Gates on Slavery “Blame Game” (and Response)

excerpt from Op-Ed by Henry Louis Gates (read rest at  NYT):

“The African role in the slave trade was fully understood and openly acknowledged by many African-Americans even before the Civil War. For Frederick Douglass, it was an argument against repatriation schemes for the freed slaves. “The savage chiefs of the western coasts of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily accept our moral and economical ideas than the slave traders of Maryland and Virginia,” he warned. “We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave trade than to stay here to work against it.”

To be sure, the African role in the slave trade was greatly reduced after 1807, when abolitionists, first in Britain and then, a year later, in the United States, succeeded in banning the importation of slaves. Meanwhile, slaves continued to be bought and sold within the United States, and slavery as an institution would not be abolished until 1865. But the culpability of American plantation owners neither erases nor supplants that of the African slavers. In recent years, some African leaders have become more comfortable discussing this complicated past than African-Americans tend to be.”

Excerpts from responses (Letters to the Editor, NYT):

“It was Americans, not Africans, who created in the South the largest, most powerful slave system the modern world has known, a system whose profits accrued not only to slaveholders but also to factory owners and merchants in the North. Africans had nothing to do with the slave trade within the United States, in which an estimated two million men, women and children were sold between 1820 and 1860….”

Eric Foner, Columbia University

It is true, as Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. says, that many African monarchs were complicit in the heinous Atlantic slave trade. But the demand for reparations has less to do with the mechanism that delivered the African captives than what happened to them during the hundreds of years of working without compensation.

Herb Boyd, CUNY

As Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. points out, the role of Africans themselves in slave trading is one that is sometimes ignored by advocates of reparations. I fear, however, that in looking at the role of Africans in creating or sustaining the slave trade, we will make the same mistake that we make in trying to assess blame for international drug trafficking — focusing too much on the supply side of trafficking.

Lolita Inniss, Cleveland Marshall College of Law

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