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Dr. Boyce: Does Henry Louis Gates Believe Blacks and Whites Deserve Equal Blame for Slavery? I Hope Not

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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.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and author of the book, “Black American Money”. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

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16 comments

  1. I totally appreciate this article, but what I would like to know is, did the African elite know that they were selling people into such a brutal, sadistic existence for hundreds of years? How was communication accomplished across the Atlantic five hundred ago?

    • I’ve been saying the same thing for years. I very much doubt any African who assisted the European slavers had the faintest idea of what horror awaited those they captured. I don’t believe it was within the African experience to even contemplate the kind of brutality, inhumanity and cruelty that would be dealt to their countrymen and if they could have imagined it, I am certain that few would have cooperated.

  2. Even today the Europeans here in the US and their (mostly European, cohorts) are devastating the African Diaspora as they scoop up every resource they can plunder! There is no actual trade-off with African leaders of good intention, there is only force and replacements! Sometimes it is a complicated, slow process, to make Africans do what Anglos and friends want them to do, but after the slaughter of numerous thousands of uninvolved ‘innocent’ people in the most gruesome ways..They (these Anglo-elite plunderers and their cohorts!) Usually accomplish their goals and rule through proxy, and rape the countries, of ‘it’s people’s’ life giving resources!
    The African leaders who dealt with the Anglo’s of old..Were just as threatened, disappeared, attacked and murdered for not complying to the wishes of the “white” aggressors. Look all around the world and you will see patterns in tactics and forms of aggressive ‘taking’. Many are the same patterns which were used hundred of years ago!

  3. No one wants to, as you point out in your article, “take the blame for things we didn’t do,” which is why most of non-Black America now alive and in the future will never take claims for reparations seriously.

    Since the 1960s American has put hundreds of billions of dollars into Black communities and created many racially-relevant laws. Corporate efforts to create a more inclusive workplace have given Black America more opportunity than ever to get a good job. Is the situation perfect? No. Will it improve? I hope so, but improvement now depends at least as much on Black America as on the rest of America.

    It’s time to move on from blaming slavery for all of Black America’s ills. Black America needs to have a more encompassing conversation with itself and the rest of America to address why it is that too many Black Americans are so dysfunctional. Blaming slavery is too easy; so many Black Americans, many from difficult backgrounds and nearly all of whom can point to slave ancestors, have proven they are capable of achieving success in their lives, by whatever measure we could choose to define “success,” that most of the rest of America doesn’t believe the idea that “we’ll be much better off if you’ll just give us a lot more money.”

  4. Gates needs to stop it with the Blame Game our people love to play! This Happened to our people for Rebellion to the Lord of All the Worlds & Disrespect of Self & the One God! So the Lord Told Abraham that His Seed would be a Stranger in a Strange Land & they would serve them & Afflict them for 400 Years so it was Prophesized by the Lord Whom Ibrahim met Face to Face in the Planes of Mamare which was Arabia remember the Blackman was there First at that Time the Arabs started to come into Power,Blame ourselves for our Rebellion going Way way Back in Elkebular shrinking Heads & putting plates in our Lips Rebellion!

  5. Slavery was a Brutal System like Racism a System some Negroes still don’t Understand it!

  6. Thanks Dr. Boyce Watkins. Henry Louis Gates is a trader to all Afrikans throughout the diaspora. I lost all respect for him when he presented his “findings” on public tv regarding the creation and Kingship of ancient Kemet(Egypt). He made the ridiculous statement that all of Egypt was ruled by Black men for only 100 years. When it’s been proven and accepted by Dr. Ben, Diop, and many others that ancient Kemet was created, founded, and ruled by Black Afrikans for most of it’s existence. The contributions of the Nile valley Afrikans are well documented as well as the trickery and violence that the whites and arabs used to conquer our ancestors. Also, isn’t it funny how Black apologist, like Gates, always omit the fact that Afrikans waged organized struggle against the slave trade from it’s beginnings. Black people are no less loving of our people than others and it is ludicrous to assume that our ancestors were any less caring for their families and friends than we are today.

