By Biko Agozino
Let me start by saying that this opinion by Gates represents an advancement on his PBS series in the sense that he did not say a single word about reparations in his six hours of documentary and he was called out on that. Now that he has commented on the issue, he has taken another step forward by limiting his conspiracy theory of slavery to the elites and not to all Africans as appeared to be the case in the Wonders when he asked ordinary Africans what it felt like to see a descendant of one of those that they supposedly sold long ago. These baby steps forward appear to be too little too late especially because he also took massive leaps backward by blaming Africans while calling for an end to the blame-game.
What Gates left out and what the discussion is ignoring is that Africans fought against slavery as much as they could, a fact that historians narrate with indications that women fought as bravely as the men to prevent our people from being captured during the raids. Once we give credit to African masses as the warriors against slavery that they were, then we realize that the demand for reparations is neither a game nor a blame-game as Gates and his critics seem to imply.
I disagree with Henry Louis Gates Jr. because his title implies that the demand for reparations is a ‘blame-game’: it is not a game at all, it is a struggle for justice which every other racial group that suffered historic wrongs has waged with relative success except people of African descent, due mainly to racism. Secondly, it is not about apportioning blame because Africans are not interested in punishing those who enslaved our people, we are more interested in healing the festering wounds of slavery that people of African descent continue to suffer worldwide.
I also disagree with Gates when he suggests that Africans sold their own people into slavery. On the contrary, the Trans Atlantic Slavery was not a trade but a plunder in which a few members of the elite joined their European allies to terrorize fellow Africans. The majority of Africans fought against slavery in wars that were documented by even European historians, according to Walter Rodney.
Many of us were raised in Africa by parents who were never enslaved because their parents fought fiercely to prevent them from being captured and enslaved. So just like African-Americans, those of us whom Ali Mazrui calls African-Africans are also survivors of the African holocaust. Today, a few elite Africans still rob fellow Africans blind and stash the loot in Europe and North America and just as in the past, the vast majority of Africans are activists against the modern slavery that our people still suffer while those of us fortunate to be abroad try to cushion the pain with the remittances that outpace foreign aid by miles.
As an African, I share the shame of brother Henry Louis Gates Jr. as he addresses this issue that some of my Diaspora Africana students (in the US and in the Caribbean) sometimes pose with passion; ‘were you not the people who sold us?’ Of course not, when we see you, we see fellow survivors for while you survived the war-crime raids, the genocidal middle passage, the rapacious plantations and Jim Crow lynch mobs, we survived the Holocaustal slave raids, murderous colonization, genocidal civil wars and slavish kleptocracy. As a person of African descent, Gates is entitled to wail with Peter Tosh and Bob Marley, ‘Look how long, 400 years, and my people still can’t see….’
But as a highly privileged scholar, Gates should help the Arab, European, and American regions that benefitted from the African holocaust to see that they owe reparations to people of African descent. Obama must not leave office without initiating the Fund for Africana Reparations (FAR) with emphasis on what I theorized elsewhere as ‘Reparative Justice’ with the acronym, DREAM: democracy (unity government for Africans at home and abroad and the abolition of racist laws that cause the disproportionate incarceration of Africans), reparations (obligated funding, not just optional aid), education (admission and funding set-asides, not just affirmative action that women and other minorities also enjoy), apology (more like the one from Congress will not hurt, but a global commemoration of Slavery Emancipation Day as a public holiday will be in order), and (visa-free) movement for Africans (other groups appear to enjoy this without earning the right the way Africans did).
No individual American, European or Arab will have to lose anything or pay any extra tax to make slavery reparations happen and the healing of Africans would benefit the whole world. No government on earth is returning money to taxpayers in these responsible regions and announcing that it is money saved from refusing to pay reparations to Africans.
Gates is not the first to admit that African states also owe reparations to Africans (but not just for slavery) and they could start making such reparations by abolishing the colonial boundaries and constituting the People's Republic of Africa to help us start healing the wounds of slavery, racist colonialism, neo-colonialism and patriarchal imperialism.
Biko Agozino is Professor of Sociology and Director of Africana Studies Program, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061. He is the author of Counter-Colonial Criminology; Black Women and the Criminal Justice System; ADAM: Africana Drug-Free Alternative Medicine; and the play, The Debt Penalty, among other books. He is the Editor-In-Chief of the African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies and the Series Editor of the Ashgate Publishers Interdisciplinary Research Series in Ethnic, Gender and Class Relations.