If you are exposed to any bigoted, right-wing media or social media -- whether by misfortune, sport, or a delusion that you must counter their arguments -- and someone raises the subject of slavery, you will doubtless see this trope.
They were sold by their own people.
Africans sold other Africans.
Slavery began in Africa, and was imported to the new world.
In fact, you might hear or see some version of this any time racism is mentioned. Or as a complete non sequitur. It appears to be a wingnut favourite.
They should stop complaining! Slavery is in the past! Get a life! And anyway THEY started it! Slavery was started in Africa! Blah blah blah!! Meaningless drivel!!
There are many myths and inaccuracies about slavery in the Americas -- this wrap-up in Slate is good -- but this one in particular interests me.
We know that Black people were involved in the transatlantic slave trade. At any time, a handful of people, a few hundred -- perhaps over the centuries maybe a few thousand -- were slavers.
More than 10 million people were forced into slavery. (That estimate does not count the millions who were born into slavery, in any of the Americas, only those who were directly kidnapped.)
These two facts are known.
Some history -- also facts
Also known: when the transatlantic slave trade began in the 16th Century, the people who lived on the African continent would have had no concept of being "African" -- or Nigerian, or Senegalese, or Congolese -- any more than the Indigenous peoples who lived in what is now Manhattan told Dutch settlers they were New Yorkers. These are modern identities, post-contact, largely the product of imperialism and colonialism.
The African people who were sold into slavery had their own identities, of their own communities and villages. Like all pre-modern people -- and most people, period -- they probably identified as "this" as well as "not-that". I'm from Village A, and not one of those people from Village B.
The names we have learned for various Indigenous people are themselves European names -- be that Cherokee or Aztec. All these names (including, for better or worse, Indian, Native American, First Nations, Aboriginal, and Indigenous) were created post-contact. This is as true for the original peoples of what is now Africa as it is for the original peoples of what is now the Americas.
Often, the original name of a people means The People. The word Dene, for example, is translated as people. We can say that the Dene people lived in what is now the western part of Canada and the US, but while their civilization existed, it was not Alberta or Arizona.
Similarly, the people who were kidnapped and forced into slavery were not "West Africans", although they lived primarily in what is now called West Africa.
Why history matters
Why does this matter? It matters because slave traders in Africa were not selling "their own people". Africa wasn't one big nation where all Black people lived under one big banner called Africa. It still isn't, of course, but the identity African now has meaning. In the 16th Century, it would have had no meaning to the people who became slaves, nor to the minority of Black people who profited from slavery.
The Black people who were kidnapped into slavery, and the Black people who profited from their sale, were no more "their own people" than the Dutch were to the Portuguese. That is, not at all. Hell, in the 16th Century, Venetians and Tuscans did not yet identify as Italians!
(Do you know that Americans and British people often referred to Black people as Ethiopians? The term was used to exotify Blacks, especially Black women. Ethiopia was not involved in the slave trade; the people referred to this way had absolutely no connection to the country of Ethiopia.)
The "they were sold by their own people" argument assumes that all Black people are, and always have been, of the same origin. But the people sold into slavery would never have (a) seen a person who wasn't black, and (b) thought of communities outside their own as "their people".
A mental exercise
If all people were Black, would being Black be a concept? I don't think so. I speculate that the original people of what is now Africa would not have thought of themselves as Black, that the designation or description would have had no meaning.
Do we imagine that, in the 15th and 16th Centuries, the people of what is now Northern Europe thought of themselves as "white Europeans"? There is no evidence that they did. Those concepts and identities came much later.
Knowing this, should it surprise us that white Europeans were not the only people who saw money to be made in human trafficking and wanted a piece of the pie? Certainly not.
When we speak of human trafficking in our own time, do we say that Russians, or Serbs, or Malaysians, or Americans are selling "their own people," and use this "fact" as an excuse? Do we think it's any less awful if Americans are selling Thai people than if Thai people are selling Thai people? Certainly not.
So why does it matter, other than as a historical fact, that some people living near the west coast of Africa were involved in the slave trade?
Does it mean slavery didn't exist?
Does it mean that the transatlantic slave trade was not as brutal, lethal, and heinous as it was?
Does it mean that racism doesn't exist?
It means none of these things.
What are they really saying?
What does it mean to the person who says (types) it? What does the question tell us about their beliefs?
I can only speculate, of course.
Perhaps they are implying that Black people are to blame for slavery, therefore... what? Shouldn't challenge white supremacy?
Perhaps they equate calling out racism with believing all Black people are good and all non-Black people are bad, and they see their statement as disproving that.
In many cases, I'm sure it's just a thing to say: a knee-jerk reaction, something they've read in another comments section, or heard on right-wing talk-radio. Their marching orders. The things "people like us" say.
One of my better posts is if the world sucks, why hasn't anyone told me? in which i respond to joe denial
, from 2011. (Once again, a post that had dozens of comments... now lost... possibly to return if Google will fix Blogger's backup and restore functions. We're told it's going to happen.) The essay unpacked another right-wing trope, and concluded it is a smokescreen. The people who asked the question were simply denialists.
...why do some people deny the existence of very real, well documented problems? Why is it important to so many people to pretend that a spectrum of issues - violence
against women, environmental racism, prisoner abuse, US imperialism, and
almost anything else you can think of - does not exist?
Here I can only speculate, and poorly at that, as this mindset is the most foreign culture I've ever visited.
of this denial seems to be a knee-jerk, unthinking reaction: if a
progressive person is against it, I must be for it, and if I can't be
for it (because who will actually say "violence against women is fine"?)
then I must deny its existence.
Some of the reaction seems to
stem from an underlying belief that "lefties" - as anyone who is not
rigidly right-wing is called, even very moderate liberals - are heavily
invested in portraying the world as a dismal place and in protest for
its own sake. I'm guessing this belief relieves some cognitive
dissonance: Why are these people making such a fuss? I don't see
anything wrong, and I don't want to believe there are so many things
wrong with my world. Therefore, they are making a fuss over nothing,
because that's what they do.
Some people hate and fear change of
any kind. Reasonable people may disagree on the best solution to a
problem, but questioning the existence of a problem short-circuits all
possibilities. If nothing's wrong, there is no need to change.
some of this ingrained, knee-jerk denial reacts against an entire
worldview, one that sees women, people of colour, poor people, and
others outside the imperialist-patriarchal power structure as important.
Joe Denial's belief system says exactly the opposite, although not in
those terms: the world was fine until you people got so uppity.
sad part is that Joe is a working-class guy who stands to benefit
greatly from my worldview. Sadly, he identifies more with his
oppressors, because they are largely white and male, than with the
people whose vision would offer him a better life.
The conclusion I draw in that post -- "That's why it's worth taking a deep breath and answering his question." -- comes with a huge disclaimer. It's only worth answering this person (a) if you have a sense that they have an open mind, or at least will listen out of respect for you, and (b) in person, unless you know them well enough to have an in-depth email conversation with them. It is decidedly not worthwhile to respond to these statements with strangers (who may or may not be paid operatives) on social media or in comments on news stories.
Time and energy are our most precious resources. Time is our most valuable non-renewable resource. If you want to do good in the world, responding to comments on internet news stories is among the worst things you can do. It squanders these finite resources and returns no value whatsoever.
However, the next time you hear "Africans were sold by other Africans," or "Blacks were involved in the slave trade," you might say, "Yes. So?". But maybe only to yourself.