates, is a revelation of monumental proportions, which demonstrates the complexity of the slavery issue, and implacably muddies the matter of who should pay whom for the damage done. Resolving this last point is, Gates wants you to know, far more difficult than the apparently simple-minded who clamor for repair might believe.
That literally no one in the dominant political culture had been raising the issue of actually paying reparations makes the timing of Gates's piece especially bizarre. It's as if he had been wanting to say these things for some time, had never previously been able to find the right opportunity, but now intuited his opening, given the presence of a black president ensconced in the White House. Let Obama be the hook, by suggesting as Gates did in the article, that because of the president's unique ancestry, he would be the perfect vessel for carrying this message of joint responsibility to the masses. Just as surely as Gates would no doubt advise a Jew, should one ever become German Chancellor, to ruminate often and endlessly about the responsibility of the Kapos in the camps, or other Jews who collaborated with the Nazis.
Or, since Gates is so recently enraptured by the discovery of his Celtic ancestry, I'm sure we can soon expect him to explain ever so patiently to those in Northern Ireland that while the Ulsterite Protestants have been mighty nasty, there have no doubt been many a Catholic collaborator with the oppressive conditions meted out over the centuries, including some who likely bedded down, in the political sense at least, with Bloody Cromwell right to the end.
Fair is fair, after all.
It is as if Gates wishes for Obama to wash clean the sins of the West--and indeed, expects he is capable of such a Herculean feat--by reminding us of the venal and corrupt ways of the African leaders who sold their kin into slavery in the first place. To Gates's way of thinking, such a clarification might help narrow the racial divide that so plagues us, and which occasionally manages to swallow even people like Gates himself. It was just last year, after all, when Gates was racially profiled as a likely burglar, trying to enter his own home in Cambridge, and was then unjustly arrested for disorderly conduct after an officer found Gates's anger at the notion a tad on the belligerent side. Just as Gates apparently found the Obama-convened "beer summit" between himself and officer James Crowley so palliative of the injury inflicted, so too does he appear to envision something of a transcontinental equivalent now. Perhaps the Presidents of Ghana and Congo could encamp in the Rose Garden along with the descendants of slaving families, all slamming back a few and saying their respective "I'm sorries" to the descendants of those they sold or owned as the solution to the intergenerational pain inflicted.
Which brings us to the moral and intellectual absurdity of his reparations column.
Aside from the mind-boggling timing, Gates's attempt to undermine the case for reparations by spreading the blame for the enslavement of African peoples falls flat on a number of levels.
To begin, there are really two issues in play, which Professor Gates utterly fails to disentangle. The first is the issue of responsibility for enslavement, and the second is reparations: from whom and to whom are they due, if they be due at all? The reason these are separate issues is simple enough: for starters, those who have long argued for some form of reparations or restitution for peoples of color have rarely based our claims on the harms done under enslavement alone. Rather, the claim has been (and whether one agrees with the position is not the point here), that repair is due for the centuries-long process of white supremacy, including enslavement, but also segregation, theft of indigenous land, and plain old discrimination, which collectively have robbed folks of color of literally trillions of dollars in income and assets.
In other words, even if one accepts Gates's historiography, it would fail to diminish the claim for reparations from the U.S. government, since that government and its colonial forebears practiced overt white supremacy from the 1640s until the 1960s, both before and after the large-scale importation of black bodies from the African continent directly to the place that would and did become the United States. That there were co-conspirators in the enterprise for some of those years is an interesting historical point, but ultimately irrelevant, in that it neglects the way in which white supremacy continued well after the ending of the African slave trade, and indeed became, by many accounts, even more vicious when the trade morphed into an intra-national, intra-regional affair. Then of course, we have the substantial scholarship indicating that the post-enslavement period for blacks was often just as cruel as the period of bondage, thanks to the brutal oppression African descended peoples received under Black Codes, debt peonage, the sharecropping system and Jim Crow. Surely even a man as quick to castigate Africans as Gates appears to be--and his role in the documentary travelogue, "Wonders of the African World" consisted of many a seeming lecture about the backwardness of that side of his ancestral lineage--it would prove more than a little difficult to blame lynchings, or the Greenwood massacre, or redlining on Nigerians.
A second and related point is this: the claim for reparations is not merely rooted in assigning blame for an injustice. It is rooted in the belief (backed up by copious volumes of evidence not to mention common sense--the first of which, at least, is still presumed to count for something among Harvard academics), that enslavement of African peoples led to the unjust enrichment of the West. The United States was built by the labor of the enslaved. White society was subsidized by the system of white supremacy and the economic base of the nation grew as a result of both enslavement and labor discrimination after the abolition of the same.
