Prof. Gates and the blame for slavery

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(NNPA)—Like everyone else who read professor Skip Gates’ piece in the New York Times asserting that Africans were just as responsible for slavery as Europeans, I was aghast because he is one of the most acclaimed scholars in the country and his position lends credibility to those who oppose an historical corrective for the oppression of African peoples.

Admittedly, my concern also arises from the publication of my most recent book on reparations, “The Price of Racial Reconciliation,” in which I take a strong position favoring reparations as a long-time member of this movement. Although Gates’ argument is cast in scholarly terms, it should be said that he is not a recognized scholar of African history, a fact that has caused him to design a simple equation of the culpability of Africans with Europeans in the slave trade. This cannot be so, even if it is his point that Africans were surely involved in the slave trade.

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The other side of the story is that in the 300 years, from the middle of the 16th to the 19th century, the slave trade evolved into one of the primary, if not the engine of the first wave of globalization. The development of trading firms from Spain and Portugal to England were the result of the enormous profits from the trade that enriched towns and cities throughout Europe and the Americas and allowed for the extension of European armies and traders into the interior of Africa to concretize the process of colonialism.

I use the word “concretize” because Professor Gates seems to infer that Africans were on an equal part with Europeans in this process. They were not. Consider if you were a chief who sold an enslaved African to a European and received a bottle of rum or some trinkets for the sale. What could you do with that resource? How powerful was it? On the other hand, the person who was sold to the European constituted a dynamic resource because he and she could produce others, could work for years to enrich the owner and with the profits, the owner could create new civilizations.

But even if you credit Gates’ argument that Africans were just as culpable as Europeans for slavery, how does that wash when it was the Europeans who possessed the gold, salt, trinkets, liquor and other items they could exchange for slaves, together with the means of transporting them to new areas of the globe.

The great civilizations of the Mali/Songhai area was defeated by the Islamic invasion beginning in the 7th century and was still under the control of much of North Africa at the time of European entry into Africa. So, Europeans built fortresses on the coast of West Africa to administer the process of slavery made possible by the introduction of European armies that did make forays into the interior and back to the coast with slaves.

I consider the slave trade one of the aspects of what I call “The Grand Narrative of Oppression.” Gates’ argument does not even take into consideration the fact that when the trans-Atlantic slave trade ended, a local slave trade matured inside the United States run by Whites with the same features of production and distribution of enslaved peoples that carried over from the original trade. Then, he does not consider the fact that slavery itself extended into the 20th century and that the racism against so-called “free” peoples of African descent became a major feature of oppression that also calls for reparations.

While writing my book, I was in South Africa and ran into a Zulu chief who understood reparations this way: my friend stole my bicycle from me, then he came to me several months later and wanted to be my friend again. I told him that he must return the bicycle first. His friend hesitated because not only did he not have the bicycle, he had used it to enrich himself beyond the status of his friend. Thus, the issue of reparations is one of justice. With the monumental profits that were derived from the slave, although one can accede to the fact that Africans did participate in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, one cannot equate that fact with European culpability for slavery.

(Dr. Ron Walters is a political analysts and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland College Park.)

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