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Henry Louis Gates Wants Reparations Activists to Consider African Role in Slave Trade

By April 26, 2010

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When it comes to reparations, I'm of the same mind as President Obama. The leader of the "free world" reportedly agrees with them in theory but believes that actually disseminating reparations to the ancestors of slaves wouldn't be a workable practice, according to the New York Times.

In an op-ed for that paper, Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates attempts to further explain why giving reparations, or compensation, to African Americans because of how the government profited from slave labor would be a very messy undertaking. That's because Africans played a role in fueling the transatlantic slave trade.

Gates writes: "The historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90% 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."

Gates then goes on to presume that most reparations supporters don't know that Africans played a role in the slave trade. However, he provides no evidence as to how he came to that conclusion. I, for one, have known for years that Africans sold slaves to whites, and I'm no reparations activist. After all, African involvement in slavery is one of the arguments trotted out by those who claim that whites and white supremacy should be let off the hook for slavery. But in his editorial, Gates argues that African Americans have instead excused Africans for selling slaves.

Discussing the ways black Americans have pardoned Africans for their role in the slave trade, Gates writes: "Excuses run the gamut, from 'Africans didn't know how harsh slavery in America was' and 'Slavery in Africa was, by comparison, humane' or, in a bizarre version of 'The devil made me do it,' 'Africans were driven to this only by the unprecedented profits offered by greedy European countries.'"

As someone with one black American parent and one Nigerian parent, I certainly don't wish to excuse African involvement in slavery. But I think that Gates failed to point out that slavery was practiced in societies all over the world for centuries. The slavery practiced in the United States, however, was unprecedented due to the role white supremacy played in the "peculiar institution." In the U.S., slavers tied dark skin to slavery, which led to the dehumanization of generation after generation of people solely based on their racial ancestry. While Africans involved in the slave trade may have seen the harsh conditions Westerners kept their captives in, they did not and could not have known that slavery would be used to devise and perpetuate a white supremacist ideology.

In his editorial, Gates also neglects to mention that it's pretty common knowledge that in the U.S., a portion of Native Americans and, even, African Americans kept slaves. But reparations activists aren't interested in pursuing these people nor are they interested in pursuing the Africans who contributed to the slave trade. Reparations activists are interested in holding the corporations and institutions that can be clearly linked to slave labor responsible. 

Gates winds down his piece by arguing that "the problem with reparations may not be so much whether they are a good idea or deciding who would get them; the larger question just might be from whom they would be extracted."

But reparations activists have indeed pointed out from whom they want to extract compensation. In 2002, for example, a former law student filed a federal lawsuit seeking billions of dollars in reparations from companies such as FleetBoston Financial, the railroad firm CSX and the Aetna insurance company, after finding evidence linking them to the slave trade, CNN reported. Although some activists seek direct payment from the U.S. government for reparations, activists haven't wished to hold African governments responsible. And how could they, considering that African countries themselves are composed of numerous ethnic groups. One ethnic group may have sold members from another (within the same country) into slavery. To boot, when we identify who's responsible for establishing the borders and boundaries that separated Africa into countries, we cannot do so without turning to the Europeans who colonized Africa. Add in the impoverished state that many African countries are in at present, and it makes little sense to pin the slave trade on African governments. I doubt that any reparations activist wants to cause more suffering to those of African descent. 


April 26, 2010 at 1:48 pm
(1) Dr. Mustafa Ansari says:

Henry Louis Gates is out of his Negro Mind in trying to dissuade us from seeking reparations because some of the African tribes sold us to the Europeans. This is crazy “Negro logic”.

In law there is a concept correctly called “Proportionality of guilty”. Proportionality is used in cases in which there are 2 or more culpable partners to a crime. In this paradigm guilt is proportioned according to the injury.

Secondly, we understand the culpability of the African slave traders and view the studies that he cites by the Professors as to what ports and what Tribes were mostly affected as a step forward in assessing the injuries.However, the reparative relief and remedy for the African slave traders and the European slave traders is totally different, since Reparations is a part of Human Restorative law, and most of our family tribes are still in Africa. In this view, what we will seek from the Africans is a return of our land right and citizenship [This is called the "right of return] , and international trade, which will strengthen Africa and African Americans.

The European remedy is mainly economic restitution, and what we call unjust enrichment, which is mostly an economic remedy. The end result with the Europeans will also be reconciliation, once their debts are paid.

Finally, reparations is a viable International law encompassed in General Assembly Resolution 60/147 and it is not just for the Jewish Holocaust, and collateral damage in Iraq and Afghanistan, but covers the Maafa, [The Trans-Atlantic Holocaust] as there is no statute of limitations to Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity.

So, what can we gather from this? Dr. Gates should stick to English and his DNA work without trying to fashion political and legal remedies in which he is woefully unequipped to do as a Negro and English scholar.

