Henry Louis Gates

*The esteemed Harvard University professor and PBS program producer Henry Louis Gates has generated a major national debate around the issue of reparations for African Americans because of the nearly 250 years of slavery endured by their ancestors.

In his recent (April 22, 2010) op-ed piece in the New York Times, Gates appears to make the astonishing suggestion that Blacks may not deserve reparations because Africans participated in the slave trade by selling other Africans to the white man.

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.”

Even if the estimates of historians Thornton and Heywood are correct (and that is questionable), the question which must be answered is “So What?”

Does the fact that Germany’s Nazi regime used Jews to point out and inform on other Jews so that they could be sent to concentration camps in any way lessen the responsibility of the Nazis for the killing of millions of Jews? Does the fact that a 15-year-old girl was recently found to have pimped her 7-year-old sister to men and boys in any way lessen the responsibility of the men who raped the young child? Does the fact that an associate aided and abetted a criminal who murdered someone in any way lessen the responsibility of the criminal who actually committed the murder?

The answer to all the above questions is a resounding “No!” And that answer applies to Gates’ argument.

Regardless of the extent to which Africans benefitted from the slave trade by selling other Africans, it was the European and the white American who perpetuated the evil practice for hundreds of years. They are the ones who tortured, enslaved and oppressed our ancestors. The evil of their actions cannot be excused or lessened because Africans sold one another.

The Black-on-Black selling was one mechanism by which millions of Blacks ended up in slavery; but it was not the cause of slavery and it had absolutely nothing to do with the brutality, denigrating nature and horrors of slavery as it was practiced within the United States of America.

I am absolutely amazed that a prestigious professor such as Gates would make such a ridiculous argument.

African Americans are morally due financial reparations. Not only did the brutal enslavement of our ancestors last for 250 years but slavery was followed by another 100 years of terrorism, segregation and discrimination. A reasonable argument can be made that we did not start to become “real citizens” of this country until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Further, businesses, banks, universities, government and even white-controlled churches benefitted from the enslavement and second class citizenship we endured. Some, or all, of these institutions should pay. African involvement in the selling of one another in no way lessens the moral right of African Americans to reparations.

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