It’s imperative that the truth, the entire truth, and the brutally inconvenient truth about slavery be taught in the history classes of America’s schools. It is, however, insufficient — not to mention deceptively incomplete history — merely to discuss slavery during those dark years and the inhumanity inflicted on those souls who crossed the ocean chained, beaten, and crowded into the hull of slave ships — without addressing the degradation and brutality that occurred well before the slaves ever boarded those ships.
The harsh, inconvenient truth about slavery is this: There were no innocents involved in the whole sorry business. According to Sheldon M. Stern, African-American history instructor and later historian at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, “The history of the slave trade proves that virtually everyone participated and profited — whites and Blacks; Christians, Muslims, and Jews; Europeans, Africans, Americans, and Latin Americans.”
Historians agree that slavery was not unknown to Africans; it was a part of their culture long before Europeans arrived. For the most part, however, history has attempted to downplay the African participation in the procurement of slaves for the slave market.
“There is a willful amnesia,” said Nat Nunoo-Amarteifio, historian and former mayor of Accra, Ghana, “about the roles Africans played in the slave trade.”
A companion book to the PBS series, Africans in America, states the following: “The white man did not introduce slavery to Africa. ... Long before the arrival of Europeans on West Africa’s coast, the two continents shared a common acceptance of slavery as an unavoidable and necessary — perhaps even desirable — fact of existence. ... Tribe stalked tribe, and eventually more than 20 million Africans would be kidnapped in their own homeland.”
Stern tells us, “Historians estimate that 10 million of these abducted Africans ‘never even made it to the slave ships. Most died on the march to the sea’ — still chained, yoked and shackled by their African captors — before they ever laid eyes on a white slave trader. The survivors were either purchased by European slave dealers or ‘instantly beheaded’ by the African traders ‘in sight of the [slave ship] captain if they could not be sold.’”
Although African participation in the slave trade had been “hushed” for years, African leaders began speaking out:
- Kofi Awoonor, Ghanaian diplomat, wrote, “I believe there is a great psychic shadow over Africa, and it has much to do with our guilt and denial of our role in the slave trade. We too are blameworthy in what was essentially one of the most heinous crimes in human history.”
- “We share in the responsibility for this terrible human tragedy,” said Cyrille Oguin, Benin’s U.S. ambassador. Benin President Mathieu Kerekou also acknowledged his country’s contribution in “selling fellow Africans by the millions to white slave traders.”
- “The Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria,” reported The Guardian, “has written to tribal chiefs, saying, ‘We cannot continue to blame the white men, as Africans, particularly the traditional rulers, are not blameless.’” Nigerians have acknowledged their role in the slave trade and now teach in their schools the history of their participation during that brutal period.
So where do we go from here?
Some have suggested apologies and reparations. Apologies to whom? Reparations to whom? That ship has long sailed. It’s too late for apologies, too late for reparations. The white slave traders, the African slave procurers, and even the Black slaves themselves are all gone. All of them now reside in the annals of history, and each is left to face his own final judgment, alone before his Creator.
That’s precisely the reason we must rise from the ashes and tear off the sackcloth; the time for mourning has passed. We must recognize once and for all that slavery never was a race issue; it has always been about the depraved heart of those — Black and white — who value power and wealth over human life. Lamenting the past and attempting to destroy and revise history will not erase it, and only a fool who’s learned nothing from the past would even try.
It now falls to us to fulfill our obligation to guard that history well — every inconvenient part of it — and teach it faithfully to our children.
M.K. Sprinkle writes from Hampstead. Her column appears every other Saturday. Email her at email@example.com.