Race, Blame & Reparations: Why Henry Louis Gates Jr. is Wrong

Race, Blame & Reparations: Why Henry Louis Gates Jr. is Wrong


by BVX Staff

Last week, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. made the controversial claim that black Africans were as much to blame for slavery as white Europeans and Americans. According to Gates, the implication of Africans makes the messy issue of reparations for the descendants of slaves even messier. But is he missing the point?

In Gates’ mind, the people who profited most from the transatlantic slave trade (Europeans and Americans) are no more or less guilty than those who first sold slaves into captivity (the African elite). That’s like saying the people who referred clients to Bernie Madoff are just as guilty as the man who made billions off of his marks.

In Gates’ New York Times op-ed, “Ending the Slavery Blame Game,” he reminds us that “90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders.” The debate over reparations, Gates argues, is at best irresolvable because black people were just as complicit in the slave trade as whites. But following this logic misses two main points: that identifying the original sinner doesn’t absolve all other guilty parties of their sins, and the profits gained from the original sin are alone grounds for some form of compensation.

For years, Gates has made it his business to shed light on the fact that the institution of chattel slavery was made possible, in part, by early Africans, who both enslaved other Africans and sold them into captivity. Whether his motivations for this historical muckraking are purely scholarly or more about assuaging the guilt of white America is still up for debate. However, he does provide a necessary counterpoint to the lopsided view of the history many black romantics have.

Read the rest of this article at Black Voices.


  1. I have always wondered why most historians and black elite rely on history books written mainly by slave traders or slave trade sympathizers, as a reference when they are writing new history books or articles on slavery. I also find it strange when some Africans jump the gun and blame our ancestors for everything concerning slavery without analyzing the thought process that informed decisions. Why not try to get firsthand oral accounts on the slave trade from descendants in Africa instead of relying mainly on European writers who in some cases twisted history to justify their bad behavior?
    One feature of the Trans Atlantic slave trade that has always been buried in history books and articles written by most historians and elite African Americans is the role of ‘Prisoners of War’. It is a known fact that prisoners of war were the largest source for the slave trade. “Prisoners of war were enslaved and they usually constituted the largest proportion of the total slave output. Warfare was rife among the savanna and forest states of West, East, Central and Southern Africa” Pacheco Pereira reported that because the kingdom of Benin in modern Nigeria was usually at war with its neighbours it possessed many captives. (Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis, D. Pacheco Pereira, translated and edited by G.H.T. Kimble, London 1937, p. 126). Even with the above facts, almost every book or movie on slavery portrays black Africans running in the jungle chasing and kidnapping their brothers and sisters and then selling them to the white man.
    Before we analyze the actions of our accentors that resulted in “giving out” our brothers and sisters into slavery, let us try to understand how “slavery” was practiced in most African communities pre Transatlantic Slave Trade. There is this myopic thinking by some African America elite that Africans at that time must have known how harsh slavery was because many elite Africans visited Europe in that era. Many African elites? Did the African “King” think that slavery as practiced in the Gold Coast and other communities was going to be very different from that of other faraway lands? Again Dr. Gates states and I quote “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.” Have we asked ourselves which schools in Europe were these sons of monarchs trained? Not many Africans south of the Sahara had gone to the west to be educated pre independence. So what happened to the many children of the royals sent to be educated in Europe? Did they return to Africa and what does history say after they returned? ie if many of them did not become victims of the trade. The other point is that Africa is a big continent so one cannot assume that because a son of a monarch travelled on the same ship out to Europe and returned home, all Africans Kings/chiefs were informed about the evils slavery as practiced by the west. Also is Dr. Gates suggesting that the former slaves who returned to Liberia and Sierra Leone were themselves engaged in the slave trade even after their experiences?
    Below are some excerpts culled from N Miers & Kopytoff, Slavery, p. 111, 129, 271, 424-425; Derrick, Africa, p. 95 and accessgambia.com/information/slave-treatment-rights-privileges
    Slaves in pre-colonial Africa enjoyed certain rights and privileges. They had the right to be fed, clothed, housed and granted the privileges of children while staying with their owners. They had the right to marry. They could marry among themselves or marry free people. Customary rites were performed to give such marriages legal backing. Slaves enjoyed the privilege of an independent income. The Akan of Ghana say “Akoa nim som a, ofa ne ti ade di” (a loyal and faithful slave or servant has debts to his/her owner remitted). Slaves who farmed for their owners were also given plots of land on which to farm and enjoy its proceeds. Slaves could inherit property as well as hold property of their own. The Akan say Akoa a onim som di ne wura ade ( slave or servant who knows how to serve succeeds to his/her owner’s property). Slave owners did not have absolute power over their slaves, only the king or chief had power of life and death over the slave. Indeed the king or chief had power over every citizen of the state, including the slave owners. Hence the Akan saying Ohene nkoa na owo sikan ( It is only the king/chief who wields the knife/sword). In Ghana for example anyone who maltreated the slave to the point of death had to face the full rigors of the law. In Akyem and Asante for example, such people were asked to pay heavy fines.
    The slave was entitled to legal protection. There were also avenues for social, political and economic mobility. Many African societies asserted that slavery was for life and yet they granted slaves the privilege of manumission or redemption. The Sena of Mozambique, the Kerebe of Tanzania, the Mende of Sierra Leone and the Kongo of central Africa for example made provision for the manumission or redemption of slaves (Miers & Kopytoff, Slavery, p. 111, 129, 271, 424-425; Derrick, Africa, p. 95). All the ethnic groups in Ghana made provision for the manumission of slaves. The slave in Ghana gained freedom through formal and informal means. The informal means was over a period of time. It was buttressed by the famous saying attributed to Asantehene Osei Tutu Obi nkyere obi ase (No one should disclose the origins of another person). The point is further demonstrated by how almost every tribe in Ghana today uses Akan/Ashanti names which shows clearly how slaves were treated as part of a community.

