All Brothers, All Sisters, All the Time

Ibrahim Sundiata
Chair, Department of History
Howard University
Washington, D.C., USA



The discussion over The Wonders of the African World has produced a vigorous and, perhaps, much needed debate. Having finally seen the entire film series and having bought the accompanying book, I have a few thoughts on one issue dealt with in both the text and in the film - Slavery.

"What is Africa to me"? This too oft quoted line by a New World Black man still interrogates. To many the continent signifies as the home of the Black Race, the iconic antipode of Europe, the home of the White. Indeed, Africa in the American popular perception continues to be either an Edenic Mother/Fatherland or the barbarous home of famine, disease and civil war. Two constructs -- "The Image of Africa" and "The Image of Slavery" -- have molded, and continue to mold, the Black Diaspora. "Wonders of the African World" gingerly attempts to walk the line between the two.

We may begin by asking: What is the "essential" relationship to ancestral Africa? We do know, of course, that, from the fifteenth century onward, millions of forced migrants left the African continent to people both of the Americas and the islands of the Caribbean. At embarkation, captured women and men were phenotypically and culturally African, but much has happened since then. Yet, Africa continues to operate as a fixed point, the loadstone of ethnic identity, an identity often analyzed so as to diffuse issues of hybridization and creolization. Whether the locus of collective origin is in ancient Egypt or among the Yoruba, a core Africanity is posited because societal constructs so clearly set off the "Black" community from the "White," in a Manichaean worldview which governs everything from politics to the music industry.

In early 1998, President Bill Clinton visited Africa. To many, the trip was a triumphal one, focused on trade, international security and the ties that bind Africa and African Americans. Howard French, an African-American writer in the New York Times mused over whether the United States should apologize for the Atlantic Slave Trade. He noted that "In the end, appropriately solemn Mr. Clinton stopped short of an outright apology for America's part in the slave trade, finding other ways to express his regret as he focused on the future." When the president did express regret, he spoke at school in Uganda. The act was perhaps unintentionally symbolic, the equivalent of apologizing for the Irish Potato Famine in Slovokia. Interestingly, nothing was said of contemporary bondage across the border in neighboring Sudan.

The silence reflects the vagaries of the last century's abolitionist debates. Commenting on President Clinton's decision to express official regret for the historic slave trade, French mentioned what we may call "The Slaver's Canard": "Weren't Africans engaging in slavery themselves well before the first Europeans came and carried off their first human cargoes? Didn't African chiefs themselves conduct...slaving raids on neighboring tribes and march their harvest to the shores for sale."? The charge is an old one. Beginning in the eighteenth century, defenders of Atlantic slavery maintained that Africa itself was rife with slavery; Europeans only took away the surplus produced by semi-permanent warfare. Nineteenth century abolitionists countered by painting an image of a bucolic Africa in which slaves were part of the family, a status hardly comparable to chattel status in the American South.

From the other end of the political spectrum, polemicists continued and continue to hammer away at the particular evil of "African slavery." For instance, the conservative ideologue Dinesh D'Souza decries what he perceives as liberal attempts to "downplay African slavery." He notes that "Any claims of the benign quality of African slavery are hard to square with such reports as slaves being tortured at the discretion of their owners, or executed en masse to publicly commemorate the deaths of the kings of Dahomey...."

Given the geographical size of Africa and the number and complexity of societies found there, any broad generalization is bound to be false. One could argue that there is no benign slavery. Some time ago, in comparing slavery in the Americas, the anthropologist Marvin Harris, comparing slavery in the United States and Latin America, discounted the "Myth of the Kindly Master," in which "Latin" slavery was envisioned as somehow innately less harsh and burdensome than the Anglo-Saxon variety. In the Harris thesis, if some African societies seemed to offer slaves more leeway than others, it is because their intensity of economic production was less. It would be very hard to argue that the slave salt miners of Taodeni or the laborers in the Asante gold mines participated in any form of "familial" slavery. Even when the kinship idiom is used, we must realize that folks can be awfully hard on their kin (for example, Roman fathers had the legal right to kill or sell their spouses and children). Also, gender cannot be overlooked. The majority of slaves in Africa were women and in many places the major agriculturalists. Their status put them at a complex juncture; under patriarchy all women are subordinate, but some are more subordinate than others.

If Africa is simply the metonym for "Black Man's Land," a place without nations, ethnicities or languages, the charge of slavery and slaving is devastating. Zora Neale Hurston lamented, "But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw was: my people had sold me...My own people had exterminated whole nations and torn families apart for profit before the strangers got their chance at a cut." Richard Wright was bedeviled by similar thoughts. "Had some of my ancestors," he mused, "sold their relatives to white men?" The writer wondered: "What would my feelings be when I looked into the black face of an African, feeling that maybe his great-great-great-grandfather had sold my great-great-great-grandfather into slavery?" Skip Gates continues in the same vein: "The image of slavery we had when I was a kid was that the Europeans showed up with these fish nets and swept all the Africans away." He is startled: "Rubbish. It's like they went to a shopping mall. Without the Africans there wouldn't have been a slave trade."

To Gates the indictment is particularly blistering:

"...for African Americans the most painful-truth concerning the extraordinary complex phenomenon that was the African slave trade is the role of black Africans themselves in its origins, its operation, and its perpetuation. It was an uneasiness and anger about this truth that fueled Richard Wright's barely concealed contempt for his Ghanaian kinsman in Black Power and that led many African Americans to view their New World culture as sui generis, connected only tenuously to its African antecedents, if at all. Western images of African barbarism and savagery, of course, did not endear us to our native land [sic]. But for many of my countrymen, the African role in the slave trade of other Africans is both a horrific surprise and the ultimate betrayal, something akin to fratricide and sororicide. Imagine the impact of a revelation that Sephardic Jews had served as the middlemen in the capture or incarceration of Ashkenazi Jews during the Holocaust, and you can perhaps begin to understand Richard Wright's disgust."

This raises the question of what a "brother" and a "kinsman" is. If a continent is the "Nation," an equivalent would be to view the Holocaust as a Mittel-Europaische family feud of particular ferocity -- Europeans exterminating their own people, while in league with an alien race at the other end of the world. Indeed, thousands of Askenezim did die at the hands of their Polish, Ukrainian and Baltic neighbors. And, strangely, the Germans killed a far greater percentage of their European Jewish captives than they did of their North and West African prisoners of war. Although some nineteenth century thinkers may have seen Jews and Arabs as "Orientals" sharing a bundle of common characteristics, only the most Utopian of present-day prognosticators would predict the rise of a political "Pan Semitism" in the Middle East. The comparisons of Jews and Africans is a strained one. Kwane Appiah notes "that Judaism - the religion and the wider body of Jewish practice through which the various communities of the Diaspora have defined themselves allow for a cultural conception of Jewish identity that cannot be made plausible in the case of Pan Africanism." Appiah points to "the way that the fifty or so rather disparate African nationalities in our present world seem to have met the nationalist impulses of many Africans, while Zionism has, of necessity, been satisfied by the creation of a single state." Unfortunately, in the popular American imagination, the fifty-plus African states remain an irrelevant hodgepodge. The continent remains largely featureless; languages are dialects and ethnicities are tribes. If Africa, three times the size of the United States and containing 748 million people speaking some 1,500 languages, is reduced to simply a mythic homeland, confusion is sure to follow. And worse than confusion, a basic lack of understanding or sympathy for Africans as they exist is bound to follow.