  7. If you all watched his documentary that aired on PBS last night it was VERY clear that he does not believe there is equal blame. The documentary was clear in the position that Africans profited from African slavery before the Atlantic slave trade, but that slavery was not based on race. The Atlantic slave trade took the enslavement of Africans to a new level and the premise was quite different and beyond destructive (while creating new rich cultures — ironically). What history shows is that all Africans on the continent of Africa were NOT hanging out with each other singing hakuna matata. Sometimes we have these idealistic images of Africa as if we were all kings and queens and that Africa would have been paradise if white folks wouldn’t have gotten ahold of her. Some of us would have been decendants of slaves regardless. African people are divine in my starry eyes, but they are wrapped in flesh too so they did human things such as fall victim to greed and selling out people they felt were beneath them. AGAIN that doesn’t mean it was the same as the utterly inhumane treatment that was inflicted upon slaves in the Americas. My final comment on another note — it appears that there is a peculiar disdain for African American figures who have achieved some level of recognition. I appreciate Dr. Gates’ work. I’ve never met a person I agree with 100% of the time, but I feel no need to “hate” I simply state my position.

    • I hope the other episodes of this series are as good as the first. Whether or not Professor Gates gets everything right (no historian ever does), I look forward to hearing what else he has to say with this story.

  8. What you said is very true Trina. I appreciate your thoughtful insight.

  9. America is afraid to pay the descendants of slaves reparations because many would leave the U.S. Those who would remain would have enough economic clout to change the wealth makeup of the country putting many African-Americans in a position to make decisions which would influence and/or jeopardize the lifestyle of the children of former slave owners. I believe each African-American who can prove they were descendants of slaves should be paid 5-to-20 million a piece tax free.

    I would take the money and run, because if we were awarded millions living in the U.S. would be unsafe. Remember 40 acres and a mule…enough said!

  10. In one of the statement, it was said that we need to get on with the business of educating our children. If we do not educate them, then they will become slaves again. When you are under educated in this country, you stand a great chance of becoming a prisoner. Now that is a slave. Our young men talke about doing 5 to 10 years like it is nothing. Well that is 5-10 when you are nothing but a slave. You are being housed and told when to eat, sleep, exercise, read a book/tv and then put back into a cage. Now that is nothing but slavery. Wake up Black American. Do not let the next generation become slaves again.

  11. Yes, our people played a part in our people being sold into slavery, I don’t know if I would say they played an equal part because there were those that were kidnapped by the White man, whole families. But as Mr. Ferguson states, there are many ways to become a slave and our young people are becoming slaves to drugs, and the prison system and they are just too dumb due to lack of foresight and education to see it! We have lost a whole generation, they have no idea the price our forefathers paid so they could have a truly blessed life, to be able to eat, sleep, read, write, live when, where and how they choose to.

  12. Some years ago, there was a phone call to one of the TV stations in my area about certain Black male Harvard Professors who purported to speak for the Black community. The caller told the White Host that those three Black Professors were married to White women and are not representative of the Black community. Later, a friend told me that it was wrong of Professor Gates to be head of an African American Institute at the most prestigious University in the Country, while married to a White woman.

    Since then, I’ve been somewhat suspect of Professor Gates opinions.

  13. I respect Gates, and I do not know as much about black history as he does, neither am I as old as he is, and yet I cannot agree. At first when I read the title, I was ready to disagree with Dr Boyce Watkins, because it is true that African kings did profit from the sale of their own people. However, when I saw Dr Watkins reasoning, I realized that I agreed with HIM. Here is the thing: if Africans deserve equal blame for slavery, how come Africa has overwhelmingly high rates of poverty? Surely those who benefited from slavery the most would be extremely wealthy? The African Kings who were paid for selling their people received guns and rum in return. Now, hundreds of years later, their countries lie in the grasp of horrible poverty. Countries that have white majorities, however, are still wealthy up to this day. Furthermore, the role of African Kings stopped when the slaves were herded onto the slave ships, and headed for America. So, whites deserve a far larger share of the blame still.

  14. No where in the quotes of what Dr Gates said in this article did I see a statement (like the one in the title) that says that Gates said blacks were EQUAL to blame for slavery as whites. It does say it was a lucrative trade for both but did not speak of assigning equal blame. I hope there is a way that both Dr. Boyce and Dr. Gates could work collectively to address the issues we are currently facing than debating the finer points on how we got here.

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