At the end of the Slave Kingdoms episode of Wonders of the African World, Henry Louis Gates said "I've often thought that Africa has suffered so much in the past because of its own curse of selling its own people away. You know you can't do that and it not have an effect." How do you respond to Gates statement?
I must preface my answer to this by saying that Prof. Gates is a better and more important historian than I will ever be. However, I must also say that, in this case, I do not agree with him. Mainly, I am not comfortable with his use of the phrase “its own people.”
Gates is, of course, absolutely right to say that Africans were involved in the sale of other Africans to slave traders. The slave trade would not have been possible if the coastal African states had not gathered slaves from the interior and sold them to white slave traders. Gates is also correct to say that the slave trade had a tremendous impact on African societies, an impact that arguably continues to be felt today. There is no question that the slave trade is something that hurt Africa terribly. What I find problematic is Gates’ seeming assertion that African problems today are sort of a consequence of the moral failing of selling “its own people.”
I object to the idea that the Africans who sold slaves to the white slavers were selling their own people. I would argue that it is unhistorical to say this. People around the world have always defined some groups as “like them” or “their own people” and defined other groups as outsiders. However, these definitions have also changed over time. People who are now “our own people” might well have been “other” at some previous point in our history. This is, I believe, true of Africa today.
Today, all “black Africans” might see themselves as one people, at least when put in contrast to white Europeans or Americans. By this time in our history, a sense of African identity may have arisen. However, I do not believe that that sense of identity was in place hundreds of years ago when the slave trade was active. The Africans of the coastal kingdoms did not think that they were selling “their own people.” Instead, they thought that they were selling people from some other country, possibly another country that was an enemy. This is very different from selling “their own people.”
We see things like this happen all over the world at various times. Native Americans in the United States did not band together with “their own people” against the whites. Instead, they fought one another in many cases and tried to get white settlers to help in those fights. Different ethnic groups of Africans have recently (as in Rwanda) engaged in genocidal actions against one another because of differences that were important to them. Ukrainians and Russians are currently fighting even though, to many of us on the outside, they are the same people.
In short, Africans were not selling “their own people.” They were selling people who they did not consider to be part of their own group. Therefore, I reject Gates’ argument that some sort of greater moral stigma should attach to them and his suggestion that this moral stigma continues to haunt the continent.