africans were involved in the slave trade. why do you think that matters?

The statement

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.

Some facts

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.

Some 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.

Finally, 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.

The 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.


The Disaffected Lib said...

Laura, there was a parallel in Canada, especially in what is now Quebec. There, European settlers embraced slavery to provide labour for their farms. The slaves, however, were not African. They were indigenous. I believe that the Iroquois traded in those they forced into captivity from other tribes. Slavery was practiced long before the arrival of Europeans.

While there was some African slavery in Ontario it didn't sit well with the settler population or the courts. Long before Britain prohibited slavery it was banned in Upper Canada. After the American revolution, however, United Empire Loyalists seeking to leave the US for Upper Canada were allowed to bring their slaves across the border as human "settlers' effects."

I grew up in an area that was considered the principal terminus of the Underground Railroad. Escaped slaves established a number of small rural hamlets. I went to highschool in a predominantly French Canadian area but there was one black guy in my class. He came from the small settlement of Elmstead where there was a one-room museum devoted to slavery and the Underground Railroad, including the charitable society that bought tracts of land where freed slaves could gather and establish their own communities, buying their farms on very easy terms.

Elmstead was off the beaten path. If you didn't have some reason to go there you would never know it existed. Yet it was fascinating to see the houses and buildings these freed slaves constructed and how neatly the hamlet was laid out - homes, church, graveyard. Even a century later the locals tended to keep to themselves. I hope that has eased in the half century since I was last there.

laura k said...

Thanks so much for sharing this! Very interesting.

There is a book about slavery of Indigenous people in the Americas, called "The Other Slavery". It's on my list...

I regret that I didn't see more Underground Railroad history when I lived in Ontario and when we've been in Quebec. I love local history, and I especially love movement history. Perhaps when we're back to visit friends, I'll put this on our list.

allan said...

Fantastic post!!!!

It sounds like white racists do know that slavery is wrong and white people did a lot of it, but shifting blame to Africans likely lessens white culpability in their minds. However, using "I did it but only because he was doing it too" is a piss-poor excuse to use after the age of four.

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.

I think we can all agree that King Tut was born in Arizona.

Amy said...

I think it's a little bit of---See? They were no better than we were, so it's just human nature. Don't blame us.

Your point about "Africans" not identifying as one people s a fascinating one. We would never say that "Europeans" perpetrated the Holocaust or that "Asians" attacked Pearl Harbor. It certainly is a product of racism that people identify anyone from the continent of Africa as one people.

Great post, Laura.

laura k said...

Thank you, Amy. That's a good point -- a great example to use in the future.