Ever since strife drove a chasm between the Confederate States and the Union in what became the Civil War, the call for reparations have been discussed, debated, and even Chappelle-showed.
The conversation has received a push recently, due to Skip Gates’ New York Times editorial. The Times, being the Times, knew that a column title of “Ending the Slavery Blame Game” would attract eyeballs. A title like that has great potential to send the reader into defense mode before a single word is read.
And these days, the reaction to art is more telling than the art itself.
In fact, the column says nothing about ending the slavery blame game. Giving blame to the right people is Gates’ theme, though his purpose for writing this column isn’t entirely clear. But headlines are headlines, and true to form, Gates received massive criticism for this piece. In the column, he insists that:
- Slavery was a dual-party consent. Africans were just as complicit as Europeans in trading Africans across the Atlantic.
- Barack Obama is in a unique position to “reshape the debate over one of the most contentious issues of America’s racial legacy.”
- American slavery was lucrative for African elites too
Let the outrage begin. Unfortunately, it appears that outrage is all we have. This subject is packed with the potential to propel our understanding of race in a country that seems to have little of it. But instead, ad hominems are dictating the discussions. You have to love that many of the counter pieces have this picture to accompany, as if that adds credibility to their points.
Philosopher Marshall McLuhan spoke about this media phenomenon in his 1964 book, “Understanding Media, The Extension of Man.” In the first sentence of his opening chapter, he writes:
“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.”
According to McLuhan, the message of the medium was another matter in itself. That’s why brands are so important in a market-driven culture. The quality of a product is secondary to the brand. When it comes to Skip Gates, the branding is clear:
Skip Gates is a miseducated Negro intellectual who is beholden to the white elite.
In this particular rebuttal to Gates, Abdul Arif Muhammed goes through lengths to prove why Gates is not credible enough to provide a real perspective on slavery. Why Gates is too misguided to be taken serious in such discussions. Why Gates is not fit to be the Director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard.
In fact, five whole paragraphs passes before the author decide to address a point in Gates’ column. He even used DuBois’ writings for the coup de grace.
What was the major critique on DuBois’ legacy? Oh, that’s right: He was a miseducated Negro intellectual who was beholden to the white elite. Apparently, the author didn’t see the irony of using DuBois’ works to disprove Gates.
So what do we make of Skip Gates’ op-ed on reparations and the blame game? Well first, we must be clear on the circumstances surrounding reparations in America.
In 1865, William T. Sherman, the man responsible for Underground Atlanta due to his love of fire, proposed a plan to give each freed family 40 acres of land and a mule in the coastal southern areas. Then Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and the plan was aborted. Thaddeus Stevens, a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, redrew up a plan to redistribute land to freed African-Americans. In his bill to Congress, Stevens wrote:
“To each male person who is the head of a family, forty acres; to each adult male, whether the head of a family or not, forty acres, to each widow who is the head of a family, forty acres-to be held by them in fee-simple, but to be inalienable for the next ten years after they become seized thereof.”
Stevens’ bill was doomed from the start. Whether it would have passed had Lincoln been alive is another argument (the succeeding president, Andrew Johnson, vetoed every attempt by Congress to give freedmen land). But what we do know is that 40 acres in 1865 was nothing to sneeze at. According to some economists, 40 acres was worth at least $1 million in today’s currency. Adding a mule would’ve made labor more efficient for landowners, presenting increased economical opportunities and giving African Americans a leg up on the hordes of immigrants who later came to America.
Back to the present. The conversation of unpaid labor persists, while black America is on the lower end of numerous macro-level statistics and progress.
In regards to Gates’ article, he poses great questions. He gives examples of African slave culture, cites Frederick Douglass and gives anecdotes of how African countries are reconciling their role in the slave trade. But he drops us off there.
How exactly was American slavery lucrative to African slave traders? For whom was it lucrative for? Also, Gates neglected to expound on the materials of trade. He mentions, for example, that in Ghana, cash gained from the slave trade was used to import gold. But this doesn’t make sense: Ghana has been a prodigious producer of gold for years. Why would a country import something that it has in spades? Were Ghanians bad businesspeople? Or was it something else they were importing?
Which leads to my next question: Where are the guns in this narrative, Skip? Wasn’t that the competitive advantage of Europeans? If the relationship was as symbiotic as Gates believe, why did Europeans continue to colonize Africa after they stopped shipping slaves?
Such omissions should serve as the starting point of dissent. If a writer presents something against popular theory, it’s incumbent on that writer to present clear facts about the points disputed and well as the counterargument of his/her point. Otherwise, that writer is little more than a shock jock who seeks to generate a reaction as opposed to moving the discussion forward.
Gates didn’t touch on these points, perhaps because he didn’t have enough evidence to write on them. Or because he wanted to stick with the theme of equal culpability between the two trading partners. Nevertheless, his article points a finger at Africa, a continent he feels is overlooked in their role in slavery.
Gates’ piece sought to bring balance to the notion of a victimized Africa. What should have been a propellant to elevated discourse about a controversial topic has become a glorified shouting match. It does a disservice to the fight for black rights or a less skewed system if prime topics like this are bobbled or punted away because of the tendency to “attack the person instead of murdering the mindset.”
This isn’t Jay-Z vs. Nas. Ice Cube vs. N.W.A. or Common. Tupac vs. Biggie. This is literature and more importantly, an unresolved vestige of our culture and existence in America. Schoolyard-like responses to issues of this magnitude are counterproductive. While Gates’ execution was far from perfect, it was thought-provoking in its intent while also exposing the rawest nerve in the American black psyche.