Sunday, April 25, 2010

Running Away from Afrotopia: Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the "Slavery Blame Game"

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:

Ending the Slavery Blame-Game

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.


Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

I too, questioned Gates' timing and judgment on publishing this history. I am pissed, and have assessed that he's opened up a door for untold misery. Read about it here:

How Henry Louis Gates May Have Effed Up Black America & Africa

Diedre said...

Hey Hey,
I want to hear more about the definition of violence and Malcolm X. I'm ruminating on this a lot these days. Especially as it relates to spanking children, aggression, anger,and force. The jury is still out for me. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Unknown said...

I was kind of surprised to see a discussion of slavery reparations on this forum. To be honest, I've thought of reparations as belonging in the same realm as 'could the "Enterprise" defeat an Imperial Death Star' speculation. I don't think anything that Henry Louis Gates, or any other scholar or politician, for that matter, may say will change the minds of the vast majority of Americans on this issue.

I've never met even the most bleeding heart liberal white who is behind the notion of reparations for slavery. If such reparations were to be seriously considered or mentioned on the level of the federal government (presumably by someone who has no desire to ever get reelected), the uproar would make the 'Tea Baggers' seem positively tame. If reparations were to somehow miraculously make it into law, at least it would cause a tax revolt encompassing upwards of 80 percent of the people in the US; at worst, it would trigger action violence, and perhaps sucession.

On a more practical note, as a lawyer, I've often wondered how such reparations would be structured. Like a class action law suit? Who are the beneficiaries? Would it simply be all 'black' Americans? If so, would African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants and their descendants be exempt? If post-slavery African and Afro-Caribbeans could benefit, then shouldn't all European, Asian and Latin American immigrants and their descendants after slavery be exempt from paying into the reparations?

If having an actual enslaved ancestor is the prerequisite, how much of this ancestry would be necessary for payment? Would it be proportional? Would Halle Berry's daughter and the Obama daughters get the same proportion, even though one has three white and one black grandparents and the others have three black and one white grandparent? What about descendants of slaves who can pass? Quincy Jones' daughter Rashida looks white enough that NBC had to insert a stereotypical 'black female' character (dark-skinned, heavy-set, loud, materialistic and sassy) on "Parks and Recreation." Does that mean that Rashida is out for payments?

A lot of non-blacks will say that their families came here after slavery, so why should they have to pay (although they came attracted to an economy built on the labor of generations of enslaved people). But what about those people who are descendants of the men who fought to end slavery? My great-grandfather put his life on the line as a volunteer for about four years. His regiment got in trouble for refusing to turn back runaway slaves to their purported owners in Kentucky. He survived the Battle of Chickamauga, the second-deadliest battle of the Civil War. Do his descendants get a 'life and limb' inherited exemption from paying into reparations? His descendants must now number in the hundreds, at least.

Sadly, like the untold number of injustices that we don't know about, as we move through time, more and more Americans will distance themselves from any of the benefits from slavery in this country, and more and more descendants of those who endured it will not learn their nation's, or family's, history. I teach an "American Constitutional Law" course on the college level to a student body that is primarily African-American. On the test asking about the Triangle Trade, a large portion of the students will get "guns/manufactured goods" linked to Europe; "raw materials/tobacco" with North America, and will leave blank the slot next to "Africa." It angers me that there is such a gaping hole in what is taught in this country.

chaunceydevega said...

@Trill thanks for the link.

@Diedre--Thanks for the question. We were talking about the different definitions of violence. For example, ought violence to be limited to physical actions? What about economic violence? The violence of language? The violence of poverty? What would an expansion of these definitions then do to an understanding of when a gov't is illegitimate or not?

On Brother Malcolm, my point, and I teach this in my courses, is that Malcolm is not too far from the center of American political thought. Think about it. In the Ballot or the Bullet what is the central thesis? The gov't has broken a contract with its black citizens, is tyrannical towards them, and is not working towards the common good. Thus, the State can reform itself or the people can defend themselves.

@Buck. We talk of many many things ;) And yes, the Death Star would destroy the Enterprise. No contest.

You should write a guest post on your experiences teaching Con Law to black students. I think that is compelling and problematic--your story on how they reimagine their own history. Is it shame? Ignorance? I am not ashamed that my people survived hellish conditions despite all odds. Funny, how the violated sometimes internalize some type of guilt.

On reparations, it would also be great to think through the white folks life and limb clause--that is golden.

In principal reparations makes total sense and is well within the American system of justice and legal theory. Practically, it ain't gonna happen. There is a piece I will post--you have probably seen it from years ago--that demonstrates(there is other data on this)that whites support reparations in the abstract but not in practice for black people.