Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s “Ending the Slavery Blame Game”: Has Skip Gates Lost His Mind?

In an April 22, 2010 article, “Ending the Slavery Blame Game,” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/23/opinion/23gates.html) in The New York Times, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an African-American and Harvard University professor, offered an interesting response to the controversial issue of slavery reparations. In the article, he explained how Africans were also participants in the slave trade that helped to create and maintain the institution of slavery in America. He also further divulged that the more interesting query about slavery reparations “just might be from whom they would be extracted.”  I could not agree more with Dr. Gates about this question. Unfortunately, the following comments that he made I could not disagree more with: “Fortunately, in President Obama, the child of an African and an American, we finally have a leader who is uniquely positioned to bridge the great reparations divide. He is uniquely placed to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization. And reaching that understanding is a vital precursor to any just and lasting agreement on the divisive issue of slavery reparations.” The purpose of this article is to respond to the aforementioned comments of Dr. Gates.

Has Henry Louis Gates, Jr. lost his mind? In this article, he suggested that Blacks and Whites are both responsible for the institution of slavery in America. For a professor and director of an African-American Studies department at Harvard University, I have to think that he has lost his mind or he is on the verge of losing his mind. Just to remind you, this is the same man who was harassed by a White police officer for trying to break into his own home, but was arrested by the police officer. Next thing we know, Gates and the White police officer are enjoying one another over a beer with President Obama. Dr. Gates, was that beer in the cup or Kool-Aid? It must have been Kool-Aid because Kool-Aid is the drink of “post-racial” folk; that is, people who are here to please White folk and excuse racist White people for the legacy of slavery. While I have tremendous respect for Dr. Gates (Skip Gates) as a scholar and intellectual, he has gone too far to try to be “post-racial.” Let’s be real—the effort to be post-racial is problematic in the first place. At the core of this notion of being post-racial is an assumption that such great progress has been made in terms of race that we do not have to consider race as an important and central factor anymore. I certainly don’t need to be a Harvard professor to know that being post-racial is a foolish concept for people of color to fall prey to. The presence of President Obama in the White House does not remedy the enduring impact of slavery on African-Americans!

The Institute of the Black World 21st Century is holding a special conference on Saturday, May 8, 2010 from 2:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. in Brooklyn, New York at Historic House of the Lord Church to respond to the article penned by Dr. Gates. I am sure that they are going to expose the many weaknesses of the article and I wish I could be there. Although I do not support slavery reparations in the traditional ways in which they have been argued for, I do believe that this nation owes African-Americans real economic, social, and educational opportunities. African-Americans deserve the idea of equality of outcomes to become a true reality. I do, however, think that the notion of getting “40 acres and a mule” should be seriously considered in 2010.

I urge people to read the article that Dr. Gates composed and find ways to respond to it. I would even encourage you to email him to let him know how you feel about what he said in the article. When some African-Americans reach a certain economic and educational level, they begin to lose sight of the harsh realities of life Black people have experienced in the past and in the present. Black people should never let anyone, not even a Black Harvard professor, tell them that their own people were just as responsible for the institution of slavery as White people were. It is my hope that Professor Gates will revise his article for the better, and we should give him an opportunity to revise and extend his remarks. I will be looking for his response to the outrage his article has conflagrated.

Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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8 responses

  1. “Has Henry Louis Gates, Jr. lost his mind? In this article, he suggested that Blacks and Whites are both responsible for the institution of slavery in America.”

    Are you going to tell us why, exactly, you disagree with this suggestion?

    After all, Gates isn’t suggesting that white and black people played equal roles in the history of slavery, especially the history of slavery in the U.S., or in the subsequent generations of racial violence and discrimination here.

    He’s simply saying that any reckoning over this history would need to acknowledge that black people did play important roles in what happened. And that’s simply an historical fact, isn’t it?

    Thanks,

    James

    1. I certainly don’t disagree with Skip Gates or you about the historical fact that Africans and Whites both were involved in evolution of the institution of slavery in America. What I do find seriously problematic about what he said in his article is we should end “the blame game” about the institution of slavery. By him simply providing us with information that Africans participated in the slave trade does not warrant a cessation of discourse about who is to blame about slavery in America. The level of participation of those Africans in the slave trade is significantly minor (no matter how much emphasis anyone wants to put on it). Indeed, Africans did participate in the slave trade, but that does not settle who should be blamed for slavery in America. It was the mindset of racist Whites that even led those elite Africans to participate in the slave trade in the first place. The racist economic ideology of those Whites fused race and economics to cause those elite Africans who traded their own people to see an economic advantage in doing so.

      Skip’s article does not talk about how the dominant and more important involvement of these White people in slavery is responsible for slavery. Africans did not create slavery, although a small segment of bourgeois Africans participated in the slave trade. The participation of Africans in the development of slavery in America is a byproduct of a larger and more exploitative system that Whites created, and that sucked in White folks who did not even want to participate in it. We should not cease placing blame on Whites because he has found that Africans had some participation in this system. This article can be used by racists in America to evince that there is not a need for Black people to receive special efforts targeted at remedying the abiding legacy of slavery’s impact on their lives in the postmodern epoch. They can simply say as Skip has said: both Blacks and Whites are responsible for slavery in America.

