Wednesday, August 15, 2007

"The Whole Truth"

Historian Sheldon M. Stern would like us to remember-and teach-the complicity of many Africans in the African slave trade:

However, confronting the history of the Atlantic slave trade requires more than a sentence acknowledging that the Amistad prisoners “had been captured in Africa by Africans who sold them to European slave traders.” Website readers must understand that this terrible traffic in millions of human beings had been, as affirmed by the PBS Africans in America series, a joint venture: “During this era, Africans and Europeans stood together as equals, companions in commerce and profit. Kings exchanged respectful letters across color lines and addressed each other as colleagues. Natives of the two continents were tied into a common economy.”

Historians estimate that ten 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. 11 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.12 Of course, the even more horrific and inhuman middle passage—the voyage of a European (and later American) slave ship from Africa to the Western Hemisphere—still lay before those who had survived the forced trek to the coast.

As Stern acknowledges, none of this absolves Europe or America of their guilt for their part in the Atlantic slave trade. But history must also be complete, even if it's politically inconvenient. And I would add one note: many Americans suffer from a blind spot when it comes to Africa, and they regard the continent as being comprised of "Africans" who are all similar in a vague way, making little distinction for tribe or country. Acknowledging the diversity of Africa, even in a way that's moderately painful, such as acknowledging the role Africans played in enslaving other Africans-is a useful antidote to the ignorance that prevents us from having any sort of coherent Africa policy.

No comments: