Reparations and African complicity in the slave trade

Posted April 23rd, 2010 by
Category: Repair and reparations Tags: , , ,

James DeWolf Perry is a regular contributor. He appears in the film Traces of the Trade and is the Tracing Center’s director of research. This entry is cross-posted from James’ own blog, The Living Consequences, and the opinions expressed are his own.

Professor Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Jr. has an op-ed in this morning’s New York Times in which he takes on the issue of reparations for slavery.

Gates will, no doubt, attract enough controversy for his general approach to the issue. He is convinced that our society must address the issue of reparations, and that we must reach a “just and lasting agreement,” which he believes will have to be “a judicious (if symbolic) gesture to match such a sustained, heinous crime.”

Remarks like these will land any public intellectual in the U.S. in hot water these days. Just consider the case of Goodwin Liu, whose mild remarks related to reparations at one of our events in 2008 became a central issue in his nomination by President Obama for a seat on the Ninth Circuit.

However, this essay is most notable for telling difficult truths about the central role of Africans in the transatlantic slave trade, and thus about the shared culpability of people of different races in the resulting history of slavery.

What is unusual about this essay is not the historical facts which Gates relates about Africa’s role in the slave trade, or even the interpretation which he gives them. These are commonplace observations in the study of the slave trade, and are necessary to the most basic understanding of that historical phenomenon and its legacy today.

This essay is noteworthy because someone of Gates’ stature is telling these hard truths, and insisting that they are necessary to assessing responsibility for the past and for healing these historical wounds today.

Slavery was not about race

When I address audiences on the history and legacy of slavery, I will often say that slavery and the slave trade were never about race. Having offered that hopefully surprising statement, I will explain that while the concept of race gradually became important in justifying and perpetuating slavery in the United States, race played essentially no part in establishing the transatlantic slave trade or in bringing millions of Africans to the Americas.

This argument has two parts: first, that Europeans (and Americans) did not engage in the slave trade out of any sense that it was particularly appropriate to enslave black people, and second, that Africans were full partners in the slave trade, without any sense on their part, either, that race was relevant to what they were doing.

Gates addresses the second part of this argument, summing up by saying that “white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, [were] complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization.”

The historical truth about Africa and the slave trade

When we visited slave forts along the African coast in modern-day Ghana to film Traces of the Trade, we were walking in the footsteps of my ancestor, James DeWolf, and the other members of the DeWolf family who purchased more than 12,000 Africans in such slave forts.

As Gates asks, “How did slaves make it to these coastal forts?”

The reality is that nearly all who were sent across the Atlantic in chains were enslaved by Africans.

Gates cites two leading historians of the slave trade, John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University, for the proposition that roughly 90% of the slaves sent across the Middle Passage were enslaved by African traders and then sold to Europeans along the coast. Other leading scholars believe that the percentage is actually much higher, that only at the margins were any Africans enslaved directly by Europeans.

The leading role of Africans in the slave trade was a necessary one. The slave trade took place before Europeans colonized the continent of Africa, and white traders exercised little influence beyond their coastal trading posts. Only African societies could extract slaves from the interior of the continent, primarily by taking captives in wars or kidnapping in raids.

The vital role of Africans in the slave trade made for a highly profitable business for many African societies, lining the pockets of local rulers and of the many ordinary people who became involved in the trade. As Professor Gates notes, slaves were the primary export of many kingdoms in western and central Africa, including the Asante in Ghana, Dahomey in Benin, Ndongo in Angola, and Kongo in the modern Congo.

These facts dispel the myths that Africans were only tangentially involved in the slave trade, or that African societies were coerced into participation, or that the slave trade left a legacy of demographic or economic harm to those societies which participated in it.

Another myth which I often hear is that Africans participating in the slave trade had no idea what slavery meant in the Americas. The implication is that they were less culpable because they assumed slavery would be far more benign for the victims than it actually was. Gates outlines the historical evidence against this myth, too, noting that many African elites, including ambassadors and the children of African royalty, actually visited the Americas, and even did so on slave ships. Meanwhile, enslaved Africans would occasionally be freed and return to their homes in Africa, while later on, thousands of freed slaves returned to settle in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

As Gates puts it, “under these circumstances, it is difficult to claim that Africans were ignorant or innocent.”

Why this truth is so hard to talk about

I said above that what is noteworthy about this essay isn’t the history that Gates recounts, but that someone of his stature is telling this truth, and putting it front-and-center in the discussion about reparations for slavery.

Those of us who are descended from the DeWolf slave traders, and who speak out in Traces of the Trade about the dominant role of the northern United States in slavery and the slave trade, are generally quite well-received by those who want to push forward the dialogue about reparations, or the legacy of slavery generally. In other words, those who care about this issue tend to embrace the message that the complicity of (white) Americans in slavery and the slave trade was broader and deeper than has been generally acknowledged, that this complicity extended to the northern states and to most ordinary citizens.

Most people who are in conversation about the legacy of slavery in the United States are, however, deeply reluctant to acknowledge the role of Africans in the slave trade. As Gates describes it,

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.”

Why is this? One problem for many African Americans, in particular, is that it is always difficult to acknowledge that one’s own people were complicit in wrongdoing. We see this again and again in our work, as people freely acknowledge the horrors of the DeWolf slave trade, but are reluctant to embrace the truth that their own northern ancestors were probably involved in the slave trade, as well. Or people will embrace this truth, but reject that their own ancestors were complicit in slavery, as well, whether because they had settled in the midwest or the west during slavery, or came to this country as immigrants following the end of slavery in 1865.

Another reason why many black activists, and their white and non-white allies, are often reluctant to acknowledge the African role in the slave trade is that this reality explodes the myth that the enslavement of Africans occurred because of racism. While history amply demonstrates that this belief is false, the myth lives on because it is a convenient way of understanding the past and of explaining the truth that the burden of these historical events and their legacy has fallen to black people to bear.

Likewise, it is convenient to believe that the blame for slavery can be allotted on the basis of race. This mythology not only allows for the demonization of white people historically, but it provides ammunition for claims of reparations for slavery.

The argument for reparations is generally framed as a claim that black people continue to bear considerable disadvantages as a result of slavery, and that white people are responsible for correcting that situation. The first part of the argument is hard to refute, but the second part is much more problematic. Why should those who played no part in the history of slavery be held accountable for it? The easy answer, but one which is historically false, is to claim that it was white people perpetrated slavery and must now be held accountable for it.

(There are other ways to make the case for reparations, which is how Gates can emphasize this history and still suggest that reparations is an issue that cannot simply be dismissed. One approach, for instance, is to point out that white people today still disproportionately enjoy the benefits of the history of slavery. Another response would be that society as a whole, and not white people per se, are responsible for correcting an historic injustice perpetrated by this society.)

How conservatives misuse this history to silence the conversation

A final reason why many people are profoundly reluctant to talk about the African role in slavery is that this history is commonly abused by those who would shut off all discussion of the history and legacy of slavery in our society. I will refer to these people here as conservatives for simplicity, although I’m talking specifically about those who, regardless of their politics in other respects, argue that the history of slavery no longer has any effect on our society and that we should simply stop talking about it.

Their reasoning is simple: if African societies participated in the slave trade, then there is no reason to hold our society accountable for its own role. If black people participated in the slave trade, then there is no reason for white people to pay attention to this history today.

This is, of course, a misuse of history. The fact that various societies, and people of various races, participated in the slave trade says nothing about who must grapple with this history, and its legacy, today. Indeed, most people would reject out of hand the notion that one person, group, or nation may avoid dealing with an historical legacy because others have inherited that legacy, as well, or have not yet owned up to their own inheritance. In fact, however, many African leaders and nations have been addressing their historical responsibility for the slave trade in recent years, acknowledging responsibility and asking for forgiveness.

The importance of telling this history

Why must we openly acknowledge and engage this history, despite the risk that doing so will be difficult and that others may seize on these facts for their own purposes?

On one level, this is a strategic issue. As long as we do not include the complicity of Africans in how we tell the story of slavery and the slave trade, those who would silence this conversation can continue to play “gotcha” by unveiling that aspect of the story, as if it were a dramatic surprise and an unexpected argument which undermines the entire discussion.

More broadly, I believe firmly that the starting point for addressing an historical legacy must be to tell the truth, and the entire truth, at that.

In the case of slavery in particular, we have long suffered in the U.S. from a collective national amnesia about certain key aspects of this history. The path to a comprehensive national dialogue, to healing in whatever form, and to moving forward together must lie in encouraging the telling of the whole truth. Deliberately obscuring inconvenient aspects of this truth will only hinder this effort and aid those who would keep other other important facts buried forever.

We also need to learn important truths about human nature from the long, terrible history of Atlantic slavery. In particular, why have we chosen to enslave others so often in our history? How is it that we are able to do so, and to justify what we do to ourselves? We can’t explore these questions if we aren’t open and honest about who participated in slavery, as well as how and why they did so.

I’ve also suggested that we have dramatically overstated the role of race in the history of slavery, as well as in our response to this history today. In the end, race did play a vital role in this history: circumstances conspired to bring about a situation in which the free citizens of our society were primarily of one race, while those who were enslaved were primarily of another race. This fact, in turn, led to profound racial inequalities in contemporary society, and to the development of ideas about race which retain a tight grip on our thinking even today. It is this last aspect, however, which explains why we have in some ways overstated the role of race in slavery and in our response to it today.

I am convinced that in order to move forward together, we need to both acknowledge the role which race has played, and continues to play, in our society, and also to confront the limitations of race as a way to think about ourselves and our society.

35 Responses to “Reparations and African complicity in the slave trade”

  1. Mike Robertson Says:

    Curtis Mayfield was right when he made the statement about "Educated Fools from Uneducated Schools, Pimping People is their rule". Gates plays on in the Band of the Man.

  2. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    Mike, would you care to explain why you believe that Professor Gates is simply playing for the Man, rather than, say, expressing important historical truths that are essential to our nation's current racial dialogue?

    For instance, are you suggesting this simply because Gates dared to mention this history at all? Or because he believes this history is relevant to assessing the reparations issue today? Or, for instance, because he expresses skepticism about the practicalities of reparations for slavery?

  3. Damani Says:

    Mr. Perry,

    I would like to engage with you on this topic, but before I do: Would you mind clarifying your interchangeable use of two terms with different meanings, implications and consequences: "captive" and "slave"?

  4. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    Damani,

    I agree that the terms "captive" and "slave" carry different meanings and implications, and while I will often use one or the other, I don't exactly use them interchangeably.

    In my mind, "captive" refers to the fact that a person has been physically seized and had their liberty constrained, while "slave" refers to the condition of being enslaved, with all that that implies.

    In other words, the use of the word "captive" suggests a focus specifically on the original act of taking the person as a slave, or for the purpose of later treating them as a slave.

    In my mind, using the word "captive" periodically, when appropriate, is also humanizing. It reminds us that these were human beings who were enslaved; the condition of enslavement did not define them. "Captive" strongly implies someone who was free an instant before, and any of us could become captives, too, at any moment.

    "Captive" also reminds us that those who were captured (rather than being born into slavery) were free people who had no more right to be seized than anyone else, and that their status as slaves became determined only after that point, by the conscious acts of other individuals. Constantly using the word "slave," by contrast, can sometimes let people slip into thinking of slavery almost as a natural or inevitable condition, or one which was not contingent upon assertions of power by others.

    However, in the essay above, I used the word "captive" only once, and while I did so in part for the foregoing reasons, there was another purpose. I was distinguishing the two primary ways in which African societies enslaved people: taking people as slaves in wartime, whether the war was waged to produce slaves or not, and raiding villages specifically for the purpose of enslavement.

    In this context, the word "captive" is both traditionally used in the context of those seized during wartime, and a reminder that there are a variety of ways to deal with people seized during warfare, only one of which is to enslave them.

  5. sylvia mcwhite Says:

    As hard as it is to want to hear, it's true that Africans played a huge part in the slave trade. I think the outrage of the black community is due in part to a particular reason. By the way, I'm black too. I think that black intellectuals tend to read more than the average african american. They make a living off of their minds. It would reason they would read more books. Mr. Gates studies the past and lives of african americans; I would think he would come across a fact or two about the slave trade and the role that Africa played. I have read before about africans selling other africans to europeans. My feathers were ruffled a bit after finding out about this fact, and so I read further to know exacly what role we played. I think if african americans read more we would know more, and what Mr. Gates said wouldn't have been such a shock to us. We have access to the same knowledge that he and others have. In order to know who is responsible for something, we have to know who all is involved. It just makes sense. I don't think it's right for us to get mad at Mr. Gates simply because he's not purporting what we want to hear. We want to blame white people and white people only. It makes us feel uncomfortable to realize we helped to bring about our own destruction. We don't want to face it. If we don't look at this situation head on, how can we move forward and intelligently discuss the issue of race and/or reparations? I don't think slavery or its atrocity was acceptable. America's economic boon then and all the years that followed had free slave labor to thank. Millions of people lost their lives, families, histories, languages, and wealth. The value of all these things are inestimable. I can't figure out what number amount could make up for all that. Can you?

  6. Damani Says:

    James,

    Thank you for your expected clarification.

    I am tempted to say, “I rest my case.”

    .

    While we may not all agree on precisely when “captives” were enslaved and became “slaves”, I would assert that since the principal operational aspect of slavery per se is forced labor, a captive did not become a slave until they were put to work. I think we can all agree that, for all intents and purposes, that definition was not met until captives reached their destination, the “New World” or Europe.

    .

    Given the distinctly different meanings of “captive” and “slave,” which you acknowledged at some length in your response to my question, and the implications not only for the captives who became slaves, but especially for the essence of the argument that you and Dr. Gates are making, it is inappropriate and misleading to say:

    • “…members of the DeWolf family who purchased more than 12,000 Africans in such slave forts.”

    • “As Gates asks, ‘How did slaves make it to these coastal forts?’”

    • “…roughly 90% of the slaves sent across the Middle Passage were enslaved by African traders.”

    • “Only African societies could extract slaves from the interior of the continent.”

    • “As Professor Gates notes, slaves were the primary export of many kingdoms in western and central Africa…”

    .

    Although (in reverse order), it was captives, NOT slaves, who may have been the primary export; and captives, NOT slaves, who were transported from the interior to forts to temporarily hold captives, NOT slaves; and finally captured persons, NOT persons enslaved by African traders, who traveled the Middle Passage, both you and Dr. Gates argue or at least imply that culpability for the ENSLAVEMENT of Africans is to be equally shared by Europeans and Africans.

    .

    That is an obtuse and, in the context of European and American self-conceptions of their level of “civilization,” a self-serving version of history and a denial of accountability. These consistently repeated misrepresentations, in my view, either lead to a serious misconception, or the other way around.

    .

    So, to say, as you assert, “The reality is that nearly all who were sent across the Atlantic in chains were enslaved by Africans.” is misleading in the particular context central to Dr. Gates argument and yours.

    .

    For example, what I have challenged above is a major aspect of the foundation of your statement:

    "The argument for reparations is generally framed as a claim that black people continue to bear considerable disadvantages as a result of slavery, and that white people are responsible for correcting that situation. The first part of the argument is hard to refute, but the second part is much more problematic. Why should those who played no part in the history of slavery be held accountable for it? The easy answer, but one which is historically false, is to claim that it was white people perpetrated slavery and must now be held accountable for it."

    .

    Here it seems to me that you have shifted responsibility for “enslavement” from the actual enslavers, almost exclusively white, to others involved in the capture of Africans, but who were not directly involved in the enslavement – over centuries – of generations of Africans in the lands across the Atlantic. Further, your conclusion that it is “historically false…to claim that it was white people (who) perpetrated slavery” is clearly not justified in my opinion by the facts or logic you have offered and is certainly contradicted by history.

    .

    Of course, white people in the Americas and Europe perpetrated slavery. In addition, they “perfected” it in the chattel-property form of slavery and then perpetuated slavery for centuries, in some cases, after Africans participated in the capture of fellow Africans (“enemy combatants,” in some cases) on The Continent. To argue otherwise and to minimize white people’s role and accountability because others were complicit in the trade in human beings is a giant over-reach of logic and facts.

    .

    By analogy, because some Poles and some Czech’s were complicit in betraying Jews in hiding to the German Nazi’s does not make it “historically false” that German Nazis perpetrated genocide. Nor does is lessen the responsibility or accountability of Nazis or Germans of that era in the atrocities of the European Holocaust. Had you said “white people did not perpetuate slavery ALONE” you would, at least, have had the benefit of historical accuracy, even if it implied a larger role for others than is reflected in the historical record.

    .

    (Note that I have purposefully not dealt with the issue or reparations.)

    .

    Although there are other aspects of your original article that I find objectionable, I will, for now, rest my case on this issue and await your rebuttal.

  7. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    Damani,

    Thanks for coming back and explaining why you were interested in my use of the terms "captive" and "slave."

    I would assert that since the principal operational aspect of slavery per se is forced labor, a captive did not become a slave until they were put to work.

    I couldn't disagree more, Damani.

    You're entitled to your use of words the way you like, of course. But your usage here is unique. Slavery has always been defined as being a condition of bondage, in which one is deprived of liberty.

    Merriam-Webster, for instance, defines a slave as "a person held in servitude as the chattel of another." This definition does not depend at all on the purpose of enslavement, even if free labor is almost invariably the goal.

    I'm quite certain that the roughly 12 million Africans who were captured in warfare or raids to be taken to the coast and sold as slaves would have dated their enslavement to the point of their capture, and not to the time, many months later, when they began to work.

    Looking at this differently, are my ancestors not guilty of slave-trading, because those Africans they transported across the Middle Passage did not become slaves until they were put to work in the New World?

    What disturbs me is that I can't imagine anyone would ever make this argument, or use it to suggest that the (white) slave traders were not complicit in slavery. Is there any explanation for this, other than a desire to minimize African complicity in this dreadful history?

    . . . it is inappropriate and misleading to say . . .

    Only, of course, if one buys your definition that one can only be a slave when actually put to work.

    Otherwise, all of these statements make perfect sense and are historically accurate.

    By your logic, however, it was always inappropriate to speak of the "slave trade," because those 12 million Africans were not yet slaves.

    Has it always been wrong for us to speak of slaves in the holds of ships crossing the Middle Passage?

    Why does such an argument only come up when the role of Africans in this dreadful business is raised?

    both you and Dr. Gates argue or at least imply that culpability for the ENSLAVEMENT of Africans is to be equally shared by Europeans and Africans.