    The treatment of slaves in pre-colonial African society depended on the owner, the family and the household in which the slave resided. On the whole oral and written records portray a picture of humane treatment. Observers from outside Africa expressed surprise at the humane treatment of slaves. Freeman, Klose, Dr. Madden, Beecham, Crowther and some British Commissioners were a few of such observers. Freeman remarked that slavery in Africa was very different from that of Europe, North America and the West Indies. Klose stated that the slave in Africa was much better off than his/her counterpart in Europe or America. In the 1840’s, Dr. Madden described the treatment of slaves as mild. District Commissioner Crowther who worked in Ghana at the turn of the 20th century in his evidence before the Committee of West African Lands in London on 7th February, 1913, described slaves in Ghana as more like adopted children. That doesn’t mean to say that harsh treatment was never meted out to them as was the case with adulterers and sometimes to prisoners of war.
    Now that we have a better understanding of how “salves” were treated pre the slave trade, let us try to look in the minds of some of our Kings/chiefs who were engaged in this practice.
    Have you ever asked yourself what happened to the prisoners of war during prolonged periods of war between tribes and communities in West, Central, East and Southern Africa? There were 1000s of wars between various communities at that time of our history. What happened to a community after they were defeated at war? Some were exiled and those who went into exile later became slaves. The Trans Atlantic slave trade made it much easier for communities to get rid of their adversaries. The rationale behind my point is what incentive is there for a conquering tribe to retain able bodied fighters from their adversaries within their midst as prisoners of war rather than exiling them away in a far away land. Then you had the European armies also exiling a big portion through conquest. What happened to the Ashanti men when they were defeated by the British? Did the Brits keep them locked up somewhere in Cape Coast and only freed them after slavery was abolished? No they were shipped out to places as far away as the Seychelles. It was a common practice as the British on January 1, 1897, deported King of the Ashanits, Nana Prempeh and his party to the Seychelles Islands. According to Dr. Gates “The historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders.” What about those African communities/kingdoms defeated at various wars by the European armies? That number accounts for only +/-10%?
    Why import gold?
    As to whether all prisoners of war were SOLD or some were just sent away is a subject for further research. “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,” Dr Gates goes on to say and I quote “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. Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold.” How can the Asante Empire from the Gold Coast of Africa with all the gold at their disposal sell salves to import gold?. His point is erroneous and should be researched further.
    Why sell your own Army?
    Think about it, did it make sense for the kings/chiefs of the various communities to round up their strongest men and sell them to the white man? How were they going to defend their kingdoms if every single able bodied man was sold? I advocate continued review of this collective historical crime that is informed by more thorough research that is objective and dispassionate in its quest for truth.
    It is patently obvious that slavery is abhorrent and evil, African culpability in this heinous practice indisputable however a more thorough review and understanding of the motivating factors influencing African involvement is warranted and frankly long overdue. For them it was better for an enemy of their community to be a “slave” in a far away land rather than keeping the enemy around only for them to come back and fight another day? It is hard to argue this justification lacks merit but what most of the early writers sought to do was belittle the black ancestor as a dumb King/chief who was only interested in Liquor, Mirror, gold etc. It was more sophisticated than that. This does not mean that some the African kings and leaders were not buffoons.