On the other hand, Africa did not benefit by the complicity of some of their own with that system. Quite the contrary: the depopulation of Africa limited the growth of African economies. Ten to fifteen million Africans were shipped to the Americas by 1800, while numbers at least that large died either at sea or on the march from their homes to the coast. At least 25 million, and more likely as many as 50 million lives were lost to Africa due to the system of enslavement. At the very moment that Europe was growing in population--enriched as they were by slavery--Africa was witnessing a rapid loss of peoples. Whereas Europe's population more than doubled during the centuries of the Middle Passage, Africa's grew by only about 30 percent, in large part because of the trade in human beings. And population growth was positively correlated with economic dynamism all throughout this period: modernization, mechanization, and advances in political and social well-being--the kinds of things in which African nations had actually led Europe in the centuries before enslavement began, but which would all but come to a halt after its initiation.
So reparations are due, according to the argument, not merely because a certain group committed a wrong, but because the wrong led to the unjust enrichment of an entire nation (the United States) and a continent (Europe), at the expense of those enslaved. Since Africa came out worse for wear in the bargain, they cannot be said to have benefitted from the process in the same way, nor, as such, owe a debt in the same fashion. Although individual African leaders no doubt profited from their role in the slave trade--and so their descendants if they be extant may owe restitution to the descendants of those made into chattel, as well as to the very Africa they helped impoverish in the process--in the United States it is not merely some who benefitted from human bondage, and afterward, from formal apartheid. The nation itself reaped enormous wealth on the backs of unpaid or underpaid black and brown labor, from imperial adventurism and conquest abroad, and from the capture of half of Mexico in a war that its advocates most assuredly conceived of as a battle for Anglo-Saxon supremacy.
In short, and to recast the old admonition that "to the winner goes the spoils," to the winner must also go the debt incurred. It is the flipside of the advantages afforded, indeed purchased, by that victory. Those riches come with a cost, however little we've wished to stare them in the face, and now that bill has come due. Especially because we are, contrary to popular belief, still living with the legacy of the system put in place so long ago and sustained over the centuries (and not by Africans but by red-white-and-blue Americans right on down the line). In addition to the obvious legacy of wealth inequality, as well as gaps in health, education, and professional accomplishment, there is the underlying thinking of white supremacy that keeps all of these things in place. After all, the mentality of white supremacy was in large measure the result of the slave system and its aftermath, rather than its progenitor.
It was slavery that brought forth the excuses, the rationalizations, the justifications and the pithy commentary down through the ages about the tainted blood or bile or genes of the African. It was enslavement that made necessary the mental and psychological game of Twister in the national psyche. How else, after all, could one smooth over the glaring contradiction between the talk of freedom on the one hand and the fact of bondage on the other? How else except by lying to oneself and others, and by making the spreading of that lie--that these people were not people, or at least not the kind about whom one should lose much sleep--the most important task of one's social order? No, racism did not give birth to slavery, so much as the other way around. And it is that issue from the womb of the American slave system with which we are still umbilically entangled. To the extent all of us have been born into a nation where racism remains a pervasive social force, we all bear the scars of that delivery. Modern racism is no bastard child; its father was the chattel system. In its absence there simply would have been no logical reason for the development of white supremacist ideology in the first place.
None of this is to say that fashioning a workable restitution scheme would be easy. It wouldn't be. But the difficulty of devising such a reparative framework (even the impossibility of doing so, for either practical or political reasons, should such a thing prove to be the case), alters not by one iota the moral claim for such an effort. Any more so than you could dodge your own moral responsibility--and 100 percent of it, truth be told--when as a child, and upon breaking some valuable in the family home, you chose to point to your friend or perhaps a sibling and insist that he or she too had been involved in the bouncing of the ball from which efforts the unhappy accident had flowed. As I recall it, one's mother, upon witnessing this ecumenical attempt at blame-sharing always seemed to respond with something about a bridge, and then followed this imagery by querying as to whether or not, if by chance your sibling or friend were to hurl him or herself off of it, you too would, in the manner of a damned fool, do the same?
Surely a nation that gave white America more than 240 million acres of essentially free land under the Homestead Act, and made possible over $120 billion in federally-guaranteed low interest home loans to whites under the FHA and VA programs at a time when those of color were being virtually excluded from the same, can do more than engage in a collective shrug when these matters are raised. Surely we can figure out a way to--at the very least--target economic stimulus to the neediest communities (which are disproportionately of color). Surely we can envision something akin to what was done in the post-World War Two era for our former enemies, Germany and Italy, under the Marshall Plan. Surely we can do better than silence, or the putrid suggestion put forward by some that welfare spending--most of which didn't even go to people of color, and which most people of color never received--somehow has already repaid the debt, and relieved the nation of any other obligations.
And surely a man as intelligent as Henry Louis Gates can do better than to try and make equivalent, between whites and Africans, the culpability for white supremacy and its legacy, as if the whole thing had been a wash in terms of who was up and who down as a result of the arrangement.
I was really puzzled over Gates' piece when it came out--it was a big a) Um, why? and b) Um, duh, yeah, Africans were doing the selling, this is news? to the whole thing. The only thing I can think of that might have prompted this is how some of the blowhards on the radical right are screaming about how "obamacare" is really reparations in disguise.
And while on the subject of Tim Wise, here is a video of him on CNN talking about "What if the Tea Party were Black?" and talking to a teabagger on the subject.