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No, ‘Blacks’ did not ‘sell Blacks into slavery’

2018 Afrikan Emancipation Day Reparations rally in Windrush Square | Alamy

4 min read

Black History Month is usually a period in which people like me pop up in publications and to speak on sweet and sanguine topics. Nothing too controversial or contradictory: think Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have a Dream, but never Letter from Birmingham Jail and certainly not anything from Malcolm X or Marcus Garvey. This is a waste as there is sparsely an area of history with more to teach the world than the history of the children of Africa. Far too often, mainstream understanding of our history descends into outright falsehood and propaganda. Nowhere is this clearer than in the area of culpability for the transatlantic slave trade.

As the world witnessed the passing of Queen Elizabeth II in September, an interesting exchange occurred on CNN. Asked by presenter Don Lemon about the idea of the royal family paying reparations for colonialism, Hilary Fordwich, a royal commentator, pivoted to talk about the history of slavery. During the exchange that followed, she said: “African kings were rounding up their own people. They had them in cages, waiting on the beaches. No one was running into Africa to get them.” This sense that Africans are to blame for what was one of the worst crimes in human history is a trope that arises from time to time, and Fordwich is by no means the first to raise it.

Indeed, the idea that “Blacks sold Blacks into slavery” is one of the most successful pieces of racist propaganda ever – despite it being about as absurd as saying Vladmir Putin is bombing “his own people” (in Ukraine). Perhaps most tragically, it has served as a source of continued stigma and division amongst the victims of the crime (i.e. Black people descended from the enslaved and Black people who are not).

The idea of 'Black people selling Black people' into slavery is a distortive shorthand used to minimise and deflect culpability

The implication is that because Black people share a skin pigmentation or regional origins, they are the “same people”. At the time of the crime, this could not have been further from the truth.

In the same way England, Scotland, Ireland, Japan, China, Korea, etc have seen each other as rivals; Yoruba, Igbo, Urhobo, Dahomey, Itsekiri, Ashanti, Fante, Ga or any of the hundreds of West African ethnic groups didn’t see themselves as fellow “Black people”. A lot of them were rival nations, kingdoms or empires – often warring against each other.

European human traffickers, seeking people they could enslave to cultivate the Americas, arrived in Africa and did what they do: kidnapped and trafficked millions of people. Where they did not go on human snatching rampages, they offered goods, including weapons, in exchange for people.

As in most other places, slavery had existed in parts of Africa for centuries. The enslaved were often prisoners of war or prisoners (the latter remains the effective case in the United States as a result of the 13th amendment to the Constitution). 

The arrival of European weaponry created an arms race. Whichever ethnic group had more guns had more power. The coin of exchange the Europeans demanded in return was people. As ethnic studies professor Anthony Q Hazard explains, this reshaped slavery in parts of Africa from the result of wars to the cause of wars.

Because European weapons became essential to survival, some African leaders had two choices: collaborate with European enslavers or perish. Critically, many more Africans violently resisted the trade than were involved in it. They often resisted on humanitarian grounds or in defence of what they considered their actual people, not what we would today monolithically describe as “Africans” or “Black people”. Some West African groups used scarification techniques to clearly mark those who belonged to their group, and thus those for whom they should fight to be protected or liberated from slavery.

The idea of “Black people selling Black people” into slavery is a distortive shorthand used to minimise and deflect culpability – and to shame people into silence against demands for justice and reparation.

Hopefully it meets its end this Black History Month.

Nels Abbey is author of the political satire Think Like A White Man

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Read the most recent article written by Nels Abbey - Steve Baker, John Brown and the role of white Christianity in Black History

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