Henry Louis Gates’ Dangerously Wrong Slave History

Henry Louis Gates’ Dangerously Wrong Slave History


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Today, millions of young Black men and women are

caged, shackled and dehumanized  by a prison system

that is growing rapidly, privatizing and increasingly

exploiting the labor of its inmates. That scenario is

far from Harvard Square, where police harassment lands

you in the White House and on television.



Books on Reparations

Belinda’s Petition: A Concise History of Reparations For The Transatlantic Slave Trade  / Race, Racism & Reparations

Should America Pay?: Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations / Race and Reparations: A Black Perspective for the 21st Century   (1996)

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Henry Louis Gates’ Dangerously Wrong Slave History

By Barbara Ransby

  In a recent New York Times editorial, entitled, “Ending the Slavery Black-Game,” Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates calls on the United States’ first Black president to end the nation’s sense of responsibility for the legacy of slavery. It is a pernicious argument, well suited to the so-called “post-racial” moment we are in. Like the erroneous claims of “post-racialism,” in general, Gates’ editorial compromises rather than advances the prospects for racial justice; and clouds rather than clarifies the history, and persistent realities, of racism in America.   Gates essentially absolves Americans of the guilt, shame and most importantly, financial responsibility for the horrific legacy of slavery in the Americas. How does he do this—through a contrived narrative that indicts African elites. And they did collaborate in the trade. But this is no news flash. Every history graduate student covering the Atlantic World knows that people of African descent (like the elites from every other corner of the globe) waged war against one another, captured enemies in battle, and enslaved their weaker and more vulnerable neighbors. This is nothing unique to Africa. What is problematic about Gates’ essay is how he frames and skews this fact.   The frame is this. Black and white people in the United States should now “get over” slavery because as we all know, this was not a racial thing but an economic thing. Since both Blacks and whites were culpable, the call for reparations is indeed meaningless and bereft of any moral weight. If we take Gates’ argument to its full conclusion, we might claim that it is not America or Europe, but the long suffering, impoverished, and debt-ridden nations of Africa, that should really pay reparations to Black Americans. “The problem with reparations,” Gates proclaims, is “from whom they would be extracted.” This is a dilemma since Africans were neither “ignorant or innocent,” when it came to the slave trade.   At its worse, Gates’ argument resembles that of some Holocaust deniers who don’t deny that “bad things” happened to the Jews, but add that maybe the Nazi’s weren’t the only ones to blame. Maybe the Jews, in part, did it to themselves. Stories that over-emphasize the role of the Judenrats (Jewish Councils), for example, who were coerced into providing slave labor to the Nazis and organized Jews to be sent to the concentration camps, distorts the real culprits and criminals of the Holocaust, and in the final analysis, serves to blame the victims.   Even though African monarchs did collaborate in the selling of Blacks bodies into slavery, what happened after that was the establishment of a heinous and brutal system that rested squarely on the dual pillars of White supremacy and ruthless capitalist greed. There was nothing African-inspired about it.

It is with the construction of a racialized slave regime in the Americas that a new form of the ancient institution of slavery was honed and refashioned. African slaves in the Americas, unlike most other places, were deemed slaves for life, and their offspring were enslaved. Moreover, Black servants were distinguished from white servants (who were also badly treated) and stripped of all rights and recourse. As slavery evolved even “free” Blacks were denied basic rights by virtue of sharing ancestry and phenotype with the enslaved population.   Racism, as so many scholars have documented was the critical and ideological justification for the exploitation, or more accurately, theft, of black labor for some 300 years. Blacks were deemed inferior, childlike, savage, and better suited to toiling in the hot sun than whites, and innately incapable of governing themselves. These are the racist myths and narratives that justified slavery in the Americas. It was indeed different in this way from other slave systems where the fabricated mythologies of race did not rule the day.   Another problem with Gates’ narrative about slavery is that he neglects to examine the plantation experience itself as the main ground on which African and African-American labor was exploited. As distinguished historian, Eric Foner, points out in his letter to the Times [see below] on April 26, in critical response to Gates, the internal U.S. slave trade, which had nothing to do with Africa or African elites, involved the buying and selling of over two million Black men, women and children between 1820 and 1860. Slavery existed for over a half century after the abolition of the trans-Atlantic trade in 1807.    Even if African monarchs were complicit in and benefited individually from the trade, none of them received dividends from the profits generated by the production of millions of tons of tobacco, sugar and cotton by the stolen labor of imprisoned African and African-American plantation workers (i.e., slaves). It is this appropriation of millions of hours of uncompensated labor that is the core of the reparations demand.   Professor Gates’ selective storytelling and slanted use of history paints a very different picture than does the collective scholarship of hundreds of historians over the last fifty years or so. A learned man who commands enormous resources and unparalleled media attention, why would Gates put this argument forward so vehemently now? It is untimely at best. At a time when ill-informed and self-congratulatory commentaries about how far America has come on the race question, abound, Gates weighs in to say, we can also stop “blaming” ourselves (‘ourselves’ meaning white Americas or their surrogates) for slavery.   The burden of race is made a little bit lighter by Gates’ revisionist history. It is curious that the essay appears at the same time that we not only see efforts to minimize the importance of race or racism, but at a moment when there is a rather sinister attempt to rewrite the antebellum era as the good old days of southern history. Virginia Governor Bob McConnell went so far as to designate a month in honor of the pro-slavery Confederacy.   Gates’ essay fits conveniently into the new discourse on post-racialism. Slavery was long ago, the story goes, and Black Americans have come such a long way. So, we need to stop embracing ‘victimhood,’ get over it and move on. We need to stop complaining and ‘end the blame game,’ with regards to racism. After all, doesn’t the election of Barack Obama relegate racism to the dustbins of history? Gates goes even further to suggest that even the worst marker of American racism, slavery, wasn’t so exclusively racial after all.   Clearly, there has been racial progress in the United States since the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. That progress was born of decades of struggle and protest. But we have not come as far as some would have us believe. And we don’t escape history by either tracing common ancestry or blaming others for comparable crimes. Reconciliation with the past is a long, arduous and complex process and there are no shortcuts.   Moreover, ‘the past’ is not so long ago. In other words, chattel slavery ended in the United States in the 1860s but, as Herb Boyd [see below], in yet another letter to the New York Times in response to Gates, rightly points out, “the economic disadvantage of Black workers extended beyond the long night of slavery into the iniquitous era of Jim Crow” (marked by segregation, legal disenfranchisement, and rampant violence). Moreover, we don’t have to go back to Jim Crow to see the ravages of American racism, a racism that took hold under slavery.   Today, millions of young Black men and women are caged, shackled and dehumanized by a prison system that is growing rapidly, privatizing and increasingly exploiting the labor of its inmates. That scenario is far from Harvard Square, where police harassment lands you in the White House and on television. But the reality of the 21st century carceral state suggests that various forms of coercion and containment are palpably present today. It is not slavery but a powerful reminder of it. And once again people of color are disproportionately impacted.   Finally, despite its flawed and reckless uses of history, and powerfully disturbing political messages, there are some useful lessons embedded in Professor Gates’ essay. The lessons are about the self-serving role of certain Black elites, who in slavery times and now, will sell (or sell out) other Black bodies for their own gain and advancement. African royalty did it in the 1600s and 1700s.   Comprador elites did it in colonial and postcolonial settings through the Global South. And certain public figures, in political, cultural and academic circles, do so today, with a kind of moral blindness and impunity that rivals the slave sellers of old. As we know, ideas have consequences. And misleading narratives that fuel and validate new forms of denial and given cover to resurgent forms of racism should not be taken lightly.

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Barbara Ransby is a historian, writer, and longtime political activist. Ransby has published dozens of articles and essays in popular and scholarly venues. She is most notably the author of an award-winning biography of civil rights activist Ella Baker, entitled, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, (University of North Carolina, 2003).

Barbara is currently working on two major research projects: a study of African American feminist organizations in the 1970s, and a political biography of Eslanda Cardozo Goode Robeson. She serves on the editorial board of the London-based journal, Race and Class, and a number of non-profit civic and media organizations.

Dr Ransby is a University of Illinois (Chicago) Associate Professor, Gender and Women’s Studies, African American Studies, and History Director, Gender and Women’s Studies Program PhD in History, University of Michigan.

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Africa’s Role in the U.S. Slave Trade


26 April  2010

To the Editor:

In “Ending the Slavery Blame-Game” (Op-Ed, April 23), Henry Louis Gates Jr. notes that African rulers and merchants were deeply complicit in the Atlantic slave trade. Despite Mr. Gates’s contention that “there is very little discussion” of this fact, it hardly qualifies as news; today, virtually every history of slavery and every American history textbook includes this information.

Mr. Gates’s point is that the African role complicates the process of assigning blame for slavery and thus discussion of apologies and reparations by the United States. I believe that apologies serve little purpose and that reparations are unworkable. But the great growth of slavery in this country occurred after the closing of the Atlantic slave trade in 1808.

