James L. Akins
From: "email@example.com" " James L. Akins" 8-APR-1998 06:45:07.17
While reviewing the John Thornton excerpt and his references to "Njinga the Queen King" and the house conservatives' interpretation of the African complicity in the slave trade, I was reminded of an incident that became the cornerstone of my introduction to the legal system. While attempting to defend my actions in traffic court by stating to the court that I was simply doing what every other driver at that particular intersection was doing, in that case ignoring a caution sign, I was reprimanded by the judge and told, in no uncertain terms, that the fact that others were doing something wrong was not a defense for my actions. I just wonder if the conservatives expounding this doctrine of African complicity plan to use it to explain or defend the American institution of slavery. Or better yet, is this the reason they use to eliminate any justification for an apology from Clinton?
From: Robert P. Forbes "firstname.lastname@example.org" "Robert P. Forbes" 9-APR-1998 17:05:06.46
Another remarkable dimension of American slavery, to add to Paul Finkelman's: the behavior of slaveholders who fathered slaves, "kept them enslaved, and enslaved their children and grandchildren," and in some cases sold them.
Visiting Assistant Professor Department of History Wesleyan University Middletown, CT 06459
The case against Henry LouisGates.
It seems to me that Gates' pain about the Trans-Atlantic slavery have twisted his objectives as film-maker and narrator. We all understand pain and suffering related to slavery, but it is not acceptable to present negative personal and a-historical opinions as if they are fact in material that pretends to be scholarly. It seems to me that Gates has crafted his own attack on Afrocentric views of the greatness of Africa. It seems to me that the Gates' video attempts to paint a picture of an imaginary divide between African Americans and African views of the Continent and its role in history. As an African American, this offends me.
(full text at http://www.westafricareview.com/war/vol1.2/mikell.html (requires subscription))
Very many commentators have remarked that Gates is deafeningly silent on the role of Europeans in the slave trade, on both the western and eastern coastlines of Africa. For many people, this is the ONE factor which, above all else, compromises Gates' intention to provoke Africans and African-Americans to dialogue on the role of Africans in the slave trade. Additionally, there is the problem associated with the insistence of the African respondents that Gates selects for the episodes on the transatlantic slave trade that the West African slave-raiding and slave-dealing chiefs were equal partners to the European slave traders. This is a minority view among professional Africanist historians, black and white; the least Gates could have done is feature scholars who represent a different view of the relative roles and rates of profit accumulated by Africans and Europeans in this trade in human cargoes. Finally, there is the fact that beyond provoking an African and African-American dialogue on African participation in the slave trade, the focus on African complicity in the transatlantic slave trade and the Arab-dominated slave trade on the Indian ocean serves Gates ultimately as illustrations of a thesis that violence and cruelty were pervasive in the African past.
(Full text: http://www.westafricareview.com/war/vol1.2/jeyifo1.html (requires subscription))
Asante and Benin. The source of the statement about the slave trade that there would have been no slave trade in these countries without the complicity and collaboration of the kings (and their representatives) in Asante and Dahomey was not me, but Dr. Akosua Perbi, a Ghanaian historian. This is indeed a vexed and painful issue. I know that it was, and remains, a painful issue for me. How I envy my African friends' easy accessibility to their people's languages and cultures! How much I lament all that our ancestors suffered to survive the Middle Passage, slavery, and Jim Crow racism and segregation. But don't ask me, a descendant of slaves, to avoid addressing this complex issue, which disturbs so many of us so deeply simply because it is so confusing, so troubling, so anguishing. No one I interviewed thought my questions inappropriate or felt that I wanted to make them fell guilty. I don't believe guilt to be heritable. I merely wanted to bring a dialogue into the open between Africans and African Americans that has long been simmering beneath the surface. We all feel discomfort in discussing the contributory role of African hierarchies in the slave trade. If "Wonders" succeeds in opening this deeply buried matter to sober reflection, then the series will have made an important contribution. Need it be said that to acknowledge that Africans participated in the slave trade along with Europeans is not to exclude the horrible crimes of the latter?