    No, we both contend that Europeans and Africans (and Americans) share culpability for the enslavement of Africans. We do not imply in any way that culpability is shared equally.

    So, to say, as you assert, “The reality is that nearly all who were sent across the Atlantic in chains were enslaved by Africans.” is misleading in the particular context central to Dr. Gates argument and yours.

    It isn't misleading at all, and nothing you have said has challenged what either of us has written.

    Except, of course, that you want to re-define "slavery" so that the seizing of millions of people into bondage, and their use and sale as chattel, by African societies doesn't count as "slavery."

    Whatever word you wish to use, this was a monstrous crime, or more precisely, an integral part of a much larger, monstrous crime which extended and was magnified across centuries (mostly by white people, of course) and reverberates powerfully to this day.

    How, exactly, you believe you have managed to minimize the role of any one group in this crime with your efforts to redefine "slavery" is beyond me.

    Here it seems to me that you have shifted responsibility for “enslavement” from the actual enslavers, almost exclusively white, to others involved in the capture of Africans, but who were not directly involved in the enslavement – over centuries – of generations of Africans in the lands across the Atlantic.

    You raise an important issue here, that most of the attention should be focused on the events of those centuries.

    However, you seem to think you've scored an important point with your rhetorical move in saying that Africans were not "directly involved" in slavery, while the "actual enslavers" were "almost exclusively white."

    Leaving aside your unique use of the words "slavery" and "enslavement," what do you think you've said to refute what Gates and I have said, that Africans, too, were complicit in this history?

    What piece of history do you actually contest we have gotten wrong?

    And why do you believe that either of us is trying to shift responsibility from those who were responsible for those many centuries, merely by pointing to a role played by others? That seems to be what's motivating you here, and it's just not what either of us intends, nor does it follow from what we've written.

    because some Poles and some Czech’s were complicit in betraying Jews in hiding to the German Nazi’s does not make it “historically false” that German Nazis perpetrated genocide.

    This analogy, while well-intended, is false.

    African societies weren't occupied by Europeans and forced to participate in the slave trade, with a few collaborators willing to cooperate in exchange for favored treatment.

    African societies during the slave trade were fully sovereign and chose freely to participate in slavery as an economic activity, for profit, on a massive scale. The only coercion employed by white people was to offer valuable goods in trade.

    European and American slave traders were technologically more advanced, were richer and better organized, but they could not make life miserable for anyone in Africa if they weren't offered slaves for sale. (Colonization changed European influence over African societies, of course, but it came later, after the slave trade.)

    Nor does is lessen the responsibility or accountability of Nazis or Germans of that era in the atrocities of the European Holocaust.

    I need to repeat this, since I suspect it's a central issue here:

    No one here is trying to lessen the responsibility or accountability of anyone for the transatlantic slave trade or slavery in the Americas.

    Had you said “white people did not perpetuate slavery ALONE” you would, at least, have had the benefit of historical accuracy ….

    That's exactly what I was saying, Damani.

    I'm sorry if you got the impression that I was suggesting white people weren't involved in perpetrating slavery. Perhaps my words weren't clear enough, but I fully acknowledged the role of white people in slavery and the slave trade, and I even quoted Gates approvingly as saying that it was "white people and black people" who committed these acts historically.

    I was merely pointing out that it is a-historical, and counterproductive, to speak of this history as being carried out by "white people," as if those responsible were exclusively white.

  8. Damani Says:

    Well, James, you say that “slavery” has nothing to do with labor and yet the definition you quote says that “servitude” is a key element. WHO SAYS that slavery “does not depend at all on the purpose of enslavement, even if free labor is almost invariably the goal.”? “At all??” “Almost invariably”?!? In some times and some places, enslavement might have had other goals, but not in the instant case we are discussing. Agreed? So, that particular distinction is one that makes no difference.

    .

    Am I using a “unique” definition of slavery, which includes servitude and servitude is labor? Or does the definition from Dictionary.com apply:

    .

    ser•vi•tude

    1.

    slavery or bondage of any kind: political or intellectual servitude.

    2.

    compulsory service or labor as a punishment for criminals: penal servitude.

    .

    In addition, I am pleased to quote, at length, an expert on the subject of the difference between captive and slave, which seems to be exactly what I am saying with my, as you call it, “unique” definition:

    .

    “In other words, the use of the word “captive” suggests a focus specifically on the original act of taking the person as a slave, or for the purpose of later treating them as a slave.

    .

    “In my mind, using the word “captive” periodically, when appropriate, is also humanizing. It reminds us that these were human beings who were enslaved; the condition of enslavement did not define them. “Captive” strongly implies someone who was free an instant before, and any of us could become captives, too, at any moment.

    .

    “'Captive’ also reminds us that those who were captured (rather than being born into slavery) were free people who had no more right to be seized than anyone else, and that their status as slaves became determined only after that point, by the conscious acts of other individuals. Constantly using the word “slave,” by contrast, can sometimes let people slip into thinking of slavery almost as a natural or inevitable condition, or one which was not contingent upon assertions of power by others.”

    .

    That's what you said that sounds mighty close to my "unique" definition.

    .

    But definitions aside, it is clear that African captives were intended and bound for slavery by human traffickers, so, yes, the DeWolf’s were engaged in the slave-trade by any definition. You will notice that I did not mention the term “slave trade” as a point of contention.

    .

    But, James, we do have some house keeping to take care of. In my response, I quoted YOUR statement:

    .

    “…Why should those who played no part in the history of slavery be held accountable for it? The easy answer, but one which is historically false, is to claim that it was white people perpetrated slavery and must now be held accountable for it."

    .

    And your response is: “I’m sorry if you got the impression that I was suggesting white people weren’t involved in perpetrating slavery.”

    .

    I certainly did get that impression because that is EXACTLY what you said. Now, as expected, you clarify, but just as you seem to think I am somehow minimizing the role of Africans, I come away with the distinct impression that you and Gates are trying to temporize the slave-traders culpability. To satisfy your concern, it is clear to me that Africans were involved in the European slave-trade and some, no doubt, got greedy and fat off of the imposed misfortune and suffering of others. That part of the equation was never in dispute, but your statement I quoted above overshadowed it for me.

    .

    Your vague allusion to technological superiority is, I suppose, a reference in part to the guns with which European traders kept any resistance to the slave-trade in check. Are you aware of those episodes of resistance by African elites? Neither you nor Gates saw fit to mention them – unless I am mistaken. If I am, please point me to the reference.

    .

    Re: your: ‘Leaving aside your unique use of the words “slavery” and “enslavement,” what do you think you’ve said to refute what Gates and I have said, that Africans, too, were complicit in this history?’

    .

    It’s akin to asking me, “Aside from Mars being closer to the Sun, why are you saying it is hotter than Earth?” My contention, again, is not that Africans were not involved; they were. My reaction is to what I perceive as, despite your response, an impression being left that the culpability is equal between Europeans/Americans and Africans.

    .

    Your critique of my Nazi analogy widely misses the point. Given that no analogy is perfect, the salient point is that any or many Czechs’ involvement did not make the Nazis any less guilty of genocide, whether the country was occupied or not.

    .

    You say: “Has it always been wrong for us to speak of slaves in the holds of ships crossing the Middle Passage?”

    .

    Yes, for the same reason you so eloquently spoke of the “humanizing” effect of using the word “captive.” Those were Africans in the holds of those ships and after they arrived they were enslaved. Are you unaware of the effort amongst some scholars and activists to make this distinction and to re-assert the African identity of Black people in the Diaspora?

    .

    This does not deny that there was a slave-trade or slave-traders, but it does emphasize that Africans are humans and not just objects/property in a hideous and vicious American/European enterprise. Nor does it deny shameful complicity by other Africans.

  9. Damani Says:

    Incidentally, James, in my Nazi analogy, I could have, and should have, used the example of the Jews who collaborated with the Nazis. That's a better parallel.

  10. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    James, you say that “slavery” has nothing to do with labor and yet the definition you quote says that “servitude” is a key element.

    Damani, "servitude" is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a condition in which one lacks liberty especially to determine one's course of action or way of life." It doesn't imply that labor is involved.

    And I didn't say that slavery has nothing to do with labor. I said that it doesn't have to, and that by any reasonable definition, a person can be enslaved before being put to labor, merely by having their liberty taken away and by being treated as chattel.

    WHO SAYS that slavery “does not depend at all on the purpose of enslavement, even if free labor is almost invariably the goal.”?

    Well, Merriam-Webster, for one.

    In some times and some places, enslavement might have had other goals, but not in the instant case we are discussing. Agreed?

    Agreed. The issue, however, isn't the purpose of the slave trade, but your claim that the people caught up in it weren't slaves after they were captured and sold, but only once they began laboring in the New World. This simply doesn't meet the dictionary definition of slavery, or how historians describe these events.

    Am I using a “unique” definition of slavery, which includes servitude and servitude is labor? Or does the definition from Dictionary.com apply

    That's a perfectly good dictionary and set of definitions for "slavery."

    But you're actually quoting two definitions for "slavery" from that source: one is the sense in which we're using the word here, and doesn't include labor at all. The other definition includes compulsory labor, but is limited to referring only to punishment given to criminals.

    That’s what you said that sounds mighty close to my “unique” definition.