It was Americans, not Africans, who created in the South the largest, most powerful slave system the modern world has known, a system whose profits accrued not only to slaveholders but also to factory owners and merchants in the North.

Africans had nothing to do with the slave trade within the United States, in which an estimated two million men, women and children were sold between 1820 and 1860. Identifying Africa’s part in the history of slavery does not negate Americans’ responsibility to confront the institution’s central role in our own history.

Eric Foner New York, April 23, 2010

The writer is a professor of history at Columbia University. NYTimes

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To the Editor:

It is true, as Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. says, that many African monarchs were complicit in the heinous Atlantic slave trade. But the demand for reparations has less to do with the mechanism that delivered the African captives than what happened to them during the hundreds of years of working without compensation.

The economic disadvantage of black workers extended beyond the long night of slavery into the iniquitous era of Jim Crow. A crime was committed against humanity, and the European nations, the United States and the African chiefs are all accessories. But the United States was the greatest beneficiary, and thus should be the main compensator.

Herb Boyd New York, April 23, 2010

The writer teaches African and African-American history at the College of New Rochelle and City College, CUNY, and is the author of 18 books. NYTimes

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Barbara Ransby’s polemics against the Harvard apologist, Skip “the jip” Gates is on target, justified and based on sound reasoning. I share her point of view that: “Gates . . . argument resembles that of some Holocaust deniers who don’t deny that “bad things” happened to the Jews, but add that maybe the Nazi’s weren’t the only ones to blame. Maybe the Jews, in part, did it to themselves.” I sense that Gates’ use of the Economics Determinism argument is his attempt to spin the Marxist theory on historic materialism, and the primacy of economics in the development of human societies and history. Ransby has made a formidable case against Gates views, relegating it to Vulgar Marxism. More competent and able thinkers than Gates, in the last Century( 1933-1939) such as Leon Trotsky and C.L. R James examined similarly foolhardy arguments of the Gates type and dismissed them. Both C.L.R. James and Trotsky strongly supported the demands of Blacks in the US and urged them never to give up their efforts for Self-Determination and Nationalism.—Yao

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Who Was Ella Baker—Ella Baker began her involvement with the NAACP in 1940. She worked as a field secretary and then served as director of branches from 1943 until 1946. Inspired by the historic bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, Baker co-founded the organization In Friendship to raise money to fight against Jim Crow Laws in the deep South. In 1957, Baker moved to Atlanta to help organize Martin Luther King’s new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She also ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship.

On February 1, 1960, a group of black college students from North Carolina A&T University refused to leave a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina where they had been denied service. Baker left the SCLC after the Greensboro sit-ins. She wanted to assist the new student activists because she viewed young, emerging activists as a resource and an asset to the movement. Miss Baker organized a meeting at Shaw University for the student leaders of the sit-ins in April 1960. From that meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)  was born.

Adopting the Gandhian theory of nonviolent direct action, SNCC members joined with activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to organize in the 1961 Freedom Rides. In 1964 SNCC helped create Freedom Summer, an effort to focus national attention on Mississippi’s racism and to register black voters. . . .

With Ella Baker’s guidance and encouragement, SNCC became one of the foremost advocates for human rights in the country. Ella Baker once said, “This may only be a dream of mine, but I think it can be made real.” Her audacity to dream big is a cornerstone of our philosophy. Her influence was reflected in the nickname she acquired: “Fundi,” a Swahili word meaning a person who teaches a craft to the next generation. Baker continued to be a respected and influential leader in the fight for human and civil rights until her death on December 13, 1986, her 83rd birthday.—EllaBakerCenter

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Obama’s America and the New Jim Crow

The Recurring Racial Nightmare, The Cyclical Rebirth of Caste

by Michelle Alexander

Michelle_Alexander Part II Democracy Now (Video)

 Race, Racism & Reparations

By J. Angelo Corlett

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Remarks by the President and the First Lady at Presentation of the National Medal of the Arts and the National Humanities medal.—November 5, 1998—THE PRESIDENT: Near the beginning of this century, W. E. B. Du Bois predicted a “black tomorrow” of African American achievement. Thanks in large measure to Henry Louis Gates, that tomorrow has turned into today. For 20 years he has revitalized African American studies. In his writing and teaching, through his leadership of the Dream Team of African American scholars he brought together at Harvard, Gates has shed brilliant light on authors and traditions kept in the shadows for too long. From “signifying monkeys” to small-town West Virginia, from ancient Africa to the new New York, Skip Gates has described the American experience with force, with dignity and, most of all, with color. Ladies and gentlemen, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Applause.) The Medal is presented.)—clinton6