(Full text: http://www.westafricareview.com/war/vol1.2/gates.html (requires subscription))
Statements in support of Gates
H-NET List for African History and Culture [H-AFRICA@H-NET.MSU.EDU]
Sun, 21 Nov 1999
From: Kenneth Wilburn <email@example.com>
H-Africa has created a thread on Gates' "Wonders," and it is up and running on our threads page:
Let the page load completely; then click on "Videos/Film;" and finally scroll down to "Wonders".
John Hunwick makes a plea for introducing some substance into the debates . . .
Ibrahim Sundiata, Howard University, on the slave trade, Wonders of the African World
The following message is cross-posted from H-Africa, which is moderated by Kathryn Green <firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com>>
Sundiata on the slave trade, Wonders of the African World Thu 13-01-00
From: Ibrahim Sundiata, Howard University
The discussion over "The Wonders of the African World" has produced a vigorous and, perhaps, much needed debate. Having finally seen the entire film series and having bought the accompanying book, I have a few thoughts on one issue dealt with in both the text and in the film - Slavery.
"What is Africa to me"? This too oft quoted line by a New World Black man still interrogates. To many the continent signifies as the home of the Black Race, the iconic antipode of Europe, the home of the White. Indeed, Africa in the American popular perception continues to be either an Edenic Mother/Fatherland or the barbarous home of famine, disease and civil war. Two constructs -"The Image of Africa" and "The Image of Slavery"- have molded, and continue to mold, the Black Diaspora. "Wonders of the African World" gingerly attempts to walk the line between the two.
We may begin by asking: What is the "essential" relationship to ancestral Africa? We do know, of course, that, from the fifteenth century onward, millions of forced migrants left the African continent to people both of the Americas and the islands of the Caribbean. At embarkation, captured women and men were phenotypically and culturally African, but much has happened since then. Yet, Africa continues to operate as a fixed point, the loadstone of ethnic identity, an identity often analyzed so as to diffuse issues of hybridization and creolization. Whether the locus of collective origin is in ancient Egypt or among the Yoruba, a core Africanity is posited because societal constructs so clearly set off the "Black" community from the "White," in a Manichaean worldview which governs everything from politics to the music industry.
In early 1998, President Bill Clinton visited Africa. To many, the trip was a triumphal one, focused on trade, international security and the ties that bind Africa and African Americans. Howard French, an African-American writer in the New York Times mused over whether the United States should apologize for the Atlantic Slave Trade. He noted that "In the end, appropriately solemn Mr. Clinton stopped short of an outright apology for America's part in the slave trade, finding other ways to express his regret as he focused on the future." When the president did express regret, he spoke at school in Uganda. The act was perhaps unintentionally symbolic, the equivalent of apologizing for the Irish Potato Famine in Slovakia. Interestingly, nothing was said of contemporary bondage across the border in neighboring Sudan.
The silence reflects the vagaries of the last century's abolitionist debates. Commenting on President Clinton's decision to express official regret for the historic slave trade, French mentioned what we may call The Slaver's Canard: "Weren't Africans engaging in slavery themselves well before the first Europeans came and carried off their first human cargoes? Didn't African chiefs themselves conduct...slaving raids on neighboring tribes and march their harvest to the shores for sale."? The charge is an old one. Beginning in the eighteenth century, defenders of Atlantic slavery maintained that Africa itself was rife with slavery; Europeans only took away the surplus produced by semi-permanent warfare. Nineteenth century abolitionists countered by painting an image of a bucolic Africa in which slaves were part of the family, a status hardly comparable to chattel status in the American South.
From the other end of the political spectrum, polemicists continued and continue to hammer away at the particular evil of "African slavery." For instance, the conservative ideologue Dinesh D'Souza decries what he perceives as liberal attempts to "downplay African slavery." He notes that "Any claims of the benign quality of African slavery are hard to square with such reports as slaves being tortured at the discretion of their owners, or executed en masse to publicly commemorate the deaths of the kings of Dahomey. . . "
Given the geographical size of Africa and the number and complexity of societies found there, any broad generalization is bound to be false. One could argue that there is no benign slavery. Some time ago, in comparing slavery in the Americas, the anthropologist Marvin Harris, comparing slavery in the United States and Latin America, discounted the "Myth of the Kindly Master," in which "Latin" slavery was envisioned as somehow innately less harsh and burdensome than the Anglo-Saxon variety. In the Harris thesis, if some African societies seemed to offer slaves more leeway than others, it is because their intensity of economic production was less. It would be very hard to argue that the slave salt miners of Taodeni or the laborers in the Asante gold mines participated in any form of "familial" slavery. Even when the kinship idiom is used, we must realize that folks can be awfully hard on their kin (for example, Roman fathers had the legal right to kill or sell their spouses and children). Also, gender cannot be overlooked. The majority of slaves in Africa were women and in many places the major agriculturalists. Their status put them at a complex juncture; under patriarchy all women are subordinate, but some are more subordinate than others.
