Memo to Henry Louis “Skip” Gates About Slavery and Reparations: With Friends Like You, Who Needs Enemies?

Henry Louis Gates: Back to The Stupid (Courtesy:

I was beginning to hear about Skip Gates’ latest pronouncements, this time about slavery and reparations, but I tuned out to get a little time to read and to digest it, if I could at all.

Now, I have. With friends like this cat, who needs enemies? When even black teabaggers privately admit why they’re not getting any traction from blacks or sympathy from whites?

Yall remember last year when Skip Gates got in trouble with that Cambridge cop for walking around in his own house? When Gates seemed to “come home” to black folks, like O.J. Simpson after his acquittal? Remember all that good will and understanding? Well, he’s back to form. All that good will that Gates garnered among Da Folx is being frittered away, when as an op-ed contributor to the New York Times recently, he made the following, too neat observations that probably made a smile or two crack the faces of the right-wing, neo-Confederate, white supremacist, gun-toting, and teabagger constituencies in our midst. Some people need to know when to sit down and to shut up themselves before making sure that there’s ink in their pens–or toner in their laser printers–or enough bandwidth before making such egregious pronouncements. To wit:

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.

Those were my italics in that last paragraph. But…

Excuse me? (You know I really want to say some other things, but I’d rather keep it clean this time, though this is really enraging.)

Brad DeLong, a UC Berkeley professor of economics, shows how deftly Gates–our self-annointed Head Negro in Charge or HNIC–seemed to skirt the obvious (hat tip to PT Cruiser at Prometheus 6):

Unfortunately for Gates:

  1. The first generations of African kings who began selling slaves to European traders for guns indeed did not know what slavery was like on the other side of the Middle Passage–they thought it was like slavery in Africa, where if you become a slave you then become part of a single household in which you have roughly the status of the very poor third cousin. But slavery in the Caribbean was a much harsher and more vicious institution–as capitalist slavery driven by production of staple cash crops so often is.
  2. Once the slave trade was started and once the kings of Africa knew what they were doing, no individual African kingdom along the coast can back off and stop. If it does, the guns and ammunition stop coming–and it gets conquered in short order by its coastal neighbors who are still engaged in the slave trade.
  3. Only when European consumer demand for Caribbean staple crops appears–only when the profits from slave agriculture and thus slave-raiding become really large–is it worth African kings’ while to start substantial slave-raiding in the interior (and is it worth the Europeans’ while to start shipping people across the Middle Passage).

That Henry Louis Gates makes fun of these arguments doesn’t make them untrue.

And so I reject the quitclaim deed he offers: just because there were people with skin of another color on another continent who aided and conspired with my ancestors in their crimes does not mean that I am quits of all obligations as I sit here still enjoying the fruits of their crimes.

And some of those very same African kings and princes who sold hostages and lesser nobles found themselves being hunted and captured for the slave ships themselves. Some of these occurred in the wars of aggression that Europeans instigated as forms of the hunt for slaves. But of course, I digress…

I’m a bit with PT Cruiser, that while I don’t anticipate seeing reparations in my lifetime (although I would like to see them), the audacity of the deliberate bending and ignoring of historical facts to suit Skip Gates’s arguments has made even those who understand the history but are mildly opposed to the idea of reparations jump to the other side of the argument in disgust. And he’s advising President Obama to silence reparations advocates with this screed, counting on Obama’s being black and president? Meaning Obama’s white ancestry as well…

Just whose idea was this, I really wonder.

It is unfortunate, but not unexpected, to see this coming from a negro that runs around bragging he’s two thirds or three quarters white.

Let me say up front I’m one of the people who feel reparations for slavery and Jim Crow is more than justified, but that it will never happen because it would require admitting and facing truths this nation goes to extraordinary lengths to deny.

The opponents of reparations for Black Americans insist that all the damage was done by slavery, and done so long ago that reparations to affected partied are impossible. However, the circumstances that justify reparations existed as late as a generation ago.

It’s not just slavery that caused damage that needs redress. It’s the state laws that blocked voting rights. It’s the funding policies that forced Black school districts (again, mandated by law) to use hand-me-down books given to them by white school districts after they were worn out or outdated. It’s the federally mandated red-lining that practically forced down the property values of Black folks when they… finally… were allowed to buy homes under the GI bill.

This is why Gates’ article here is irrelevant. Africans did not have a system without slavery and say, “You know, I think it would be good to have some slaves. I think it would be good for that slave status to be inherited, and for freed slaves to be excluded from society with no means of escape. I think it should be illegal to educate them…we should send people that educate the slaves to jail.”

That’s all the United States of America’s doing.


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~ by blksista on April 24, 2010.

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