    My words don't suggest, in any way, that Africans taken captive for the slave trade weren't slaves from the outset. In fact, in the passage you quote, I specifically say that the act of taking the person captive makes them a slave.

    it is clear that African captives were intended and bound for slavery by human traffickers, so, yes, the DeWolf’s were engaged in the slave-trade by any definition.

    All right … so those weren't "slaves" yet, but it was still the "slave trade," because the people being bought, sold, and transported were intended to become slaves in the New World? I can respect that this is consistent.

    In that case, by your usage of the terms, those African societies weren't holding and selling "slaves," but they were engaged in the "slave trade," right? So they're complicit in the slave trade, but not, in your view, in slavery?

    I certainly did get that impression because that is EXACTLY what you said.

    I used those words, yes, but in a context that made perfectly clear I wasn't saying that white people weren't involved. In fact, just the opposite: I was saying that the reality was that white and black people did it.

    I come away with the distinct impression that you and Gates are trying to temporize the slave-traders culpability.

    Well, again, I'm sorry for the confusion. But neither of us actually said that, nor can anything we said be used to make that argument.

    Nor do either of us believe in minimizing, in any way, the role of white people in slavery or the slave trade.

    it is clear to me that Africans were involved in the European slave-trade and some, no doubt, got greedy and fat off of the imposed misfortune and suffering of others.

    You see, this is exactly what I mean when I say that you're minimizing the African role in the slave trade — while Gates and I are not minimizing anyone's role.

    You twist the history and say that "some" Africans "got" greedy and rich from the trade. In fact, entire African societies profited enormously from the trade, and they didn't "get greedy" and profit along the way: they chose to participate from the outset, for economic reasons, and continued all the way through to the end.

    Meanwhile, Gates and I have said, and continue to say, that complicity in slavery and the slave trade in this country, among white people, was widespread, and extended to virtually everyone in society at the time.

    Isn't this a clear difference in our willingness to acknowledge the past, and yours?

    Your vague allusion to technological superiority is, I suppose, a reference in part to the guns with which European traders kept any resistance to the slave-trade in check.

    European and American traders hardly ever used guns to keep the slave trade going. They had virtually no ability to force African societies to engage in the trade, or to continue participating. This is part of the standard account of the transatlantic slave trade in Africa.

    Are you aware of those episodes of resistance by African elites?

    How, exactly, would African elites have "resisted" the trade they themselves were engaged in? As I mentioned, no one was forcing them to participate.

    Do you mean to suggest that elites in African societies would occasionally disagree over whether to continue trading in slaves? Or would occasionally agree not to continue? How often, exactly, do you think that European nations were able to force an African society to continue in the trade when it didn't want to?

    I'm not trying to imply that no one in these societies ever disapproved of the slave trade, or ever spoke out or acted to try to stop it. The same is true of European and American societies, of course, and in all of these cases, resisters were generally quite few in number.

    My reaction is to what I perceive as, despite your response, an impression being left that the culpability is equal between Europeans/Americans and Africans.

    Then let's focus on that, and not on what word to use to describe those taken in the slave trade at each stage.

    Neither Gates nor I has said anything about how to weigh the culpability of Europeans, Americans, and Africans in the slave trade, beyond noting that all played major parts in it.

    We have implied, and perhaps this is the impression you're referring to, that it would be a futile exercise to try to weigh relative degrees of culpability of historical figures long dead, and that such an exercise would hardly matter, in any case, for assessing the legacy of slavery in the U.S. today, or what to do about the reparations question.

    Your critique of my Nazi analogy widely misses the point. Given that no analogy is perfect, the salient point is that any or many Czechs’ involvement did not make the Nazis any less guilty of genocide, whether the country was occupied or not.

    If that's all you're trying to get at with that analogy, then there was no need for an analogy at all.

    For no one involved here–not me, or you, or Professor Gates–is saying that the historical complicity of any person or group makes the complicity of any other any less.

    Are you unaware of the effort amongst some scholars and activists to make this distinction and to re-assert the African identity of Black people in the Diaspora?

    Actually, Damani, I'm a part of the effort, as you might have gathered, to change language to humanize and to re-assert the identity of those who were enslaved, so that they are not seen simply as objects but as human beings. And that includes emphasizing that those who were transported across the Middle Passage were Africans, and in most cases remained Africans, in every sense of the word, until the end of their days.

    However, that doesn't mean that any of us involved in this effort, aside from you, claims that those Africans who were transported across the Middle Passage weren't "enslaved" until they reached the Americas. That's a separate issue from the terminological one of whether to avoid simply calling them slaves, and to use terms like "enslaved" or (where appropriate) "captive."

    Are there others like you who believe this? Can you point me to anyone else, so that I can learn more about this effort to re-conceptualize the slave trade so that those transported are not seen as enslaved until after they reach their destinations?

  11. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    I could have, and should have, used the example of the Jews who collaborated with the Nazis. That’s a better parallel.

    Perhaps, Damani. But that's a dangerous analogy to draw, given that Jewish collaborators in the Holocaust were relatively few in number, were betraying their own people, and were under enormous pressure to do so in order to save themselves and their families.

    African societies which participated in the transatlantic slave trade did so willingly, for profit, in large numbers, and not under compulsion or to avoid a terrible fate themselves.

    (The subsequent history of the European colonization of Africa, of course, unfolded very differently.)

    In one key respect, moreover, African participation in the slave trade is actually much less disturbing than instances of Jewish collaborators in the Holocaust.

    After all, African slave traders were not betraying their own kind. They almost exclusively enslaved and sold foreigners, people from other societies, religions, and cultures. While today, in the U.S., we tend to speak of "Africans selling other Africans," in fact they no more saw themselves as betraying their own than did the white slave traders who came to African shores.

  12. Damani Says:

    James,

    Thank you for the extended dialogue. As usually happens, when statements are clarified, we find we are not as far apart as was first perceived. However, I came away from reading Gates’ and your articles with the strong feeling that the implication was an equalizing of responsibility, which – while acknowledging African complicity – I don’t believe a fair reading of the history justifies.

    “Neither Gates nor I has said anything about how to weigh the culpability of Europeans, Americans, and Africans in the slave trade, beyond noting that all played major parts in it.”

    Gates says and you associate yourself with his remarks (emphasis added with caps):

    ‘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. [NOTE: In actuality, ROOTS showed Kunta Kinte being captured by Blacks under the supervision of whites, so Gates is incorrect on this example of how it was portrayed.]

    ‘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.” ’ [NOTE: On our other point of discussion, I am pleased to associate myself with Douglass’ terminology.]

    Speaking of Obama, Gates says: “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.”

    My concern for the implication of equal culpability was raised initially by Gates and was further intensified by your statement, clarified – but not corrected or explained how it means the opposite of what it says: “…Why should those who played no part in the history of slavery be held accountable for it? The easy answer, but one which is HISTORICALLY FALSE, IS TO CLAIM THAT IT WAS WHITE PEOPLE PERPETRATED SLAVERY and must now be held accountable for it."

    At many points, Gates or you could have taken the occasion to assess the relative culpability of Africans and Europeans in the slave trade or slavery in America. But neither of you chose to do so. This was your choice, but I am not the only one who inferred from his writing that the shared culpability was equal. This is more so the case re; Gates because his article was about reparations not solely for the trade but in regard to slavery itself. But nowhere does he put the issue of reparations in the context of the perpetuation of chattel slavery. Here’s what I wrote, though unpublished, in response to the New York Times prior to our interchange:

    “During the period in question, the African empires, as did ALL empires, had prisoners of war as one of the spoils of war. Unfortunately, for the African captives enslaved by Europeans, the African empires were offered a "market" for these spoils; spoils who were their enemies. This provided a convenient and profitable way to get rid of the spoils by selling them. European capitalists found a way to monetize what had been more a by-product than a fundamental objective of war.

    “Alternatively, and previous to European arrival and the “arms race” they promoted and profited from, the tradition had been that captives were made to work as part of the new communities to which they were taken, but they were not treated as chattel as they were by Europeans. They married into families in their new communities and were ultimately more or less integrated into society. Gates uses "captive" and "slave" interchangeably although, despite war being hell, they are not the same thing.

    “That is a distinction that does make a difference – both in the lives of the captives and in telling the history of the period. Did African elites get greedy? I am sure they did and I am sure, too, that they took advantage of "the market" to enrich themselves.

    “Are African elites to blame? Yes, to a degree. In a court of law assessing proportional liability, however, their share of blame would be substantially less than those who, as part of the European Slave Trade, enslaved the captives, threw them overboard to the sharks, tortured them, worked them to death, raped the women and girls, treated them worse than cattle and, later freed them, without so much as an apology – with no compensation, not even a mule.”

    The above would be my partial response to your:

    “We have implied, and perhaps this is the impression you’re referring to, that it would be a futile exercise to try to weigh relative degrees of culpability of historical figures long dead, and that such an exercise would hardly matter, in any case, for assessing the legacy of slavery in the U.S. today, or what to do about the reparations question.”

    We disagree on this fundamentally. The relative share of culpability has everything to do with what, if anything, “to do about the reparations question” – at least in theory. For example, if history showed that the Americans/Europeans’ role was to be “complicit” in, say, the genocide in Rwanda, one could not justify demanding – even theoretically – that they be held equally responsible for reparations that might be considered. If someone were discuss the Rwandan genocide and imply that western nations were equally guilty, they would be far off-base, IMO.

