My Twitter timeline went up in flames this morning over a recently column by Henry Louis Gates published in The New York Times. While he deals with the familiar (that African leaders sold other Africans into slavery), he takes it to an unfamiliar place -- the very American reparations debate. Gates seems to think various Gold coast African nations are getting off easy in the debate over who should pay retribution to African Americans.
From The New York Times:
But the sad truth is that the conquest and capture of Africans and their sale to Europeans was one of the main sources of foreign exchange for several African kingdoms for a very long time. Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold. Queen Njinga, the brilliant 17th-century monarch of the Mbundu, waged wars of resistance against the Portuguese but also conquered polities as far as 500 miles inland and sold her captives to the Portuguese. When Njinga converted to Christianity, she sold African traditional religious leaders into slavery, claiming they had violated her new Christian precepts.
The only problem with this is that the debate over reparations in the United States is specifically about how many Americans benefited from a slave-based economy and, later, the continued disenfranchisement of blacks. It's pretty specific, as in specific to the country that enslaved us. (The same would go for slaves brought to Brazil and South America to blacks brought to Europe for the same reason.) There are other ethical issues to be had in the discussion over various African tribal leaders and royal figures who sold their countrymen and women to a dire and disgusting fate, but the reparations debate seems to be a strange place to have this discussion. Especially in light of the fact of what happened to the majority of the continent of Africa after the slave trade ended and the eventual colonization began.
That doesn't absolve anyone of guilt, but ... and this could be me ... this is like suing the gun maker when someone shoots you. You can argue the ethics of dealing in weapons that can end people's lives, but you can't exactly ignore the person who actually shot you. But what do you think?