      I do appreciate you reading the article and your response. Although I thought that I was completely clear about why I disagreed with the comment you refer to, I am glad to have the opportunity to further comment about it.

      Thanks,

      Antonio

      1. “What I do find seriously problematic about what he said in his article is we should end “the blame game” about the institution of slavery.”

        Oh, then that’s just a misunderstanding, then. Gates didn’t say that in his essay. An editor spiced up the headline with that language.

        Gates has said that he doesn’t at all want to stop the effort to understand who was responsible for slavery and discrimination, just to make sure we’re honest about who all the players were and what that might mean.

        “The level of participation of those Africans in the slave trade is significantly minor ….”

        Well, their participation in the trade wasn’t minor. I’m not sure it’s easy to say how important the trade was to the entire history, or how we weigh the complicity of the slave traders against that of the slave owners, those who benefited without owning slaves directly, and everyone who came after slavery.

        “It was the mindset of racist Whites that even led those elite Africans to participate in the slave trade in the first place.”

        Well, first, it wasn’t only elite Africans who participated in the slave trade, just as it wasn’t only elite Americans who participated in the slave trade from our end.

        More importantly, though, it wasn’t racist attitudes which caused the slave trade. When it started, European society had mostly held whites as slaves, and Africa was just seen as a convenient source of many slaves, not as a place to find people who ought to be held as slaves. The idea that black people were particularly appropriate to keep as slaves came much later, to justify continued slavery in places like the U.S.

        “The racist economic ideology of those Whites fused race and economics to cause those elite Africans who traded their own people to see an economic advantage in doing so.”

        Entire African societies participated in, and benefited from, the capture, enslavement, and sale of foreign Africans to European and American traders. Not just elites. And they weren’t doing so because of any racist or economic beliefs handed over by white people; they did it because it was profitable to sell people from other societies, and it was easier to do so because they *didn’t* see foreigners as being of the same race, rather than racism playing a role.

        “Skip’s article does not talk about how the dominant and more important involvement of these White people in slavery is responsible for slavery.”

        It’s true that he couldn’t get into all of that in an essay on a different topic, but he did refer to it as being essential, and he’s talked about it elsewhere.

        “… that sucked in White folks who did not even want to participate in it.”

        All of my research suggests that most white people didn’t mind participating in slavery and its economic system at all. Which is why, for instance, the U.S. public, in the north, south, and west, was so overwhelmingly supportive of slavery until nearly the end of the Civil War.

        “We should not cease placing blame on Whites because he has found that Africans had some participation in this system. This article can be used by racists in America ….”

        I agree with both of these points. But Gates didn’t intend to have us stop blaming (dead) white people for their role in slavery and the slave trade, and I think it’s a shrewd strategic move to take one of the most common arguments *against* talking about reparations, acknowledge it and show how it doesn’t stop reparations talk, just makes it a little more nuanced. Gates has said, for instance, that having acknowledged that both white and black people were complicit, he believes we can move on to focus on what responsibility our country, in particular, has to address this legacy.

        “Although I thought that I was completely clear about why I disagreed with the comment you refer to ….”

        Thanks very much for elaborating. I really didn’t understand all of this from what you’d initially said, and I’m glad to hear your perspective.

        1. James, thanks so much for your response. We will have to disagree on this issue. I had a chance to visit your blog and think you have a very nice blog and I love the purpose of your blog too! I also read your article on Gates and it helped me to better understand your perspective. I appreciate your work. Have a great weekend!

  2. I have read all with great interest. I am not commenting here, as I have just posted on the subject. No, I haven’t plagarised any material, but I have linked to you blog, post and Gates’ article. My response is that of a layman when compared to the you and your respondent, who appear to have an intimately greater knowledge than myself. I look forward to your thoughts on my opinion.

    AV

    1. I have placed a reply to your thoughts on this issue and article on your site. I would just like to say that I do not think that we should simply let the issue of slavery reparations die. I argue that we have to think about more practical ways of approaching the issue, and we need to ensure that people, especially African-Americans, who are impacted by the abiding legacy of slavery have true access to economic and social opportunities and they need to experience equality of opportunity. Thanks so much for your response!

  3. I absolutely agree with you inasmuch the reparations should go ahead, I am in disagreement with the “monetary” factor and, as you say, more practical ways should be found when approaching the matter.

    Appreciate your time and responses at my place.

    AV

  4. “Entire African societies participated in, and benefited from, the capture, enslavement, and sale of foreign Africans to European and American traders.” This is a blanket statement that marginalizes the roles of the elites (monarchs, emperors, wealthy and powerful merchants, mulattoe middlemen/brokers) in the transatlantic slave trade. When the slave shiips came to port, middling merchants, tradesmen, craftsmen, farmers, and peasants were not the ones brokering the deals. Equating the roles of the powerful and influential with those of the proletariat, under the umrella of “societies” is an inaccurate assessment. Not being in power or influential, I think the proletariate were more trickle down beneficiaries than willing participants. They just accepted the economic benefits, and they did not protest because we all know that would have landed them in a slave dungeon. The Ashanti would be a prime example. That being said, the argument can be made that soldiers, flunkies, and other willing facilitators were just as responsible as the elites. You cannot indict a whole society, especially when it is as tiered socially and economically as those African societies that participated in the trade. Neither should you elude to this stratification as not being significant when it obviously was. This just plays into the hands of ethnocentric apologists.

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