Last night I met up with some nationalist brothers at the local bar. I had met a colleague and we discussed the definition of violence and if Malcolm X was indeed a "liberal democratic thinker" in the tradition of Hobbes, Locke, and the Federalists. After he left, a few others joined the conversation. We talked about Afrocentrism, Kunjufu, Akbar, DuBois and Garvey. They were curious about why I was reading the book Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel (for the same reason that I read Guns, Germs, and Steel--black folk, especially organic intellectuals, need a broad base of knowledge that allows them to think critically and broadly about the world through a lens not always bounded by race).
One of the brothers, a thirtiesh year old, autodidact, ex-military type (and member of the Gangster Disciples) kept asking me "where am I from?" I said Connecticut. He asked again, "where am I from?" I replied my people are from North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Boston. He asked again. I looked at him and said "where am I really from then? My parents?" "No," he replied. "You are from Africa." I smiled. I politely told him that I have no dreams of Africa. For me, Black Americans have so much to celebrate here--all that we created and nurtured in the New World against unbelievable odds and seemingly unending oppression--that to look to some mythic past for inspiration is unnecessary.
Folks who have followed this site know that I have no dreams of finding Afrotopia. I have a deep concern about the "ethnicization" of The Black Experience (specifically, a belief that African and Afro-Caribbeans automatically share a natural affinity for Black Americans--which many do not--and thus should share the fruits of our struggles). I shake my head at the fetishizing of a people and place that becomes "home" for so many (collapsed into one imagined continent that removes nuance, difference, complexity, and contradiction).
Ultimately, I agree that we have long needed a critical conversation about the role of African tribes and nations in the Black Holocaust. However, I don't know if I agree with Gates' conclusion in The New York Times that this conversation somehow ought to work against claims for reparations (there is such overwhelming evidence of systemic structural disadvantage that enfranchises whiteness as property at the expense of blacks in the United States that we need not look back to Africa to make a justice claim). Frankly, I am also a bit suspicious of the how's and why's of Gates' writing this editorial at this moment. Mercenary financial interest? Comment on post-racial America? A signal to the obsolescence of the reparations debate now that we have a President who happens to be black...
What do you think Gates' motivations are?
For your inspection:
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 centuries, Europeans in Africa kept close to their military and trading posts on the coast. Exploration of the interior, home to the bulk of Africans sold into bondage at the height of the slave trade, came only during the colonial conquests, which is why Henry Morton Stanley’s pursuit of Dr. David Livingstone in 1871 made for such compelling press: he was going where no (white) man had gone before.
How did slaves make it to these coastal forts? 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. The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred.
Advocates of reparations for the descendants of those slaves generally ignore this untidy problem of the significant role that Africans played in the trade, choosing to believe the romanticized version that our ancestors were all kidnapped unawares by evil white men, like Kunta Kinte was in “Roots.” The truth, however, is much more complex: slavery was a business, highly organized and lucrative for European buyers and African sellers alike.The editorial continues here.