If Africa is simply the metonym for "Black Man's Land," a place without nations, ethnicities or languages, the charge of slavery and slaving is devastating. Zora Neale Hurston lamented, "But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw was: my people had sold me...My own people had exterminated whole nations and torn families apart for profit before the strangers got their chance at a cut." Richard Wright was bedeviled by similar thoughts. "Had some of my ancestors," he mused, "sold their relatives to white men?" The writer wondered: "What would my feelings be when I looked into the black face of an African, feeling that maybe his great-great-great-grandfather had sold my great-great-great-grandfather into slavery?" Skip Gates continues in the same vein: "The image of slavery we had when I was a kid was that the Europeans showed up with these fish nets and swept all the Africans away." He is startled: "Rubbish. It's like they went to a shopping mall. Without the Africans there wouldn't have been a slave trade."
The indictment is particularly blistering:
. . . for African Americans the most painful-truth concerning the extraordinary complex phenomenon that was the African slave trade is the role of black Africans themselves in its origins, its operation, and its perpetuation. It was an uneasiness and anger about this truth that fueled Richard Wright's barely concealed contempt for his Ghanaian kinsman in Black Power and that led many African Americans to view their New World culture as sui generis, connected only tenuously to its African antecedents, if at all. Western images of African barbarism and savagery, of course, did not endear us to our native land [sic]. But for many of my countrymen, the African role in the slave trade of other Africans is both a horrific surprise and the ultimate betrayal, something akin to fratricide and sororicide. Imagine the impact of a revelation that Sephardic Jews had served as the middlemen in the capture or incarceration of Askenazi Jews during the Holocaust, and you can perhaps begin to understand Richard Wright's disgust.
This raises the question of what a "brother" and a "kinsman" is. If a continent is the "Nation," an equivalent would be to view the Holocaust as a Mittel-Europaische family feud of particular ferocity -- Europeans exterminating their own people, while in league with an alien race at the other end of the world. Indeed, thousands of Askenazim did die at the hands of their Polish, Ukrainian and Baltic neighbors. And, strangely, the Germans killed a far greater percentage of their European Jewish captives than they did of their North and West African prisoners of war. Although some nineteenth century thinkers may have seen Jews and Arabs as "Orientals" sharing a bundle of common characteristics, only the most Utopian of present-day prognosticators would predict the rise of a political "Pan Semitism" in the Middle East. The comparisons of Jews and Africans is a strained one. Kwame Appiah notes "that Judaism - the religion and the wider body of Jewish practice through which the various communities of the Diaspora have defined themselves allow for a cultural conception of Jewish identity that cannot be made plausible in the case of Pan Africanism." Appiah points to "the way that the fifty or so rather disparate African nationalities in our present world seem to have met the nationalist impulses of many Africans, while Zionism has, of necessity, been satisfied by the creation of a single state."
Unfortunately, in the popular American imagination, the fifty African states remain an irrelevant hodgepodge. The continent remains largely featureless; languages are dialects and ethnicities are tribes. If Africa, three times the size of the United States and containing 748 million people speaking some 1,500 languages, is reduced to simply a mythic homeland, confusion is sure to follow. And worse than confusion, a basic lack of understanding or sympathy for Africans as they exist is bound to follow.
The image of slavery in Africa has historically stood as a distortion, either a magnification or diminution of the image of American slavery. TransAtlantic bondage is the absolute before which all other manifestations are held to be relative. Slavery is the cause of the essential national fissure. The national (white) image of the institution has gone through various permutations, without questioning basic assumptions. Early in the twentieth century Southern historians like Ulrich B. Phillips painted a rosy picture of bondage in Dixie; indeed, slavery was a benign "school" for blacks. D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation contained images of both "faithful darkies" and "ferocious bucks." The popular image of kindly slavery perhaps reached its apogee in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind.
