by Dr. Boyce Watkins
Someone forwarded me an article that Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates wrote about the complexities of the slave trade. The person was upset with Gates’ assertion that Africans played a meaningful role in the slave trade that devastated our people for 400 years.
I read the article curiously, since I didn’t have the chance to read it when it was published in the New York Times back in 2010. I wasn’t sure of exactly what Gates was trying to say with the piece, but I read it with an open mind.
The professor, who is extremely well-versed in black history, laid out some of the groundwork on the slave trade and shared some things that most of us don’t know:
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.
Gates then states the obvious: That it was greed which led to the slave trade, and that large amounts of wealth were being exchanged without concern for the race of those being victimized. As a Finance professor, I can agree that capitalism cares very little about skin color.
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.
When I had meetings to prepare for our New Paradigm forums in New York, I asked a mutual friend about Henry Louis Gates. So, without revealing the person’s answer, I can only restate my question: “What should I think about Henry Louis Gates?”
I’ve always had the opinion that Professor Gates and I don’t see eye-to-eye, but I don’t presume that I know all the answers. Also, he’s my elder and I respect him for his accomplishments. At the same time, we should analyze our elders with a critical eye so that the next generation can move forward with an empowered degree of self-determination.
Gates gets along with the folks at Harvard and they like him enough to give him lots of money to build one of the most impressive black studies empires in the country. The money typically comes at the expense of his voice, which rarely asserts the kind of independence that I would hope to hear from one of our most influential African American scholars.
But the truth is that most of us know how to play this game, where we spend our time making white folks uncomfortable and then decide if we want to work with our own people in public or behind closed doors. I respect Dr. Cornel West because he is one of the few scholars willing to say what needs to be said in public without worrying about the stigma that comes with consistent and committed blackness. Gates is a different breed of scholar, but has been successful in his own way.
In his article, Gates goes on to explain why he feels that President Obama is best equipped to bridge the gap and “educate” black people on what we should think about reparations:
So how could President Obama untangle the knot? In David Remnick’s new book “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama,” one of the president’s former students at the University of Chicago comments on Mr. Obama’s mixed feelings about the reparations movement: “He told us what he thought about reparations. He agreed entirely with thetheory of reparations. But in practice he didn’t think it was really workable.”
About the practicalities, Professor Obama may have been more right than he knew. Fortunately, in President Obama, the child of an African and an American, we finally have a leader who is uniquely positioned to bridge the great reparations divide. He is uniquely placed to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization. And reaching that understanding is a vital precursor to any just and lasting agreement on the divisive issue of slavery reparations.
I’m not sure why Henry Louis Gates chose to write this article. But I can say that I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand how he thinks. Gates grew up in horrifically segregated West Virginia, and has worked hard to overcome a series of obstacles that likely created a peculiar inferiority complex. My suspicion is that Gates is proud of himself for proving to whites that he is just as good, just as smart and just as accomplished as they are. Some might say that this is a wasted life, since he is a brilliant man even without their money and approval.
When Professor Gates went through his ordeal with a police officer back in 2009, I was the CNN goto guy for much of the week that the case was being analyzed by the public. Unlike other black scholars who immediately jumped to the professor’s defense, I took a second to ask, “So, what are the facts?” My concern about the case was that I’ve never known Henry Louis Gates to be a man to step outside the ivory tower to fight on behalf of African Americans, yet he seemed to want all of black America to come and fight for him. When Oscar Grant was shot, I didn’t hear anything from Professor Gates. When Sean Bell was gunned down by police, Gates didn’t say a word. When Amadou Diallo was impaled by the NYPD, Gates was nowhere to be found.
So, the man who’d kept silent during countless murders and atrocities being committed against black men across the country suddenly wanted us to raise the black fist because he’d been inconvenienced by a cop. I wasn’t buying it.
My assessment of professor Gates is that he wasn’t upset that the officer had chosen to arrest a black man. He was upset because the officer had the audacity to arrest a HARVARD PROFESSOR. This, my friends, is good old fashioned elitism, and it’s not an ideology which makes me comfortable. So, I would presume that part of the reason Professor Gates doesn’t push the envelope as much he could is because he is far more interested in sipping champagne with billionaires at Martha’s Vineyard than mingling with us “radical negroes” who might get him into trouble. That’s why he will always have more money than I do, since it’s quite profitable to make white people happy.
Now, why did I go into all of this? Because in order to fully interpret a message, one must understand the messenger. Although I am admittedly unable to ascertain exactly why professor Gates wrote this article, it’s not inconceivable to speculate that his piece would not be in the pages of the New York Times if he were to give whites the preponderance of the blame for the ills of slavery. While I am not one to say that Gates is a black apologist, I can certainly say that there were probably more whites applauding this piece than black people.
So, the consistent negotiation we all have to make while living under the thumb of white America is that we must sometimes take the blame for things we didn’t do, or pretend that certain things didn’t happen. The truth becomes the enemy when your oppressor is also the one feeding your children. Harvard University likely would not be propping Gates up if he were as outspoken as Dr. Cornel West.
With that being said, Gates’ points are well-taken, but should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Most of us knew growing up that there were African elites who played a big part in the slave trade. But this piece of information doesn’t change the fact that there are multi-billion dollar corporations, universities, television networks and banks that built their wealth on the back of slave labor. It doesn’t change the fact that descendants of slaves certainly deserve reparations, and the inclusion of African elites among the guilty should make the repayment pot bigger, not smaller in any way.
The bottom line is this: A scholar simply saying, “Well, black people did it too,” is not much different from Bill O’Reilly saying that Trayvon deserved to die because black men kill each other all the time. Trayvon and his family should not be punished for the actions of other misguided individuals, just because they share the same skin color. Similarly, unless you can prove that my family benefited economically from the actions of African elites, you cannot take away my fundamental right to receive reparations for the atrocities that have been committed against my people.
The most harmful and economically consequential attacks occurred after we arrived in the United States, not when we were being shipped out of Africa. Therefore, white and corporate America owes us trillions – if I am a radical black man for stating the truth, then I dare anyone to prove me wrong: A big part of the reason you’re deep in debt, received no inheritance from your grandparents and don’t own your own home is because for 400 years, there was a consistent and systematic effort to keep African Americans from accumulating the trillions in wealth that has been passed through white America for generations. That’s why when I walk down the streets of Manhattan, almost none of those multi-billion dollar buildings are owned by black people. If America had abolished slavery back in 1625, at least 13% of those buildings would be owned by us.
I am not sure if Professor Gates agrees with my assertions; I believe that deep down, he really does. But we can play the same game that was played on the plantation, and I’ll just be the radical negro out in the field, saying what I believe he really wants to say. He can keep raising money at Harvard, and I’ll keep on applauding him. But we can’t keep telling half-truths.
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