More on reparations and all that jazz

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Professor Skip Gates recently re-ignited an old controversy by stating in a New York Times op-ed piece that Africans are also culpable in the shame that was the transatlantic slave trade because they were active participants who relied on the trade for revenue. I agree with Gates. To the extent that African states sold off Africans, they are just as culpable as the Western states that bought Africans as slaves.  That they are too destitute to pay should not absolve them from culpability and responsibility.

Should Africa be compensated for slavery? Slavery was horrible. It is perhaps the everlasting perversion of this evil that a reparations program is virtually impossible to implement. I do not believe that the West should stop giving aid to Africa; however, it is fair to say that over 90 percent of the aid is being stolen or wasted. At the very least, Western donors should invest in meaningful accountability measures to ensure that these funds are going to the intended targets. In the meantime, what is happening in most of black Africa is black on black slavery. In Gates’ essay, he shares this gem:

“Did these Africans know how harsh slavery was in the New World? Actually, many elite Africans visited Europe in that era, and they did so on slave ships following the prevailing winds through the New World… African monarchs also sent their children along these same slave routes to be educated in Europe.”

This mirrors what is going on today in Nigeria. Today, the Nigerian intellectual and political elite preside over decaying classrooms that are too good for their children, administer hospitals that are not good enough for their hogs and have built palaces on what were once parks and zoos. They and their children have to flee the hell they built to go taste a bit of heaven in Europe and America.  These leaders should be shot.

A while back I watched Gates’ documentary on the slave kingdoms and I remember an engaging, and effective presentation. In West Africa, African narrators described to Gates and emotional African American tourists how Africans captured other Africans from the hinterlands to the coast and sold them to the white man for profit. It is a harrowing narrative and we must be filled with compassion for Professor Gates whose great great grandmother came from those parts as a slave. But then, as some scholars have asked fairly, were these Africans? In other words, did they see themselves as selling off their brothers and sisters? My view is that they were selling off enemy captives. You don’t sell your brother. Identity is dynamic. How “Africans” saw themselves then is different from how “Africans” see themselves today. That would need to be factored into any discussion of the role of people of African descent in the slave trade.

What does it mean to be African? My grandmother died in the late seventies not knowing she was African. She died not knowing she was Nigerian. She did have a strong sense of self and of community. Her friends and enemies were close by; in nearby hamlets and villages, where strange people lived with strange customs. Her daughter, my mother married one of those strange people, my father, who came from the village next door, strange people who ate strange things and did stranger things. You could walk from my father’s village to my maternal land in twenty minutes if you took the little path. My father loved to crack ribald jokes at the expense of another village next door. In those times, I could see him going next door to capture slaves. They were not his relatives. They were simply black.

The myth of a monolithic Africa is an invention of the other to compromise our humanity. Color confounds and confuses everybody apparently.  We are suffering the crimes of a construct that never existed, save in the minds of Westerners. An entire continent of (former) states has now been lumped into one big fat state called Africa. The unintended purpose of this broad brush has been to further dehumanize people of color. At the forefront of this pack of the prejudiced are Western liberal do-gooders who rush to douse any debate with patronizing platitudes about our humanity. The subtext: Africans did some awful things but they lack the complexity to be responsible for their actions; they had no idea, poor cute Africans.

 The other point that is not made is that despite the protestations of even the most rabid Pan-Africanists, Africans have been assimilated by the dominant culture. The dominant culture says a drop of black blood in you makes you black. That rule is the most effective and unchallenged rejection of our humanity, a permanent stamp on our “other” passport. Why is Skip Gates black? Why is he not white? Because the dominant culture says he is not. Now, that is racist. Let the man be whatever he wants to be. Not that he minds being black, but the world is browning. Screw boundaries. The Man Above is not through with us yet. He is too busy laughing his racist head off.