Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Slavery 101: Clearing up some misconceptions.

This is a guest post from regular commeter, Nia.

Most European nations, and the US, to this day have not convincingly dealt with the racist European ideologies that reinforced, sustained and justified the horror of transatlantic slavery. Rather than focus on and deal with this particular crisis in their respective national psychologies, these nations are instead all too happy image and eager to focus on the fact that “black people owned slaves too.”  Whenever a conversation arises about the ways in which white people have benefitted from slavery, rest assured there will be a resounding chorus of: “But your African ancestors had slaves too”, and “Your ancestors sold their own into slavery”. Many white people, some of whom cannot name even one African history scholar (Henry Louis Gates does not count) all of a sudden are such experts on African history! As progressive as Western society claims to be, and despite the fact that the Atlantic slave trade was neither initiated nor maintained by Africans, Western society would have us believe that responsibility for the Atlantic Slave Trade must remain primarily in the hands of Africans. Calling out and chastising marginalized people on their shortcomings while failing to check their own first is nothing new among privileged groups, but what makes this interesting is that in this case many of them would have us believe that they are making these comments in a legitimate attempt to offer a more balanced analysis of the historical facts of slavery.

Let’s get one thing straight: The only reason they are making these comments is so that they can wash their hands of the ways in which their great nations were complicit in the slave trade, the ways in which they continue to benefit from the racist ideologies which were reinforced during the slave trade, and to promote the racist notion that European motives and endeavours are basically pristine and only become tainted when intertwined with villainous African characters.

Let me also add that there are black people who are as psychologically and culturally invested in this negative, anti-Black philosophy of western culture just as much as white people. Instead of picking up a book and learning about their own history and thinking for themselves, they instead choose to parrot Eurocentric discourse and throw around false narratives and distortions about their own history. Some of these false narratives I will try to address in this post.

And - as Renee frequently has to remind some of us - if it’s not about you, then please don’t make it about you.

image One of the more fashionable notions that gets thrown around is that the slave trade would not have happened without the complicity and collaboration of Africans. In other words, Africans (i.e. Black people) were responsible for their own enslavement.

This type of argument is offensive because it seeks to promote the binary construct of white-good / black-evil. Everyone knows that if Black people weren’t so backward, greedy, conniving and downright despicable in the first place  – why your ancestors would never have been brought kicking and screaming to these shores in chains. Europeans only happened by and took advantage of your inherently evil ways. 

Never mind that it was Europeans, and not Africans, who initiated and maintained the slave trade in the first place.

In any situation where people are seeking to survive or to liberate themselves you will always have those who side with the oppressor. This is not just a historical reality, it is a well-known fact which is evident in every single society to this day.

But, as some commentators would have us believe, it was being done by African people on a willing, even gleeful basis, as opposed to under duress. The way they would have us believe it, African people were just sitting around all too eager to sell off “their own” for a couple of brass trinkets and a ship load of guns and ammunition.

This type of argument also fails to acknowledge the tremendous efforts European officials in Africa used to install rulers agreeable to their interests. They would actively favour one African group against another to deliberately ignite chaos and continue their slaving activities. It also neglects to mention specific examples of the conditions under which African people were being sold.

image For example, there were groups in Ghana who were defeated and captured by the British. One of the conditions which the British set for these groups to remain free and live peacefully was that they had to provide slaves and gold in order to live peacefully.

They had no option than to also raid less-powerful towns to come up with the slaves and gold. So yes, in this way we were a part of it. The noble European, of course, is above this type of behaviour. If the Europeans were in this position where they had to participate in the slave trade in order to survive they would never, EVER do such a thing against their own, oh no!

This type of argument also fails to acknowledge the dynamic and complex nature of slavery, and the ways in which it was changing the social and economic image landscape of African society. It wasn’t like Europeans were simply sailing in, picking up a few slaves and leaving. They were forming great slaving companies across the ENTIRE continent of Africa. These countries formed monopoly companies, trading posts and colonies that stretched throughout the entire continent of Africa. These companies created regular commerce throughout Africa in such a way that you had two choices: Participate in the trade and profit, or go under. 

When white scholars discuss Europe and the West’s role in the slave trade, they are able to flesh out the various external factors, social, economic and political factors, reasons and influences behind Europe’s decision to initiate transatlantic slavery. We are told, sometimes ad nauseam, that it was because of economics, the industrial revolution, it was because of capitalism, expansion, it was because “the blacks could take the hot weather better.” However, when these same commentators discuss the involvement of African people in the same slave trade the only thing they can come up with is that “Well, Africans had slaves too and sold their own into slavery.”

At school I was taught about the role that was played in the anti-slavery fight by white abolitionists, Quakers, white politicians, etc. by my history teachers at every level. As Black people we were never to forget that there were white people like William Wilberforce, etc. who sacrificed and worked endlessly to “free the slaves.”

But the “Africans Sold Their Own” theorists love to omit the tremendous resistance that Africans themselves put up against European slave raiders, instead choosing to perpetuate the myth of African passivity and complicity in the slave trade. In reality, Africans were constantly fighting against the slave trade. There were several European accounts of more than three hundred battles taking place between Africans with European slave raiders in one coastal region alone. In many other coastal regions and in the interior there were ENTIRE African villages rising up to fight against European slave raiders. That also conveniently gets left out. How many of us are ever taught about the tremendous African resistance taking place against slavery in Africa itself, by African people? What do you think set the wheels of the abolition of slavery in motion in the first place? Africans were resisting and rising up against the slave trade in Africa with such tremendous force that it started to become a less economically profitable option for labour in the West. That and the fact that the Industrial Revolution was taking over.

As we all know, ALL humankind and EVERY race has practiced slavery and sold their own into slavery at some point in time. Slavery is as old as humankind itself. Back in the 15th century, Europeans were enslaving other Europeans too.

image When people speak about the negative impact of the transatlantic slave trade on black people today they are talking about the TYPE of slavery (i.e. chattel slavery). Never before had there been such a systematic and ongoing institution that completely disconnected people from their culture, their families, their homelands, and rendered them as sub-human. It’s not about who was enslaving who, it was about the TYPE of slavery that was practiced, and the racist ideologies that were being used to justify, sustain and reinforce it.

This popular, simplistic assertion that Africans sold each other into slavery is part of that same ideology and must therefore not be taken at face value. It helps to perpetuate the notion that there is something inherently sinister about the Black character, and paints persons of African descent as simplistic, passive actors in what was obviously an extremely complex period of human history. All countries in Africa did not even practice slavery.

If you take part in these simplistic analyses, all you are doing is showing your support for these types of offensive ideologies


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