By Abdul Arif Muhammad, Esq.
In an April 23, 2010 Op-Ed piece for The New York Times entitled “Ending the Slavery Blame-Game,” Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. argues that a moral, historic, political and economic equivalency exists between the culpability and responsibility of some Africans who participated in the transatlantic slave trade with the nations of Europe and the American colonies . This article perverts history and violates what Dr. W.E.B. DuBois called “scientific truth.” The article was intellectually disingenuous from the stand point of history and scholarship.
The article is a perfect example of the “educated Negro” who has been taught to find his “proper place” at the back door, as stated by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in his book, The Mis-Education of the Negro. Professor Gates demonstrates through this article that he has accepted his proper place at the back door, showing he is in the category of an “educated Negro” that has, in fact, been mis-educated. It is not surprising then that when Professor Gates was mishandled by white policemen in Massachusetts, he felt it necessary to inform the police that he was a Harvard professor. This is the mind of black inferiority masquerading as an “educated Negro” who has in fact forgotten who he is in the mind of White America.
Sadly, the “educated Negro” state of mind has been a historic problem in the struggle of the masses of Black people for true liberation because there has always been a segment within the black community who are the buffers and apologists for the evil of White America against its black citizens. This phenomenon has been discussed in several scholarly works including The Black Bourgeoisie, by Dr. E. Franklin Frazier; The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, by Dr. Harold Cruse; The Souls of Black Folks, by Dr. W.E.B. DuBois and of course, The Mis-Education of the Negro, by Dr. Carter G. Woodson.
Professor Gates’ arguments are far below the standard of what one should expect from the Director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Dr. DuBois was the first Black man to receive a Ph.D degree from Harvard University in 1895. The irony of Professor Gates’ article is that Dr. DuBois’ doctoral dissertation was entitled, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to The United States of America, 1638-1870. It was first published in 1896 as one of the Harvard historical studies. This study properly placed the culpability and responsibility for slavery on Europe and the American colonies. Whatever the role some Africans may have played, Dr. DuBois did not seem to view it as requiring research and scholarly attribution.
Professor Gate‘s claim that the idea of reparations is “compensation for our ancestor’s unpaid labor and bondage,” clearly shows the extent of his mis-education. Reparations is a cry for justice borne from the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, over three centuries of chattel slavery where our ancestors according to Dr. DuBois were “worked to death,” and the injustices suffered by the masses of black people even down to this present day. The issue of reparations is not solely based upon compensation because money alone will not solve the 400 year destruction of an entire people, who were robbed of the knowledge of themselves, the knowledge of their heritage, robbed of their names, language, and religion. The cumulative effect of slavery was that Black people were destroyed in their ability to think and do for themselves.
Reparations have to be determined based upon the extent of the injury inflicted, and the cost must be calculated to actually repair the damage done from slavery, Jim Crow segregation, lynching, raping of women, destruction of the institution of the black family, assassination of black leaders, shortened life expectancy from disease, poor health care, drug abuse, gang violence, black on black homicide, police brutality, racial profiling and mob attacks. Professor Gates’ view that the call for reparations may be symbolic and impractical is profoundly egregious and shows his profound lack of understanding of the scientific truth of black suffering during slavery and since emancipation.
Professor Gates’ claims that Africans played a “significant role” in the slave trade and that it was “lucrative for European buyers and African sellers alike” is astounding. His view that equal culpability for the slave trade and slavery “should truly belong to white people and black people on both sides of the Atlantic” is a historic perversion of the worst kind. Professor Gates obviously did not consider how Africa was devastated by slave trade from the 1500s to the 1800s; then, how she was systematically underdeveloped by European colonization from 1885 through the Second World War (1947). It was not until Ghana, the first independent African nation, was established in 1957 by Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, that Africa began her journey to repair over five centuries of European rape and pillage of her human and material resources. Africa remains in that struggle today. An excellent source for scholarship on this point is the book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Dr. Walter Rodney.