The image of slavery in Africa has historically stood as a distortion, either a magnification or diminution of the image of American slavery. TransAtlantic bondage is the absolute before which all other manifestations are held to be relative. Slavery is the cause of the essential national fissure. The national (white) image of the institution has gone through various permutations, without questioning basic assumptions. Early in the twentieth century Southern historians like Ulrich B. Phillips painted a rosy picture of bondage in Dixie; indeed, slavery was a benign "school" for blacks. D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation contained images of both "faithful darkies" and "ferocious bucks." The popular image of kindly slavery perhaps reached its apogee in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. As the white vision of slavery changed, so did the black. The African American view of slavery has changed drastically in the years since emancipation. Various nineteenth-century black thinkers, among them Martin Delany, Henry M. Turner, Alexander Crummell, and Edward Blyden, saw the Middle Passage as providential, even if highly painful. By the time of the Civil Rights Movement a Providential Slavery had all but disappeared from most African American discourse on slavery and the slave trade. The image of slavery emerged not so much as a labor system, but as a systematic torture of millions rooted in innate racial antagonism. In this scenario, sexual exploitation and gross barbarity fueled by raging hatred characterized everyday of slave existence. The plantation resembled not so much Booker T. Washington's "school" as it did Stanley Elkins' later comparison with a concentration camp. An "Old Dixie Narrative" had emerged. Simply stated, this view of history says: Slavery was confined to Dixie and slaves grew cotton. Nowhere else in the history of humanity has slavery existed and nowhere else were human beings chattel. In this scenario, Africans were selected to be slaves because they were black. Racism drove a slave trade and slavery which existed as the ultimate form of psychosexual torture. The numbers immolated in the horror of the "Middle Passage" and in the cotton fields ran into the millions. At the popular level, the Old Dixie Narrative floats in the American collective consciousness, even among those who have never given it much thought.

For many African Americans, looking back through the prism of Jim Crow and lynch laws, a view of slavery as the ultimate horror provides ample proof of the ultimate fixity of human nature. Racism was as alive in fifteenth-century Lisbon as it was in nineteenth-century Mobile. History is one long version of Up from Slavery and always a struggle against the Manichean "Other." Blacks remain the ultimate Outgroup, one which erases European division and suffering. In the Old Dixie Narrative, there is agreement from both sides of the racial divide that Blacks have always been drawers of water and hewers of wood. Class is eternally "raced."

If slavery is about race, then Africans could not have engaged in a slave traffic. Indeed, the charge itself is racial calumny. However, a cautionary note was sounded long ago by the Trinidadian historian Eric Williams. Best known for maintaining that white humanitarianism did not abolish the slave trade, the scholar made a subsidiary, and often overlooked, point: capitalism and slavery are no great respecters of persons. Writing from beyond the confines of the Dixie Narrative, he observed that "The 'horrors' of the Middle Passage have been exaggerated. For this the British abolitionists are in large part responsible." Furthermore, "A racial twist has ...been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery. Unfree labor in the New World was brown, white, black, and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan." Slavery need not be raced. It could exist in ancient Rome, medieval Kosovo, nineteenth-century Korea and in the Liberia of the 1930s. Unfortunately, few could think in terms of C. L. R. James dictum: "The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics.... But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.

If we heed these caveats, we end up with somewhat different conclusions than those contained in Wonders of the African World. Slavery, like marriage, is a fairly universal institution. Most societies have had some form of it. Slavery, at base, rests on the ability to coerce labor and/or sexual reproduction. Probing for a peculiar "Black" guilt for slavery is an ahistorical and presentist trap. We might as well ask why the "brothers" have fought and killed each other in places as disparate as Biafra and Rwanda. The answer is obvious. Africa is a continent full of proud, diverse and often contentious peoples. It also has social cleavages within societies, something a scholar like Walter Rodney clearly recognized twenty years ago. Recently, Joe Miller has pointed out that "Africa [still] looms integrally in the background of African-American history as a unified ancestry reflecting the racial sense of community forced by American prejudice on African Americans...." Wonders of the African World did little to go beyond this view. The positing of a Black Volksgemeinschaft is soothingly mythopoeic, but it is not history. As Pearle-Alice Marsh, executive director of the Africa Policy Information laments: "There are millions of Americans who still think Africa is a country, not a continent." Sadly, in spite of its kaleidoscopic race around the continent, Wonders of the African World will do little to change this perception.


First Online: 21 January 2000
Last Revised: 25 January 2000

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