    My assessment of the practicality and likelihood of reparations mirrors that of President Obama as quoted in the Remmick book and cited by Gates. However, I am not advocating reparations. I am questioning what comes across to me as a shifting of the predominant culpability for slavery itself. Here is where, IMO, the shifting makes the mistake of acting as if the slave-trade is the primary concern for those advocating reparations. To put a fine point on it, the argument for reparations does not pivot exclusively on the origins of American slavery, but more so, to borrow some famous language, on the “long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object (which) evinces a design to reduce (Africans) under absolute Despotism” – and in which Africans on The Continent had no role.

    I will seek your assistance, James, in justifying Gates’ contention that African elites were aware of the monstrosity of the European Slave Trade and slavery across the Atlantic because, he says, of the repatriation of "thousands" of new world Africans who returned to Sierra Leone and Liberia. How Dr. Gates projects that the tales of horror of a few formerly enslaved African returnees – ASSUMING* they spoke of it, which he seems to do without citing evidence – reached the elites in Ghana, Nigeria, Kongo and Angola, hundreds or thousands of miles away, is unclear to me. In fact, it is reported that around the time that formerly enslaved Africans repatriated to Sierra Leone in the late 1700’s, slave-trading had considerably diminished in that region.

    By the time that repatriation (“colonization”) to Liberia was getting underway in the US in the 1800's, the slave trade was already in great decline and, as Gates himself points out, the slave trade had been outlawed, though not eliminated, in 1807.

    “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.”

    Gates argument on this point is completely unconvincing and perhaps, without evidence, it could even be argued that it WAS tales of horror that contributed to a “greatly reduced” African role in the slave-trade. I am stretching that point purely to seek corroboration of Gates’ initial claims.

    I will sign off, for now, by asking you to point out any critical point of yours that you feel I have not addressed.

    Again, thank you for the dialogue.

    I will respond later on to your most recent comments re: the Nazi analogy.

    *We do know that many victims of trauma do not speak of it because it is too painful.

  13. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    Thank you for the extended dialogue. As usually happens, when statements are clarified, we find we are not as far apart as was first perceived.

    Thanks for your patience with the process, Damani. I do think this is the benefit of engaging in dialogue with those who don't seem, at first, to share our views. We all learn, and we often find we aren't that far apart, or can at least draw a little closer.

    I came away from reading Gates’ and your articles with the strong feeling that the implication was an equalizing of responsibility

    I can appreciate that, and I hope that upon reflection, you understand that this wasn't stated or implied in what either of us wrote.

    Gates says and you associate yourself with his remarks (emphasis added with caps):

    I'm not sure what you're getting at by quoting this passage. You emphasize only his remark that slavery was "highly organized and lucrative" for Europeans and Africans "ALIKE." This is a statement that the African role in the trade, like the European or American role, was not haphazard but was carefully planned, intricate, and profitable. This is true, and even the most superficial discussion of the African role in the slave trade will indicate as much. It says nothing about relative degrees of responsibility for participation in the trade.

    In actuality, ROOTS showed Kunta Kinte being captured by Blacks under the supervision of whites, so Gates is incorrect on this example of how it was portrayed.

    Thanks, Damani. I have often heard that "Roots" showed Kunta Kinte being captured by whites, and apparently Gates had that impression, as well. It's good to hear that the scene actually showed Africans capturing him under the supervision of whites, although of course this is not historically accurate, either, and is misleading in much the same way.

    On our other point of discussion, I am pleased to associate myself with Douglass’ terminology.

    Yes, and as you know from our discussion above, I use his terminology whenever possible, too. Douglass, however, did not believe that those Africans were not also slaves from the moment they were captured, and he often said as much.

    You later quote Gates as saying that white and black people were:

    complicit ALIKE in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization

    I don't understand this language as suggesting that they were equally complicit, merely that they were both complicit, together in the same enterprise. The dictionary definition of "alike" would certainly support either meaning, but it wouldn't occur to me to think that this particular construction says anything about being equally complicit.

    You can think of this, if you like, as the difference between one complicity being "like" the other, and one complicity being "equal to" or "the same as" the other.

    your statement, clarified – but not corrected or explained how it means the opposite of what it says

    My statement does not mean the opposite of what it says. It is, as I said, "historically false" to claim that white people are responsible for slavery because "white people perpetuated slavery." People, white and black, perpetuated slavery.

    By your logic, it would be wrong to say that it's historically false that "black people perpetuated slavery," in the sense that it was black people alone who did so.

    Would it not be wildly misleading, at best, to argue that black people were responsible for the transatlantic slave trade, when in fact white people were involved, too, and in fact played a substantial and essential role?

    At many points, Gates or you could have taken the occasion to assess the relative culpability of Africans and Europeans in the slave trade or slavery in America. But neither of you chose to do so.

    That's quite true. And you will not find me spending a lot of time trying to assess the relative moral culpability of any individual or group for slavery and the slave trade … much less trying to group those individuals or groups into races and coming up with cumulative totals for each race.

    This is especially true when the subject is reparations, or more broadly, the legacy of this history today. For this topic, the historical responsibility of particular individuals long dead isn't especially relevant. No one from the past will ever be held accountable for their actions now. Any accountability today has to be on the basis of, for instance, who continues to benefit from this history.

    If you are interested in assessing the relative moral responsibility of historical individuals for slavery and the slave trade, please be my guest. But Gates was focused on the contemporary reparations debate, which he clearly believes will not proceed on the basis of assigning moral responsibility to the dead.

    During the period in question, the African empires, as did ALL empires, had prisoners of war as one of the spoils of war.

    This is technically true, but misleading.

    In fact, as I'm sure you know, during the period of the transatlantic slave trade, African societies participating in the trade frequently sought to wage war for the precise purpose of taking captives and selling them into slavery.

    the tradition had been that captives were made to work as part of the new communities to which they were taken, but they were not treated as chattel as they were by Europeans.

    This is a common misconception, or perhaps a way of deliberately minimizing the African role.

    In fact, African societies varied widely in their practice of slavery. In some cases, slaves were treated much like chattel, while in other cases, they were not. The same was true, of course, in European societies, prior to the transatlantic slave trade.

    Did African elites get greedy? I am sure they did and I am sure, too, that they took advantage of “the market” to enrich themselves.

    As I've pointed out, it wasn't African elites who participated and profited. It was virtually everyone in those societies. (And, yes, much like my statement about whites perpetuating slavery, I don't mean to exclude African elites, just to point out that it's wrong to say that they participated, as if they were essentially the only ones.)

    We disagree on this fundamentally. The relative share of culpability has everything to do with what, if anything, “to do about the reparations question” – at least in theory.

    We do disagree. I don't see how one could possibly point to historical figures, assess relative responsibility for historical events … and then hold other parties, far in the future, responsible for making good on their actions. This is why I don't see the relevance of your Rwanda analogy, for example.

    If someone were discuss the Rwandan genocide and imply that western nations were equally guilty, they would be far off-base, IMO.

    I think you mean to suggest that distant nations without any direct or obvious responsibility for affairs in Rwanda might bear some culpability for not stopping a genocide, but nowhere near as much as those who actually perpetrated the genocide.

    I would agree, but I don't see that as a good analogy for slavery and the slave trade. In that case, African societies knowingly and willfully participated in enslaving millions and selling them to strangers to live in conditions which, at best, they didn't know and, as Gates would argue, which they had every opportunity to know were barbaric.

    The better analogy, therefore, might be if European nations had sold Rwandan leaders equipment for carrying out genocide, knowing roughly what it would be used for, but not knowing all the details, or how far the genocide would go, or otherwise foreseeing the magnitude of the consequences.

    Please note that I'm not saying African societies necessarily bore equal responsibility for what happened. Quite the contrary. I'm merely suggesting they bore more responsibility than if they had merely failed to intervene when they learned European nations were engaging in chattel slavery on their own.

    I am questioning what comes across to me as a shifting of the predominant culpability for slavery itself. Here is where, IMO, the shifting makes the mistake of acting as if the slave-trade is the primary concern for those advocating reparations.

    This strikes me as a very fair concern.

    I would not want it suggested that I, or Gates, is arguing that the predominant culpability for slavery or the slave trade be assigned to African societies. Or that we should consider the slave trade predominantly when assessing the harm which leads to claims for reparations.

    However, in response to what Gates wrote, some people have begun to argue that the slave trade itself was barely relevant. Historically, that's not usually how people have talked (believe me, as a descendant of the nation's most infamous slave traders, I would know). I would not see us want to downplay the slave trade as a part of the overall system of slavery, abuse and discrimination at issue here, merely because some of the players in the slave trade were African.

    the argument for reparations does not pivot exclusively on the origins of American slavery, but more so, to borrow some famous language, on the “long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object (which) evinces a design to reduce (Africans) under absolute Despotism”

    Very well said, Damani.

    How Dr. Gates projects that the tales of horror of a few formerly enslaved African returnees … reached the elites in Ghana, Nigeria, Kongo and Angola, hundreds or thousands of miles away, is unclear to me.

    As you'll recall, he cited not only the migration of thousands of formerly enslaved Africans (and persons of African descent), but also the travels of elites and others from a variety of African societies up and down the coast. I assumed his reference to those who went to Liberia and Sierra Leone was a comparatively minor example in his argument about how knowledge must have reached African slave-trading societies.