The co-conspirators, conceivers, planners, architects and designers of the transatlantic slave trade were the European nations. The American colonies and the colonized West Indies sustained and nurtured the slave trade due to the wealth it generated. This wealth fueled the industrial revolution in Europe and America, and ultimately made the United States a world power. Where is the evidence of historical records to prove otherwise? Another excellent source of scholarship on this point is the book, Capitalism and Slavery by Dr. Eric Williams. Africans did not know the mind of the European nations in planning the destruction of a people. Africans did not know that the Church sadly issued “papal bulls” from the pope sanctioning slavery of Africans because they were heathens, and needed to be civilized and Christianized. Africans were not aware of the peculiar institution of chattel slavery and its destructive effects that evolved over centuries in the American colonies. It is ludicrous to infer that visits to Europe by some Africans gave them knowledge of the holocaust of slavery.
Professor Gates writes that slavery is one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization. On this point he is absolutely correct. Slavery was a crime against humanity and an entire people. America has a very narrow window to escape the consequences of her deeds; unfortunately she has not yet shown she has the spiritual, moral or political will to repair the damage. If there was a criminal prosecution Europe and her American co-conspirators would be charged with crimes against humanity for the murder and slaughter of untold millions of African people. At best, those Africans who delivered their own brethren into the hands of their oppressors could be charged with the lesser criminal offense of being an accessory before the fact of false imprisonment. In other words they were complicit in an aspect of an entirely different crime from the greater crime of Europe and her American co-conspirators.
But the real point here is why is Professor Gates attempting to blunt and reduce the culpability of Europe and America in the horror of slavery? He seems to have developed a pattern of this behavior. On July 20, 1992 Professor Gates published an Op-Ed article in the New York Times to rebut the Nation of Islam’s book The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, Vol. 1. In this article Professor Gates attempts to minimize the role of Jewish merchants, traders, financiers and slave owners in slavery. Can we fully comprehend the contradiction and hypocrisy of describing the behavior of the perpetrator of the crime as minimal, yet the victim played a “significant role” in the crime? It is bewildering. Is Professor Gates proving that he is a hired “educated Negro” by the rich and powerful to be an apologist against the legitimate cries for justice by a suffering people?
Finally, Professor Gates’ claim that President Obama’s genetic heritage of African and American parentage makes him “uniquely positioned to solve the reparations debate.” This statement does a tremendous disservice to President Obama. The question of reparations is largely a legislative issue that is the responsibility of the Congress to address. Should there ever be a Reparations Bill passed by Congress, only then would President Obama play the crucial role of signing the Bill into law. Moreover, no one person, even our President, can be the sole arbiter and reconciler on the issue of 400 years of black suffering. He could play a significant role in the discussion but the advancement of the issue of reparations is the responsibility of the more than 40 million black people who are the descendants of slaves.
I conclude by offering to Professor Gates the words of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois regarding the culpability of England and America for slavery, found in Sec. 96 Lessons For Americans in The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to The United States of America, 1638-1870..
“It was the plain duty of the colonies to crush the trade and the system in its infancy: they preferred to enrich themselves on its profits. It was the plain duty of a Revolution based upon “Liberty” to take steps toward the abolition of slavery: it preferred promises to straightforward action. It was the plain duty of the Constitutional Convention, in founding a new nation, to compromise with a threatening social evil only in case its settlement would thereby be postponed to a more favorable time: this was not the case in the slavery and the slave-trade compromises … and yet with this real, existent, growing evil before their eyes, a bargain largely of dollars and cents was allowed to open the highway that led straight to the Civil War…
It behooves the United States, therefore, in the interest both of scientific truth and of future social reform, carefully to study such chapters of her history as that of the suppression of the slave-trade. The most obvious question which this study suggests is : How far in a State can a recognized moral wrong safely be compromised? And although this chapter of history can give us no definite answer suited to the ever-varying aspects of political life, yet it would seem to warn any nation from allowing, through carelessness and moral cowardice, any social evil to grow. No persons would have seen the Civil War with more surprise and horror than the Revolutionists of 1776; yet from the small and apparently dying institution of their day arose the walled and castled Slave-Power. From this we may conclude that it behooves nations as well as men to do things at the very moment when they ought to be done.”
Dr. DuBois who over a span of seven decades as academic, scholar, sociologist, author, editor, civil rights activist and Pan-Africanist was truly an educated black man. As the Director of the institute at Harvard which bears his name it is my hope that this may provide some future guidance to Professor Gates that he might escape the syndrome of the “educated Negro” who has been Mis-Educated.
(Abdul Arif Muhammad is an attorney, historian, researcher, writer, lecturer and former Editor-in-Chief of The Final Call newspaper. He is currently developing a series of essays entitled “A More Perfect Union.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org)