THANKS to an unlikely confluence of history and genetics -- the fact that he is African-American and president -- Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to reshape the debate over one of the most contentious issues of America's racial legacy: reparations, the idea that the descendants of American slaves should receive compensation for their ancestors' unpaid labor and bondage.There are many thorny issues to resolve before we can arrive at a judicious (if symbolic) gesture to match such a sustained, heinous crime. Perhaps the most vexing is how to parcel out blame to those directly involved in the capture and sale of human beings for immense economic gain.While we are all familiar with the role played by the United States and the European colonial powers like Britain, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain, there is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa. These included the Akan of the kingdom of Asante in what is now Ghana, the Fon of Dahomey (now Benin), the Mbundu of Ndongo in modern Angola and the Kongo of today's Congo, among several others...For many African-Americans, these facts can be difficult to accept. Excuses run the gamut, from "Africans didn't know how harsh slavery in America was" and "Slavery in Africa was, by comparison, humane" or, in a bizarre version of "The devil made me do it," "Africans were driven to this only by the unprecedented profits offered by greedy European countries." But the sad truth is that the conquest and capture of Africans and their sale to Europeans was one of the main sources of foreign exchange for several African kingdoms for a very long time....
Fortunately, in President Obama, the child of an African and an American, we finally have a leader who is uniquely positioned to bridge the great reparations divide. He is uniquely placed to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization. And reaching that understanding is a vital precursor to any just and lasting agreement on the divisive issue of slavery reparations...
Gates' contention that "there is very little discussion" of the African role in the slave trade is interesting. Among Africanists, trumpeting the fact that Africans sold slaves is akin to a physicist trumpeting inertia. Perhaps Gates meant that among non-academics there is very little discussion. Yet in his own piece Gates cites African heads of states talking to presumably non-academic African-American audiences about that which he claims is rarely discussed. As Eric Foner notes in today's Times, "virtually every history of slavery and every American history textbook includes this information." Perhaps Gates meant that among "reparations advocates" hold "very little discussion" on the subject. But since Gates doesn't name, cite, quote or nod at a single such "reparations advocate," there's no way to know.
Most importantly, Gates himself, has talked about it for at least a decade. Calling Gates, the foremost black scholar of his generation, which he is, does not say enough. Gates has streamlined black studies for the broad, faintly curious, American market. In addition to heading the Du Bois Center at Harvard, Gates edited the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, and currently edits the the leading black website on the internet.
Ten years ago, Gates, himself, who is not an Africanist, produced an hour long documentary on slave-trading among West Africans, in which he traveled across the region visiting infamous slave ports. This was not some low-budget production, seen by only handful of Africa nerds. It was an hour-long special on PBS, and part of larger six-part series on Africa. Hence when Gates claims that the role of Africans in the slave-trade isn't being talked about, after he's done just that, I fear that modesty has gotten the better of him.
The most notable aspect of Gates original PBS piece, which you can watch in full here, and this editorial, is a kind of crude black nationalism in reverse. The crude nationalist asserts that slavery was a white racist plot, and blankmindedly assumes that his racial truth of today, somehow also held true half a millenea ago. Likewise, Gates implicitly asserts that in trading slaves, Africans somehow violated a common, fraternal "African" spirit. Thus Gates laments "African selling other Africans into slavery," and, in his Times piece, shakes his head at the "sad truth" of African slave-trading. What goes unasked is whether the Fanti, the Ga or the Mende of the past even saw themselves as "African." The crude nationalist and Gates come out blaming different people, but both commit the fallacy of judging the sins of the past via the racial tribalism of today.
Likewise, Gates titles his column "ending the slavery blame-game," but, in fact, Gates is not interested in ending "the blame-game," as much he's interested in fiddling with the foul-count. The vocabulary of blame is key--instead of speciously blaming white Americans for the crimes of their presumed ancestors, Gates speciously blames Africans. The vocabulary of blame proceeds from a simplistic morality play in which someone, by virtue of simple biology, must play the villain and someone else must play the victim. Gates has no problem with the play, he just wants new actors for the roles.
Presumably blame is key for Gates because he wants to discuss reparations. Why reparations is relevant right now, and why Obama should involve himself in a discussion on the subject, is never actually explained. Some black progressives have been pushing for Obama to have an explicitly "black agenda." Whatever you make of their arguments, I haven't heard them urging him to push for "reparations." Indeed the reparations argument has been trumpeted loudest, not by blacks, but by white populists looking for any way to oppose Obama. Besides providing more grist for columns like this, I have no idea why Obama would engage the subject. But judging by Gates' piece, which from what I can tell is pegged to nothing, we don't need Obama for that.
From my perspective, the most interesting and provocative modern questions around America's racial dilemma, like any societal dilemma, do not necessitate blame. To put it differently, I am not concerned about gender equality because I think I'm to blame thousands of years of sexism, I'm concerned about gender equality because it matches my moral center. Blame is irrelevant. In the context of race, the question isn't "Who is to blame for the Middle Passage, slavery, and Jim Crow?" it's "What, tangibly, can we do to counter its generational effects?"
I don't support reparations, I support all people grappling with all aspects of American history--including the role of people who looked like us, but are not us, in the slave trade. Seeking that understanding because you're looking for someone to blame taints the process, it shades your vision, and before long you're ascribing identities to people who never claimed them.
I learned that in Linda Heywood's class--the same Linda Heywood who Gates cites as a source. I've told this story several times on this blog, but suffice to say I came to Howard University with some simplistic answers about race, was swiftly disabused of them, and since then, have been left, in the main, only with questions. One of the few things I know is this--Blame is useless to me. Blame is for the dead.