As the white vision of slavery changed, so did the black. The African American view of slavery has changed drastically in the years since emancipation. Various nineteenth-century black thinkers, among them Martin Delany, Henry M. Turner, Alexander Crummell, and Edward Blyden, saw the Middle Passage as providential, even if highly painful. By the time of the Civil Rights Movement a Providential Slavery had all but disappeared from most African American discourse on slavery and the slave trade. The image of slavery emerged not so much as a labor system, but as a systematic torture of millions rooted in innate racial antagonism. In this scenario, sexual exploitation and gross barbarity fueled by raging hatred characterized everyday of slave existence. The plantation resembled not so much Booker T. Washington's "school" as it did Stanley Elkins' later comparison with a concentration camp.
An "Old Dixie Narrative" had emerged. Simply, stated this view of history says: Slavery was confined to Dixie and slaves grew cotton. Nowhere else in the history of humanity has slavery existed and nowhere else were human beings chattel. In this scenario, Africans were selected to be slaves because they were black. Racism drove a slave trade and slavery which existed as the ultimate form of psychosexual torture. The numbers immolated in the horror of the "Middle Passage" and in the cotton fields ran into the millions. At the popular level, the Old Dixie Narrative floats in the American collective consciousness, even among those who have never given it much thought.
For many African Americans, looking back through the prism of Jim Crow and lynch law, a view of slavery as the ultimate horror provides ample proof of the ultimate fixity of human nature. Racism was as alive in fifteenth-century Lisbon as it was in nineteenth-century Mobile. History is one long version of Up from Slavery and always a struggle against the Manichean "Other." Blacks remain the ultimate Outgroup, one which erases European division and suffering. In the Old Dixie Narrative, there is agreement from both sides of the racial divide that Blacks have always been drawers of water and hewers of wood. Class is eternally "raced."
If slavery is about race, then Africans could not have engaged in a slave traffic. Indeed, the charge itself is racial calumny. However, a cautionary note was sounded long ago by the Trinidadian historian Eric Williams. Best known for maintaining that white humanitarianism did not abolish the slave trade, the scholar made a subsidiary, and often overlooked, point: capitalism and slavery are no great respecters of persons. Writing from beyond the confines of the Dixie Narrative, he observed that "The `horrors' of the Middle Passage have been exaggerated. For this the British abolitionists are in large part responsible." Furthermore, "A racial twist has ...been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery. Unfree labor in the New World was brown, white, black, and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan." Slavery need not be raced. It could exist in ancient Rome, medieval Kosovo, nineteenth-century Korea and in the Liberia of the 1930s. Unfortunately, few could think in terms of C. L. R. James dictum: "The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics....But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.
If we heed these caveats, we end up with somewhat different conclusions than those contained in the "The Wonders of the African World." Slavery, like marriage, is a fairly universal institution. Most societies have had some form of it. Slavery, at base, rests on the ability to coerce labor and/or sexual reproduction. Probing for a peculiar "Black" guilt for slavery is an ahistorical and presentist trap. We might as well ask why the "brothers" have fought and killed each other in places as disparate as Biafra and Rwanda. The answer is obvious. Africa is a continent full of proud, diverse and often contentious peoples. It also has social cleavages within societies, something a scholar like Walter Rodney clearly recognized twenty years ago. Recently, Joe Miller has pointed out that "Africa [still] looms integrally in the background of African-American history as a unified ancestry reflecting the racial sense of community forced by American prejudice on African Americans. . ." The "Wonders of the African World" did little to go beyond this view. The positing of a Black "Volksgemeinschaft" is soothingly mythopoeic, but it is not history. As Pearle-Alice Marsh, executive director of the Africa Policy Information laments: "There are millions of Americans who still think Africa is a country, not a continent." Sadly, in spite of its kaleidoscopic race around the continent, "Wonders of the African World" will do little to change this perception.
King, Preston, On the Meaning and History of Slavery, in Tibbles, Anthony (ed.), Transatlantic Slavery: Against Human Dignity, HMSO, 1994
118 The question, then, is not, broadly, whether there was slavery in West Africa, but specificaly whether a system of chattel slavery was to be found there.