April 26, 2010 at 5:09 pm
(2) Everlasting Allah says:

I agree with much of the above comment. In addition I would also like to pose another query to the illustrious professor. It appears as though his purpose is to lessen the culpability of White America by saying Blacks enslaved Blacks. Well, where are the records of Whites enslaving whites? I’m not talking about the few Irish endentured servants they had. I mean the ones they called N*****. (Yes, with -er)
Surely there were worthy candidatesin Europe who could have fit in this dehumanizing institution. If not, then why couldn’t they use the indigenous Americans? Yes, all over the world there existed slave institutions, but none compared even remotely to this one. It is obvious that the 300 or so years of physical slavery in this country was a direct effrontery to Black people, and not just the way things go.


April 26, 2010 at 5:12 pm
(3) Norman Brewer says:

[…Dr. Gates should stick to English and his DNA work without trying to fashion political and legal remedies in which he is woefully unequipped to do as a Negro and English scholar. …]

Wow! Did Dr. Mustafi really make this appallingly foolish statement? Perhaps, “as a Negro”, Dr. Mustafi does not know that everyone living on Earth today with the possible exception of some Kalahari bushmen are descended from both enslaved and masters, both oppressed and oppressors, etc. Every semi-advanced people on Earth practiced slavery. When slavery was practiced in the European colonies, Islam practiced far more horrific slavery. Black men/boys were not mass castrated in the Americas as was practiced in Islam. Hence, slaves were able to have descendents in the Americas. Additionally, 19th Century Anglo/American governments instituted a worldwide effort against international slavery that led to slavery’s official demise. However, Islam still practices slavery in Africa to this day. If Dr. Mustafi wanted to do something positive about slavery, he would join efforts working against it in Africa, rather than sitting on his ass begging for reparations for sins against other people.

April 27, 2010 at 2:40 am
(4) Sam Thomas says:

Is this also true for the Jews in Germany? Were they the cause of their deaths. Why is it you can not see the forest for the trees Mr. Gates?

April 27, 2010 at 8:39 am
(5) Greg Egger says:

I am all for reparations. I’d like reparations for the white families of the North that gave up their sons in the fight against slavery. It is truly amazing that black America can demonize all white people and never thank those that fought and still fight for their rights and freedoms. What an ungrateful bunch.

Being a descendent of a member of the New York 69th, where can I get my check?

April 27, 2010 at 5:11 pm
(6) Hrapbrown says:

People…HLG never tried to dissuade black people from getting reparations in the article. He only asked in a practical sense if reparations should be obtained from Africa in addition to all the European countries, including America, that profited from slave trade. He is just adding complexity to an already complex situation.

He even implies that President Obama is the right person because of his heritage to finally get reparations.

“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.”

Once again, we a condeming a man for something because we did not fully understand what we read or what we heard.

April 27, 2010 at 6:28 pm
(7) Everlasting Allah says:

Soldiers don’t get recompensed, Mr. Egger. Secondly, to Mr. Brewer: it would have been a far better fate for Blacks in America had their ancestors been castrated. Although many Whites in America are descendants of first generation immigrants, they have still obviously benefited from the labor of slaves and their descendants.

I am AGAINST reparations, not because I don’t believe they are owed. I oppose them for two simple reasons:

1) There would most assuredly be strings attached.

2) Welfare hasn’t been a successful endeavor. This would be one step in the wrong direction.

If there had to be reparations, let them be for the higher institutions that seem to be predominantly White owned & operated. For instance, Black insurance companies, Black pharmaceutical companies, Black sports team ownership, Black media networks (Not BET or anything like it). These would be a start. There are hundreds of other institutions to be named, but I am not qualified to to bring them up.

All I’m saying is that the atrocity of slavery AND its long term effects should not be swept under the rug.

April 28, 2010 at 12:49 am
(8) RanRan says:

Greg Egger, you are a good case in point of why SOME Black people “demonize” white people. You write of disgust at generalizations but then turn around and generalize Black people. An ungrateful bunch? First and foremost, NO ONE has done more for Black “freedom” than Black people, contrary to what some people-like you- like to think. Secondly, while it is true (no matter how much latter day Confederates would like to re-write history) that the south’s secession was mostly about slavery, it is also true that the northernors you write of went to war for the sake of the union, not to emancipate Blacks. Even the president acknowledged that this was not his intention- to emancipate Black people but to restore the union. And I’d be willing to bet your ancestor received a pention for his service to his country, therefore having already received his check. Request denied.

April 28, 2010 at 12:51 pm
(9) Greg Egger says:

RanRan, Everlasting Allah, etc.,

I love people that are unable to recognize sarcasm when they see it. And then, have the audacity to tell me what I think and what color I am. I’m sure my deceased Native American great-grandmother would be amused at your presumptions and bias.