    I'm also not convinced that this was the strongest part of Professor Gates' argument, but perhaps this simply reflects my own relative lack of knowledge concerning the pathways by which knowledge of the New World would have traveled back to these societies. I'm not too worried about it, though, because I don't see that it's particularly relevant to the case for culpability. As you've suggested, these African societies were not especially responsible for exactly what happened to enslaved Africans initially, much less to their descendants over the coming centuries. Their responsibility is primarily for what they did themselves, and for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of selling human beings, as chattel, to others to be transported across an ocean into bondage.

  14. Damani Says:

    No, James, I won’t shy away from a “dangerous” analogy. What happened, happened – in all of its ugliness, including complicity of Africans.

    .

    Since I:

    – already referred to “enemy combatants” and

    – have referred to prisoners of empires’ wars and given that I

    – am aware of the apologies of Traditional Chiefs from West Africa coming to the US and, with solemn ceremony, apologizing in, I think, the 1980’s, for their forebears complicity in the slave-trade,

    .

    your comment about the differences in my Nazi analogy does not bother me. In other words, I am already aware that victims of “slave-catchers” were usually “foreigners” or enemies. Strangely, however, while you mention, in rebuttal to me, that Africans “were not betraying their own,” neither you nor Gates found it important to make that very salient distinction in arguing about culpability for the slave-trade. Now, suddenly, “in fact they no more saw themselves as betraying their OWN than did the white slave traders who came to African shores.”

    .

    Had Gates OR you made such a point at the outset, it would have given a different thrust to the case being made for African complicity and Gates dismissal as “excuses” the rationales that he said are sometimes offered to explain it. In fact, quite to the opposite implication, you plainly said, “One problem for many African Americans, in particular, is that it is always difficult to acknowledge that one’s OWN people were complicit in wrongdoing.”

    .

    THAT would have been an excellent time to relieve African-Americans from that feeling by pointing out, as you belatedly did to me in order to make a different point, that it wasn’t “one’s own people” in the historical context.

    .

    And perhaps, in terms of being "less disturbing," Jews who collaborated might have protected those who were of their same temple, or who were "observant" vs. atheistic or some other distinguishing characteristic which helped them rationalize what they were doing.

  15. Damani Says:

    On the knowledge of Elites, Gates entire case is:

    "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."

    I will admit to ignorance on the travels of African royalty and ambassadors on slave ships and would appreciate citations, but…

    .

    I am skeptical when the other element of the supposed two-way street seems to fly in the face of the timeline and, in any case, seems improbable TO ME for a number of reasons, which I have cited.

  16. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    James, I won’t shy away from a “dangerous” analogy. What happened, happened – in all of its ugliness ….

    I didn't mean to imply that you shouldn't make analogies regarding ugly history. Merely that the analogy doesn't hold in ways which I think are critical to the issue you're discussing, and how we evaluate the two groups of people is–and ought to be–very different.

    your comment about the differences in my Nazi analogy does not bother me. In other words, I am already aware that victims of “slave-catchers” were usually “foreigners” or enemies.

    Then I'm not sure what is still parallel in the two situations, or what we can learn from comparing them.

    while you mention, in rebuttal to me, that Africans “were not betraying their own,” neither you nor Gates found it important to make that very salient distinction in arguing about culpability for the slave-trade

    Why is that relevant to what we were saying? In fact, in respect of what, exactly, do you think it constitutes a "salient distinction"? Europeans and Americans, the two other groups discussed by Gates (and me) were similarly dealing with those they considered to be outsiders, or "the other." So the various groups with culpability in slavery and the slave trade were all dealing with those they considered to be the "other," which is the norm when talking about slavery.

    Now, suddenly, “in fact they no more saw themselves as betraying their OWN than did the white slave traders who came to African shores.”

    Neither Gates nor I ever suggested that these Africans saw themselves as betraying their own.

    Where do you get this? Was it merely the mention that black people were complicit in the slave trade that implied, to you, that it was one group enslaving its own? Because I've always seen this history as showing precisely the opposite, that while white and black people were united in carrying out this business, none of them were ever engaged in slavery with respect to those they considered part of their own group.

    Had Gates OR you made such a point at the outset, it would have given a different thrust to the case being made for African complicity ….

    How? How would discussion of the complicity of African societies in the slave trade have been any different if this point had been mentioned? Did their complicity depend, to you, on whether they saw those they enslaved as members of an in-group or an out-group?

    In fact, quite to the opposite implication, you plainly said, “One problem for many African Americans, in particular, is that it is always difficult to acknowledge that one’s OWN people were complicit in wrongdoing.”

    I did say that, and I don't see a contradiction. Many African Americans are quite outspoken in identifying with the Africans who participated in the slave trade, on the basis of race and common African heritage. For people who have this perspective, then, this does amount to acknowledging that members of an in-group, that is, "one's own people," were involved.

    Now, if you've seen my blog (here), you know that I don't think this way, not even remotely, and I wasn't endorsing such thinking in this essay. I was simply noting that this is a difficulty for those who think in terms of race or ancestral origin in this way.

    THAT would have been an excellent time to relieve African-Americans from that feeling by pointing out, as you belatedly did to me in order to make a different point, that it wasn’t “one’s own people” in the historical context.

    I don't happen to believe that it was "one's own people" at all, regardless of how they saw those they were enslaving.

    But for those who might be inclined to say that the Africans involved in the trade were of their own people, then it hardly matters how they viewed their victims, now does it? Whether they saw themselves as enslaving others like them, or foreigners, doesn't change whether or not someone in the U.S. today should believe they are "one of their own" or not.

    Jews who collaborated might have protected those who were of their same temple, or who were “observant” vs. atheistic or some other distinguishing characteristic which helped them rationalize what they were doing.

    They might have, yes, and in that case, the analogy would be a closer one in that regard.

  17. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    I am skeptical when the other element of the supposed two-way street seems to fly in the face of the timeline and, in any case, seems improbable TO ME for a number of reasons, which I have cited.

    I understand your skepticism about the last set of examples that Gates provided for this particular issue, regarding Sierra Leone and Liberia. I don't think that's a particularly compelling argument, as I've indicated.

    However, I don't think we can judge the strength of his claim regarding African knowledge about New World slavery on that basis. Most of his evidence falls into the category of African royalty, emissaries, and elite children and adults, on which neither you nor I claim any particular knowledge.

    I am content to repeat that this argument doesn't strike me as particularly strong, but that I can't judge the historical evidence, and in any case it seems to me irrelevant to the issue of whether these societies were complicit in slavery and the slave trade. It would be helpful in weighing precise calculations of relative moral complicity, but I believe that to be a fool's errand and, in any event, not helpful in talking about reparations for slavery today.

  18. Damani Says:

    James, I guess we’ll soon find out which of us wears out first, huh?

    .

    What you say about ALIKE might be true for the first example I cited, but I believe you’d have to agree that when “complicit” and “alike” are next to each other in a sentence, a reasonable conclusion is that the complicity is roughly equal. So, again:

    .

    ‘Speaking of Obama, Gates says: “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.” ’

    .

    Had this been in isolation, I would not have objected. However, I see it as part of a larger emphasis in Gates’ article which appears to attempt to lessen the responsibility of Americans/Europeans, BY increasing the responsibility of Africans. Therefore, the result is “complicit alike.”

    .

    Your use of “complicit,” on the other hand, conveys to me, and I might be wrong, a lesser role in an enterprise primarily organized by others as you mentioned in response to my “faulty” Rwanda analogy. But Gates, in my view, implies an equivalency furthered by his framing of “excuses” which he then dismisses in classic Straw Man style.

    See you later.

  19. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    I believe you’d have to agree that when “complicit” and “alike” are next to each other in a sentence, a reasonable conclusion is that the complicity is roughly equal.

    No, as I said before, I really don't. This fits with the dictionary definitions of the terms, and in this case, the usage is such that it never occurred to me that someone would read his sentence to mean that he was weighing relative degrees of complicity and finding them equal. In fact, I dare say the context makes it abundantly clear that he was merely asserting that both white and black people were involved in the trade, and was arguing that it would be no small matter to determine relative culpability.

    I see it as part of a larger emphasis in Gates’ article which appears to attempt to lessen the responsibility of Americans/Europeans, BY increasing the responsibility of Africans.

    This has seemed to be your attitude all along, and I genuinely respect it.

    However, in my view, there's simply no way that pointing out a role played by one group of people can lessen another group's responsibility for their own actions. And Gates has made comments which suggest that he very much agrees.

    You can believe that acknowledging the responsibility of Africans somehow lessens the responsibility of other peoples, in Europe and the Americas. But let's please not infer that Gates must have intended this, or believes it to be possible.

    … an enterprise primarily organized by others … Gates, in my view, implies an equivalency ….

    How does it matter whether, or to what degree, the transatlantic slave trade was "organized" by white or black traders? How much of the organization was carried out by those who plied the ocean with slave ships, and those who carried out wars and raids, and brought captives hundreds or thousands of miles to be sold at the coast?

    You seem to be suggesting that if Gates believes the African role involved more organizing work, then somehow the moral responsibility for this history falls more on long-dead Africans, and less on long-dead Europeans and Americans.