The short answer is 'no'. This answer may be given without qualification for the fifteenth century, but not after we enter the nineteenth century. Slavery was first introduced by force from European vessels upon the tiny village states of the West African forest zone. These states had, and could have, no sense of a common African identity - no more than did Europeans among themselves. The Africans had petty wars among themselves, which normally did not last long, nor do great damage, simply because there were not the surpluses or resources to fuel them. They did not raid one another for slaves because their semi-subsistence economies were not yet elaborate enough to absorb and discipline such labour. The original , small states of the West African forest zone had no capacity to sustain chattel slavery.
121 Over the decades and centuries, African were pulled more and more deeply into administering a system of kidnapping, raids and war which proved systematically destructive of their societies.
From: IN%"deal@Oswego.EDU" " J. Douglas Deal" 12-APR-1998 13:20:57.59
A very good point. I think the short answer is that the notion that all Africans are alike (one people) *is* the product of racist thought, though where and how it began to take shape is still a matter of some controversy. My impression is that the idea had little currency among Africans anywhere on or off the continent until it became politically useful (e.g., in struggles against colonialism and racism).
The notion that Europeans are one people is, in a sense, also tied to racism, but here I am not thinking so much of the racism that attended the establishing of plantation colonies using African slave labor as of the older racism that accompanied the expansion of "Frankish Europe" east of
the Elbe, along the Baltic littoral, into the British Isles, in Iberia, and in the eastern Mediterranean from about 1000 to 1350 AD. According to Robert Bartlett, in a very interesting book (_The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950-1350_ [Princeton, 1993]), argues that a kind of homogenized European culture and identity did begin to take shape along with expansion and colonization in peripheral regions. It resulted in thinking that divided "us" (Europeans) from "them" (the "others") in distinctly racial-cultural ways. Of course, this European unity was fragile, and it was shattered (or just weakened?) by the religious cleavages of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras.
The idea of European (=white) unity then re-emerged, in a legal sense, with the early statutes of the plantation colonies that began distinguishing whites (literally) from "Negroes" and other non-whites: in Virginia and Maryland, the colonies I know best, this was in the 1670s-80s.
H-NET List for African History and Culture [H-AFRICA@H-NET.MSU.EDU]
Date: Mon, 22 Nov 1999
. . . No understandable reasons can justify the fact that SOME AFRICAN RULERS sold their fellow Africans to slavers. However, as Professor Mazrui rightly said, one should not forget the fact that there were more Africans who suffered from slavery of their parents than there were beneficiaries. These were not democratic or some kind of participatory societies where rulers merely apply policies accepted somehow by their people through their election or through laws voted by their representatives. Africans are still waiting for such a governing system to happen. If they had it, one could then extend the blame to the average African.
However, maybe Gates could have done justice to Africa by mentioning the few rulers . . . which resisted slavery with some success.
H-NET List for African Literature and Cinema [H-AFRLITCINE@H-NET.MSU.EDU]
Forwarded by: Joanne Kendall <firstname.lastname@example.org> 18-11-99
Wole Soyinka's Preliminary Translation of Statement made by President Mathieu Kerekou
Offered without comment to the "Wonders" debaters:
The Head of State (of the Republic of Benin) launched an appeal for a consciousness of our belonging to one sole Africa, for African cooperation, in order to assist the youth in finding a model.
The Head of State particularly insisted on our duty towards Memory and, consequently, asked the forgiveness of all Africans of the Diaspora, highlighting the responsibility of Africans in the betrayal of the Black Race which he described as shameful, as a crime against humanity, and abominable. He also demonstrated how much interest he invested in the Colloque by insisting on the integration of Africans of the Diaspora and their support in the processes of African development.
For the Head of State, the Colloque is essential in his eyes because he considers it capable of serving as a prelude to the Grand International Conference of Forgiveness and Reconciliation with the Diaspora on the eve of the year 2000. We cannot enter the Third Millennium without reconciling with the Diaspora. Those who remained in Africa have a duty to ask for forgiveness, concluded the Head of State. And on this note, the Head of State declared open the work of the Colloque.
Excerpt from the Rapport General. Actes du Colloque International de Ouidah
(Republic of Benin) 26-30 April 1999 (Institut du Developpement et d'changes Endogenes).