The point I was trying to make is that reparations for incidents in which the grandchildren of the parties are probably dead is ludicrous. It is a waste of time, energy and money to continually bash others, blame them for your problems and sell the lie that if only they would pony up the money we would be successful. The reparation litigants can’t even define “them”. Why not put that time, energy and money into youth programs, community projects, schools, etc. How about forgiveness?

If America is so racist now – today, then why are African immigrants ten times more successful than African-Americans? (At least in the school I teach at.) Why do we have a black president? Why did over 40% of white males vote for that president? Why are Blacks and Latinos overrepresented and often much more successful than their white comrades in the military?

Folks, it is time to grow up, own your own problems, stop whining and actually work to fix them.

May 12, 2010 at 3:09 pm
(10) Jeannine says:

I am sick and tired of people telling black people to fix our own problems. Well MISTER we HAVE and more. If you knew anything about OUR history, you would know that there were SUCCESSFUL black towns and communities which were DESTROYED by white people because of jealousy or stupidity….I dont know…perhaps both. Black people HAD to pull together and form their own communities because they were not welcome in the “white” communities esp after slavery was over. You need to dig a little deeper and read up on some history before you make such ridiculous statements.

September 2, 2010 at 1:33 pm
(11) shbkyn says:

We see how Henry Gates acted when that white police profiled him, and did not recognized him, and then put the cop in the dozen, you know talked about the cop mama, now if that is not gheto, or uneducated, it will just have to do. This tom cannot speak for black people, it does not matter who held us as slaves, it was wrong, and it violated our human rights. People need to read the UN charter on slavery, and human rights violation, this man is a dummy, he cannot speak for us. Period. Those chiefs and kings, were made to catch other blacks for slaves, and many were slaves themselves.

June 4, 2011 at 2:34 pm
(12) T Nails says:

Considering the large majority of Americans did not descend from Slave owners, from whom do you extract reparations? America’s largest waves of immigration occurred after the Civil War. Will you have to do perform proportional lineage studies to determine one’s accountability?
If an African American has say, 25 %, white blood in him and also has earned dividends from owning shares in companies that once benefited from slave owning, do they receive fewer reparations? Does a descendent of a Nigerian father and African American mother get half? If I’m descended from immigrants post Civil War do I get a complete waiver or if one of my ancestors sacrificed his life in the Civil War do I get a waiver?
Also, even if I was a direct descendant of slave owners, debts in this country for good reason, die with the debtor. One only need to see the bonded servitude in 3rd world countries such as India that has created a “slave class” bonded in labor to the debts of their fathers.
Reparations is waste of energy and time. Through abolition, emancipation, civil rights and affirmative action, this country has made strides to level the playing field. As abhorrent as slavery was, it was Western countries, that first started any form of abolition movement in the history of mankind. This is a direct offspring from the Enlightenment philosophies of the 1700′s.

August 14, 2012 at 3:08 pm
(13) Charlie Volkheimer says:

Our borders need to be protected as harshly as area 51 No exceptions. Help them by Example . Show them what is possible for them to achieve by making the right decisions for their own countries. Do not allow them to overrun our borders and tax and burdon our system to the point that we are in the same shape as their own countries, If we allow that we all fail. Make the right decisions people. We have two choices Fail or Win thats it, there is no middle ground . We as a nation can not burdon the weight of the whole world and no one should expect that from us. Being politically corrrect is ok at a dinner party but it has no place when it comes to the health and safety of our Nation and its borders.

October 9, 2012 at 9:12 pm
(14) Grant says:

Gates does not know much about West African History. Cause to make the claim that Africans sold Africans is just plain wrong. Read Joseph Inikori’s “The Struggle Against the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: The Role of the State” before you go on believing Skip Gate’s Prattle. Saying that Africans sold Africans into the slave trade in the 16th century is as silly as saying Europeans sold Europeans into slave trades 8-15th centuries. These supra-national identities that helped put an end to slave trades did not exist during these periods. It would be more constructive to discuss the African continental side of the Atlantic Slave traded in relation to local inter-ethnic struggles such as the Aro slavers who raided the village societies of igboland (Southeast Nigeria). They did not conceive of themselves as Africans until the coming of colonialism at the end of the 19th century. Second, there were concerted attempts by groups in the Senegambia, Congo, and elsewhere to stop the trade instigated by constant supply of guns to low level traders who had been nobodies. Gates needs to respect African history before throwing around this nonsense. Last, the slave population in North America, which becomes the U.S., was home grown. Aside from the first generation of imports, the U.S. slave population was generated through natural increase. Mind you, this was the largest slave population in the world at the time, peaking at 4 million souls.

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