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.

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  • ooops sorry for the misspellings! :)

  • One could nix the entirety of the transatlantic slave trade and just focus on what happened for the following 400 years and the 100 following emancipation to discount Gates’ theory. Transatlantic trading is only a small fraction of the damage done – the real damage was the 400 years of enslavement, indoctrination, disenfranchisement, etc. To focus only on the event of how black people getting here is terribly myopic, and even moreso Gates ignores or hasn’t thought to consider the pattern of hegemony and subjugation of black people ALL OVER the world. It is no coincidence that the colonization/destabilization of Africa coincides with the multitude of issues facing people throughout the diaspora.

    If Israel was destabilized or of no military significance, if Japan was not the only Asian nation in G8, and if China was not an emerging superpower – all of those groups would treated much the same. What Gates’ analysis leaves out is the purposeful role the last half millenia of trade/colonization has served in totally upending Africa. Don’t know what kinda paper they printed his degree on, but its loosing some of its weight…

  • Sonique

    I never cared fro Skip Gates when I started to realize that his interest in genealogy– and the purpose of the show African American lives– was to actually prove how much white blood skip has flowing through him.

  • Allow me to address each of Gates’ points.

    -Slavery was a dual-party consent. Africans were just as complicit as Europeans in trading Africans across the Atlantic.

    When he puts it this way, he tens to mislead people into thinking that slaves place themselves in slavery. They did not. And those Africans doing the selling (he did get that part right, some did, though many doing the selling were middle easterns who lived in North Africa.) had a very different idea of slavery than the Europeans did. In Africa, slavery was something a criminal or prisoner of war was subject to. If you were captured in a tribal battle or committed a crime you were a slave. But slavery there was more of what Europeans thought of as indentured servitude. It had a time limit, slaves had the ability to become free (and many did) and some joined the family they were sold to in the first place. Chattel slavery was a foreign institution that no one ha ever heard of before in Africa. It made slaves nothing but objects, as if they had no thought nor needs. Some slaves went onto the ships quietly, with the thought that they would see their family in a few years. Maybe a decade. Guess how that turned out.

    -Barack Obama is in a unique position to “reshape the debate over one of the most contentious issues of America’s racial legacy.”

    I’m not quite sure how to address this. What does Gates wish to change? He wants to take some of the blame off those that dehumanized entire races? I don’t think that’s possible.

    -American slavery was lucrative for African elites too

    American slavery was in no way, shape or form lucrative for African elites. I don’t know WHERE he got this idea from, but i hope he failed any African American history course he took in college (he did take some, right?) It was profitable on a small scale for those doing the selling, but once the initial sale of the slave was gone (and those doing the selling in Africa saw 1/10th or less of the money made in North and South America), they never saw another penny. Gates is writing like there was an office that processed slaves, levied taxes, and asked for membership fees! It didn’t happen that way. I wish i had a time machine to push him into.

  • Wong Chia Chi

    *Where are the guns in this narrative, Skip? Wasn’t that the competitive advantage of Europeans?*

    I can think of a few obvious answers to that. Guns are there, they just aren’t very effective yet. Firearms alone didn’t give Europeans the advantage at first. There were pistols as early as the 15th century but they were clumsy, slow to load, and did not work well in inclement weather like rain/snow because gunpowder had to be dry in order to ignite and shoot the bullet out of the chamber. This is why Europeans in both North America and Africa had a tough time fighting the local tribes. You can throw a spear or shoot 8 arrows with deadly accuracy in the time it takes to load and shoot a musket ball. In The Americas, particulary North America, smallpox/influensa/bubonic plague and a host of other diseases did most of the Europeans work for them. One of the reasons slaves began being imported from Africa in the first place is because there was not enough local Indigenous tribes left after the initial conquest to enslave and work the land, i.e. the Arawaks in Cuba. The few that remained tended to escape into the jungle and other unihabited areas to get away from the colonisers, hence the need to import workers from other places. Imported Europeans mostly died, and there wasn’t enough of them. African though had a seemingly endless supply of enslaved to import into the colonies.

    *If the relationship was as symbiotic as Gates believe, why did Europeans continue to colonize Africa after they stopped shipping slaves?*

    Europeans had trouble penetrating the African interior because of malaria/dengue fever and they did not know the terrain. Also the Ottoman Empire blocked most of Northern Africa and the Middle East. So Europeans depended on having friendly relationships with African tribes they did have access to just to even survive there. Europeans traded goods and firearms for slaves. Slavery was already going on in Africa, and yes it was different than colonial slavery, just like Indigenous American slavery was different. But that was still the trade that was set up in the beginning. Some tribes, such as the Ashanti, were regular slave traders. And many tribes traded their enemies after they defeated them in battle.

    Plus European powers fought against one another for trading posts i.e. the Portugese against the Spanish against the Dutch and there were numerous wars going on in Europe also. So it only became a concentrated effort when the slavery tap was shut off by legislation in Europe that ended slavery as a practice, or changed how it was conducted so it was no longer as profitable.

    Colonialism became amped up preceisely BECAUSE slaves or some other form of cheap labor couldn’t be imported anymore. Notice the “Scramble for Africa” gets more intense and becomes a part of the National Agenda in many European Countries in around the1800’s? Right around the time slavery is being abolished in Europe and the American Colonies?

    I do think the relationship was symbiotic in the beginning. The slave trade may not have been lucrative for many or even all African tribes (definitely not the one’s who were sold into it) like it was for Europeans but they did get profits out of it, europeans just got more profits in the end.
    And the money European countries plundered from the Carribean and Americas helped them finance their operations in Africa, and as a result Europeans were much more skilled and successful the second time around so to speak.

    I don’t know what Gates ideological agenda is or if he even has one but he’s factually correct. It’s just facts that people don’t like hearing.