    You may believe this, but again, I'm not sure it's fair to infer this sort of reasoning to Gates. He has written an essay in which he argues that it's important to acknowledge the African role in this history. That doesn't mean he seeks to imply a moral equivalency, or even to judge among the various players in this history at all.

    … furthered by his framing of “excuses” which he then dismisses in classic Straw Man style.

    As I indicated in my own essay, I believe that the excuses which Gates mentions are common ones when this topic is raised. Indeed, we've seen each of these excuses raises, again and again, in the last three weeks in response to the publication of his essay.

    As for how he dismisses them, he obviously had to do so quite quickly, in an op-ed piece. But each of these excuses is entirely without merit, and his essay did an excellent job, given the space limitation, of summarizing why they are far off the mark.

  20. Pamela Montanaro Says:

    I have read most of the exchange above with great interest. I am wondering if there is a missing piece (actually hinted at here and there) that has to do with the reality that there are a great many types of disparities and oppressions in the world, today and historically.

    It seems to me that it is difficult to analyze, for example, the oppression of slavery, in the absence of an analysis of all the intersecting types of oppression that are always interacting with each other in all societies everywhere, and that were certainly operating at the time.

    I am speaking here mostly of the disparity in economic and technological wealth available to Europeans/Americans and to Africans, during the period of the transatlantic slave trade. I assume there must have been a considerable power disparity in terms of these two dimensions.

    It seems to me that whenever you have a power disparity of this nature and magnitude, it lays the groundwork for other types of oppression to ensue, with the primary guilt falling on the more economically and technologically powerful party.

    Clearly, Africans, even the elite, did not have the technology or wealth required to organize the transatlantic slave trade on their own. The initiative had to have come from those who did — the Europeans/Americans.

    A society that has, through whatever accidents of history, managed to secure a preferential position, economically and technologically, is in a powerful position to initiate types of exploitation and oppression in other nations and cultures that would not otherwise have occurred.

    The Europeans/Americans did this, in a great variety of ways, over many centuries, all over the world. And one can argue that they still do, even in their current, perhaps, relatively diminished circumstances.

    Although one can argue for the attribution of a certain amount of responsibility and guilt among the members of the encroached upon society who were complicit, it will always be the case that the primary culpability and responsibility for the entire oppressive enterprise will rest with the wealthier and more technologically "advanced" peoples, who initiated, or horrendously exacerbated whatever oppressive dynamics might have already been occurring among the peoples upon whose societies they had encroached.

    In my view, Europeans/Americans have historically, used their "advanced" technology and wealth to actively support the least humane aspects and sectors of other societies, obstruct the more humane, and to destroy the possibility of whatever natural evolution might have taken place in those societies. It seems to me there is a tremendous amount of culpability in that abuse of power on the part of Europeans/Americans that far exceeds the culpability of the most complicit members of African society.

    I would like to learn more facts in relation to these presumed disparities, if either of you can recommend a source.

    (Somewhat of a side note:)

    In terms of your Rwanda references, I cannot speak specifically to the direct complicity of Europeans/Americans in that genocide, but would like to note two issues: one, the legacy of European colonialism in Africa is arguably equal in horror to the legacy of slavery and racism in the US; two, the US is the largest arms retailer in the world, US corporations often selling arms to both sides of conflicts in nations and regions all over the planet. As the Rwanda genocide seems to have been carried out mostly with machetes, it's possible the US was not directly complicit in that case. However, a argument can certainly be made for the culpability of US corporations and the US government (that allows the sale of those arms) in many horrendous conflicts worldwide.

    This point is related to the issue above, as, absent the sophisticated weaponry sold to nations and regions involved in conflict, the level of destruction would certainly be considerably less.

    And it is even possible that the warring peoples would eventually find ways to resolve their disputes by less destructive means.

    Thank you!

  21. John Bell Says:

    James,

    I hadn't read much of this exchange until this morning, and I find your initial posting well-reasoned and its overall emphasis on universal tendencies for amnesia and denial of discordant history important to acknowledge in conversations and arguments for action about the legacy of slavery.

    I believe, however, that your follow-on to the statement "When I address audiences on the history and legacy of slavery, I will often say that slavery and the slave trade were never about race[.}" might be better understood if you addressed the larger question of self-identification and the concept of "the other."

    It seems to me that the inhumanity demonstrated by both the peoples who captured others and brought those others to the coastal forts to be sold, and those who purchased those human beings saw them as unlike themselves in fundamental ways. The fact that some of this sense of otherness was in the eyes of certain, but numerous, Europeans and European-descended individuals, links their actions to racism, and might make these indivdiduals definitionally racist. While I might respect an argument that distinguishes the relative importance of concepts of "otherness" from harmful, even odious, actions based such a concept, I believe that a dialogue about slavery and its legacy would benefit greatly by including treatment of the past and still-present sense that among humankind there was and is "I/we" and then there are those who are "the other."

  22. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    Thanks for the very thoughtful comment, John.

    I agree with you that the inhumanity of the slave trade, as with so many other examples of cruelty in human history, was made possible because of the ability of all involved to view the victims of the trade as "other."

    However, I would respectfully disagree with the idea that the fact that some of the perpetrators were European or of European descent might make their actions by definition racist.

    We know that the Africans perpetrating the slave trade saw the victims not as fellow Africans or members of the same race, but as foreigners from other societies. In a similar vein, the Europeans and other white peoples involved were not engaged in the trade because the victims were black, but because they were members of societies outside their own.

    It seems to me that racism only comes into play if those involved believed in the concept of race, saw members of another race as inherently inferior, and were acting at least in part because of that. Most historians believe that in general, none of these things were true of the transatlantic slave trade.

    Perhaps the key here is that while it is virtually inconceivable for many Americans to see this history without dividing the participants by race, those participants themselves did not perceive their world in that way. So while otherness was indeed making this human institution possible, it was not the otherness of race — despite the presence of what some of us, today, would inevitably perceive as racial divisions.

  23. John Bell Says:

    James,

    I hadn't focused on the likelihood that race is such modern construct, or at least a construct of such recent widespread cognition, that historians would not ascribe it as present in the minds of slave-traders until some closer-to-the-present date.

    I do have very limited exposure to such intellectual history, but I do think of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice who is so harshly labeled and judged and even of the Samaritan of the well-known New Testament parable as indicia of some form of close-to-racial prejudice.

    I would be interested to know something of the history of the construct of race and read some of the historians' arguments that you cite.

    John

  24. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    I wouldn't describe the concept of race as being a particularly modern construct, John. In the U.S., for example, the idea of race (and the corresponding notion of racism, defined roughly as the idea that one race is superior to another) emerged gradually in the 18th and 19th centuries, in response to the need to maintain the already well-established institution of slavery and to control free blacks.

    Roughly speaking, slave traders in the transatlantic slave trade recognized different skin tones and other features associated with ancestry, but did not think that these features, or this ancestry, could be used to divide humanity into broad categories. They certainly did not believe that such categories could be used to make generalizations about one group of people over another. Instead, both European and African slave traders tended to find ways to "other" those whom they could enslave (or purchase as slaves), primarily based on social, religious and ethnic differences.

    This last is typical of patterns of othering that go well beyond slavery and slave trading. Hence the parable of the Good Samaritan, based on the idea that in that time and place, Samaritans and Jews tended to have prejudicial stereotypes about one another. But these are not about what we could consider, today, to be racial distinctions. Instead, the constantly-shifting historical patterns of prejudice have tended to be based on ethnicity or relatively fine-grained social or religious difference, as in the case of Samaritans and Jews at the moment captured in the parable.

    The relatively modern concept of race is so ingrained in much of our society, and has been for so long, that we tend to look backwards and ascribe racial thinking or motives to historical figures.

    Thus the title character in Shakespeare's other play, Othello, is often taken to be black, based largely on his description as a Moor, and critical interpretations often depend heavily on the implicit assumption that Shakespeare saw race as our society does. However, Othello's race is entirely ambiguous, due in large part to the fact that people in Shakespeare's time recognized social and cultural difference, as well as physical and ancestral differences, but nothing like our contemporary concept of race. Thus, "Moor" to Shakespeare probably implied dark skin, but could easily have referred to someone whom we would see as white today and designated a category which crosses our racial boundaries and does not admit of the same fixed notions of ancestry or other characteristics that tend to define our concept of race.

    In terms of works covering these historical ideas, you might start with Fredrickson's "Racism: A Short History." He provides overviews of much of this, starting with distinguishing xenophobia or the idea of otherness from racism and showing how the first inklings of race can be found in medieval Europe. He also provides far more detail, and far more subtlety, than I've offered here.

    "Racism," edited by Bulmer and Solomos, provides far more historical and intellectual detail. Mosse, for instance, has an essay in this volume which describes how the Enlightenment period of the 18th century laid the foundations for the development of the concept of race as we understand it.

  25. John Bell Says:

    James,

    Thank you for drawing those distinctions for me in suggesting that "the constantly-shifting historical patterns of prejudice have tended to be based on ethnicity or relatively fine-grained social or religious difference… ." I might ask, as a follow-up: if you believe it is true that many of us conflate ethnic and so-called racial heritage (or culture), when did this begin or gain acceptance? Are anthropologists somehow involved? (I think of the sad acceptance even by elite institutions (notably Princeton) of studies in Eugenics.)

