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.