The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1989) Colored People: A Memoir (1994, memoir)

Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

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Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement

 A Radical Democratic Vision

By Barbara Ransby

One of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement, Ella Baker (1903-1986) was an activist whose remarkable career spanned fifty years and touched thousands of lives. A gifted grassroots organizer, Baker shunned the spotlight in favor of vital behind-the-scenes work that helped power the black freedom struggle. She was a national officer and key figure in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a prime mover in the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker made a place for herself in predominantly male political circles that included W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King Jr., all the while maintaining relationships with a vibrant group of women, students, and activists both black and white.

In this deeply researched biography, Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker’s long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual, and a teacher, from her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ransby shows Baker to be a complex figure whose radical, democratic worldview, commitment to empowering the black poor, and emphasis on group-centered, grassroots leadership set her apart from most of her political contemporaries. Beyond documenting an extraordinary life, the book paints a vivid picture of the African American fight for justice and its intersections with other progressive struggles worldwide across the twentieth century. UNC Press

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Hopes and Prospects

By Noam Chomsky

In this urgent new book, Noam Chomsky surveys the dangers and prospects of our early twenty-first century. Exploring challenges such as the growing gap between North and South, American exceptionalism (including under President Barack Obama), the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S.-Israeli assault on Gaza, and the recent financial bailouts, he also sees hope for the future and a way to move forward—in the democratic wave in Latin America and in the global solidarity movements that suggest “real progress toward freedom and justice.”

Hopes and Prospects is essential reading for anyone who is concerned about the primary challenges still facing the human race. “This is a classic Chomsky work: a bonfire of myths and lies, sophistries and delusions. Noam Chomsky is an enduring inspiration all over the world—to millions, I suspect—for the simple reason that he is a truth-teller on an epic scale. I salute him.” —John Pilger

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America.

This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”

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Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890-2000

By Adam Fairclough

Better Day Coming is intended, in author Adam Fairclough’s words, as “neither a textbook nor a survey, but an interpretation” (p. xiv) of the circuitous struggle for racial equality pursued by African Americans and their occasional allies between 1890 and 2000. Chronologically organized, the narrative moves from an evaluation of the hard-pressed, contending forces vying for ascendancy in the black South at the nadir to the interwar period and well beyond, into the urban cauldron of the northern ghettoes at the high point of the Black Power movement. Fairclough brings to his project a fluent understanding of the shifting institutional configurations of opposition to Jim Crow and a keen sensitivity to the ways in which the efforts of those who fought it were hampered, circumscribed, and occasionally crushed by the pressures of operating in a society formally committed—for most of the period under discussion—to aggressive defense of the racial status quo.

Fairclough’s “basic argument” seems at first glance uncontroversial: that “although blacks differed . . . about the most appropriate tactics in the struggle for equality, they were united in rejecting allegations of racial inferiority and in aspiring to a society where men and women would be judged on merit rather than by race or color” (p. xii).

But his ultimate aim is more ambitious: he sets out to rehabilitate the accommodationist tradition represented by Booker T. Washington which, though “apparently unheroic,” in the author’s view “laid the groundwork for the militant confrontation of the Civil Rights Movement” (p. xiii).—h-net

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Lincoln on Race and Slavery

Edited By Henry Louis Gates and Donald Yacovone

Generations of Americans have debated the meaning of Abraham Lincoln’s views on race and slavery. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation and supported a constitutional amendment to outlaw slavery, yet he also harbored grave doubts about the intellectual capacity of African Americans, publicly used the n-word until at least 1862, and favored permanent racial segregation. In this book—the first complete collection of Lincoln’s important writings on both race and slavery—readers can explore these contradictions through Lincoln’s own words. Acclaimed Harvard scholar and documentary filmmaker Henry Louis Gates, Jr., presents the full range of Lincoln’s views, gathered from his private letters, speeches, official documents, and even race jokes, arranged chronologically from the late 1830s to the 1860s.

Complete with definitive texts, rich historical notes, and an original introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., this book charts the progress of a war within Lincoln himself. We witness his struggles with conflicting aims and ideas—a hatred of slavery and a belief in the political equality of all men, but also anti-black prejudices and a determination to preserve the Union even at the cost of preserving slavery. We also watch the evolution of his racial views, especially in reaction to the heroic fighting of black Union troops.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 7 May 2010




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