    John

    On another issue you address in your post immediately above: I can see how the enlightenment's focus on "liberty," or a liberal society would encourage a self-focus that could have, almost perversely, altered the conversation about sharing a collective past and future (generally under a Christian god in western Europe's view) to a conversation about personal differences. (This was an interesting sub-context at EDS.) Is there an argument of merit in blaming an unenlightened view (or at least an unintended consequence) from the Enlightenment partly for the emergence of the Racism as you describe it above?

    John

  26. roro711 Says:

    can someone Please explain why is using the term "slave trade" incorrect?

  27. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    I think few people would argue that the term "slave trade" is somehow inappropriate, and certainly it's still the standard term for referring to this historical institution.

    There is a common argument against using the term "slave," however. As a result, many of us make a conscious effort to use terms like "enslaved person," instead, or at least to vary our language.

    The argument is that using the noun "slave" is dehumanizing, suggesting that being a slave is what a person is, and perhaps that it is their natural condition. Using a descriptor like "enslaved," on the other hand, suggests that enslavement is merely a condition in which some people found themselves, only part of who they were as human beings, and implies that they are not born slaves, but rather have been enslaved by someone.

  28. roro711 Says:

    Thank you james, now i have better understanding about slave trade, but i am concerning that then why is "annihilation" incorrect? does it takes away your right?

  29. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    I'm afraid that I don't understand: has someone told you that the term "annihilation" is incorrect? In what context?

  30. roro711 Says:

    no i mean to say correct.

  31. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    Where are you seeing the word "annihilation"? In what context? I'm just not sure what you're asking.

  32. roro711 Says:

    no because we were talking about this in our Ranaissance class. i have one more question what is the meaning of the "N" word.

  33. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    Let's take this offline, and we can talk about any questions you have for your class. If you'll go to the "contact us" link above, you can see an e-mail address for our organization; just ask for me.

  34. Damani Says:

    Re: Gates AND your dismissal of the “excuses.”

    Gates does address three of the four excuses. I have raised some questions about one – “Africans didn’t know how harsh slavery in America was” – and I remain unconvinced.

    .

    "Entirely without merit"??? In that case….

    I will ask for your expertise on another one – “Slavery in Africa was, BY COMPARISON, humane.”

    Were slaves in Africa worked to death based on business decisions (as was done particularly in the Caribbean) that it was cheaper to do so than to feed and care for them?

    – In the early days of slavery, plantation owners attempted to produce healthy patterns of reproduction and encourage marriage, but found it was economically illogical to do so. Instead, it was more profitable to purchase new slaves from Africa [Bush, Barbara. "Hard Labor: Women, Childbirth, and Resistance in British Caribbean Slave Societies", in David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clarke Hine, eds., More Than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), pp. 193–217.]

    Were slaves in Africa drawn and quartered as examples to others not to rebel or run away?

    Were slaves in Africa forced into breeding, sometimes with relatives, to produce more slaves?

    Were fetuses of slaves in Africa cut from the wombs of their mothers?

    Were they branded to identify them if they ran away?

    – Advert in Mississippi Gazette (23rd July, 1836)

    A negro man who says his name is Josiah, that he belongs to Mr. John Martin, living in Louisiana, twenty miles below Natchez. Josiah is five feet eight inches high, heavy built, copper colour; his back very much scarred with the whip, and branded on the thigh and hips in three or four places thus:'J.M.' The rim of his right ear has been bitten or cut off. He is about 31 years of age.

    – (4) St. Louis Gazette (6th November, 1845)

    A wealthy man here had a boy named Reuben, almost white, whom he caused to be branded in the face with the words; 'A slave for life.'

    Were they crippled to prevent them from running away?

    http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/details
    Were children “sold” away from their parents?

    Were they worked from ‘can’t see’ to ‘can’t see’?

    – From the South Carolina Slave Code, Section XLIV: 15 hours in 24 hours, from the 25th day of March to the 25th day of September,…14 hours in 24 hours, from the 25th day of September to the 25th day of March;

    – To strip me naked – to hang me up by the wrists and lay my flesh open with the cow-skin, was an ordinary punishment for even a slight offence. My mistress often robbed me too of the hours that belong to sleep. She used to sit up very late, frequently even until morning; and I had then to stand at a bench and wash during the greater part of the night, or pick wool and cotton; and often I have dropped down overcome by sleep and fatigue, till roused from a state of stupor by the whip, and forced to start up to my tasks. Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave (1831)

    Were they beaten badly, sometimes on a whim?

    http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/details
    – Mr. Gooch had a female slave about eighteen years old, who also had been a domestic slave, and through not being able to fulfill her task, had run away; which slave he was at this time punishing for that offence. On the third day, he chained me to this female slave, with a large chain of 40 lbs. weight round the neck. It was most harrowing to my feelings thus to be chained to a young female slave, for whom I would rather have suffered a hundred lashes than she should have been thus treated. He kept me chained to her during the week, and repeatedly flogged us both while thus chained together, and forced us to keep up with the other slaves, although retarded by the heavy weight of the log-chain.

    A large farmer, Colonel M'Quiller, in Cashaw County, South Carolina, was in the habit of driving nails into a hogshead so as to leave the point of the nail just protruding in the inside of the cask. Into this he used to put his slaves for punishment, and roll them down a very long and steep hill. I have heard from several slaves, though I had no means of ascertaining the truth of the statement, that in this way he killed six or seven of his slaves. This plan was first adopted by a Mr. Perry, who lived on the Catarba River, and has since been adopted by several planters.

    .

    You tell me, James, am I uninformed about the cruelties dealt to slaves in traditional African societies? If so, sources, please.

  35. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    Thanks for taking the time to address this topic in detail, Damani, and for being persistent. What isn't obvious here to other readers is that you had to submit your comment several times, as the system's spam filter wouldn't accept it, and I appreciate your sticking with it.

    I would be the first one to agree with you, Damani, about the horrors of slavery in the Americas, and the comparatively humane nature of slavery as it was generally practiced in various African societies. I think it would be naive, however, to suggest that African slavery was so mild and compassionate that it didn't deserve the name of slavery.

    My expertise is not in traditional forms of slavery in African societies. I have focused most of my attention on slavery in New England. But I think there are useful parallels between the two situations.

    People have often assumed that slavery in New England was mild and humane, compared with slavery in the American South. They have had no basis for doing so, but that didn't stop the myth from spreading and being taken as absolute truth. In fact, however, New England slavery was in many ways as brutal as southern slavery, and where conditions were, in some ways, not as harsh, they were still remarkably inhumane.

    Everything I have read about African slavery suggests that it varied widely across time and place, rarely reaching the level of inhumane efficiency of slavery in the New World, but with ample cruelties in evidence in the historical record.

    You ask for sources about the cruelties of African slavery. You might look, for instance, at James Searing's "West African slavery and Atlantic commerce: the Senegal River Valley, 1700-1860," in which he describes the horrors of slave raids and the violence endured by slaves in West Africa. Daniel Mannix wrote extensively about the nature of slavery in the trading societies of Africa, documenting large populations of people born into slavery and treated as chattel, to be owned, bought and sold. Igor Kopytoff and Suzanne Miers, meanwhile, have shown that while the transatlantic slave trade vastly changed the extent of slave trading in West Africa, it merely amplified existing features of indigenous slavery, including commodification.

    (Again, I'm not arguing that slavery in Africa and the Americas was similar, or that the two systems were morally equivalent. This is purely about whether African slavery was so different that African societies can't be viewed as having any responsibility for enslaving and selling their fellow human beings, because they couldn't have suspected that they would be treated inappropriately.)

    So I think the question remains: what point are you driving at?

    If you are suggesting that the transatlantic slave trade brought millions of people into a worse form of slavery than was known in Africa, then you haven't received any disagreement from me, or from Professor Gates.

    If, however, you're suggesting that African societies shouldn't be viewed as complicit in the slave trade because they couldn't have suspected just how bad conditions were for those transported across the Middle Passage … well, then I'm stumped.

    You have rejected one argument that Professor Gates offered, that knowledge of conditions for slaves in the Americas did filter back to African trading societies. You've indicated that you're skeptical, and I can certainly respect that. Gates was only able to make that point briefly on the op-ed page, but he did cite several specifics, such as an incident as early as 1604, in which a prominent official from Kongo clearly obtained first-hand knowledge of slavery in Brazil.

    However, I don't believe we can dismiss African complicity simply by questioning the knowledge of these societies about conditions in the Americas. African societies engaged in the slave trade most certainly did know what slavery was, even if conditions varied from society to society and continent to continent. They were used to holding human beings in bondage and, in many cases, treating them as chattel. Moreover, they are the ones who enslaved those destined for the Middle Passage, often force-marching them across long distances, treating them with cruelty, and selling them into appalling conditions at European slave forts in plain sight of Africans.

    If some Africans did not have a full understanding of what was happening to slaves in the Americas, that may well affect their degree of responsibility for what was happening. The same can be said for, let's say, those in New England, or elsewhere in the United States, in the antebellum period. American citizens profited handsomely from southern slavery, and yet they may have been ignorant of conditions for slaves in the South. Does this make them less complicit than southern plantation owners and foremen? I could agree with that. Does it mean they weren't complicit at all? I would say not, since they knew that people were being exploited as slaves for their economic well-being, and they took advantage of that fact, without seeking to know more about what that enslavement involved.

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