Western Shores, Part II

In my last blog post I addressed a few of the common points of tension between African-Americans and Continental Africans. Though I mentioned the lingering resentment over the TransAtlantic Slave Trade, I did not go into it in detail. I planned to, but as I wrote I began to feel that the subject-and its’ place in the diaspora beef-deserved in a post of its’ own.

Africans don’t like us. They sold us into slavery.  The words hang in the air, laying bare the pain and bitterness generated by the slave trade in those of us who went into Diaspora. The accusation of treachery is sometimes thrown in the faces of recent African immigrants by African-Americans, leaving them bewildered and shocked by the hostility. The idea that Africans literally sold us out becomes the justification for our own aloofness towards our Continental fam. However when making such an accusation AAs are indulging in the same flawed, simplistic analysis that is more based in racism and Western views of the continent than in fact. Africa is not the Dark Continent, nor is it a faceless mass. Africa is a continent of one billion people, fifty-four nations and a vast array of ethnic groups. So when one says ‘Africans’ sold AAs into slavery it begs the question: WHICH Africans are they referring to? Try telling a Kenyan or a Zambian that they are responsible for AAs ending up in the States and see what happens. It won’t end well. If we want to begin to address the issue we must remember that Africa has separate regions. The ancestors of African Americans, West Indians and Afro-Latinos alike came from West and Central Africa, so those regions must be our focus.

With that out of the way let us now turn our attention to West and Central Africa, and how the peoples of these areas conceived their own identity. This is crucial. When we say Africans sold their own people we make the mistake of looking at them through Western eyes. We also project Pan-Africanism-an idea that originated in the Nineteenth century in the New World-onto people living centuries prior. Simply put, there was no concept of a unified African identity at that time. So as far as say, the Asante were concerned, they were not selling their own people when they raided neighboring ethnic groups and sold them to Europeans. The notion that pigment alone is enough to breed solidarity was alien to these societies, and is only dominant in the USA because of White Supremacy. When analyzing the world of pre-colonial West and Central Africa it must be remembered that they did not see themselves as African or Black; they identified by ethnicity.

We must also acknowledge the social stratification present during the time of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade. I personally do not make accusations of treachery against West and Central Africans for this reason. Everyone did not participate in and benefit from the trade. Were the elites of particular ethnic groups involved? Absolutely! Asante and Dahomey-two large, predatory West African empires-immediately come to mind in that regard. And while the elites who participated would fatten themselves with ill-gotten riches gained from Europeans, ultimately the region took an L. Centuries of warfare and slaveraiding would weaken even the strongest states, paving the way for further European involvement. Even the predatory states would fall victim to European domination. The result was a bondage of a different kind: colonization.

At times we can become so wrapped up in the story of our own pain that we become blind to that of another. I titled this series ‘Western Shores’ because I am of the mind that African-Americans don’t always address these difficult issues from the proper place. As a people in diaspora our gaze originates from the Eastern shores of the United States. Our view and experience is shaped by places like Charleston, South Carolina, where 40% of all enslaved Africans entered what was then British North America. But to understand the totality of our diaspora and relate to our separated kin we must look to the western shores of Africa as well. The pain isn’t ours alone. The bones of the millions who died along the trek to those shores haunt. The villages and settlements of those who fled their coastal areas for the savannah, hoping to escape the marauders, remain. And most of all the peoples who birthed us remain. Scarred in different ways than us, but marked nonetheless.

A few months ago I read a book which made me stop and consider what the calamity of the slave trade meant for those left behind. In “The Slave Ship” by Marcus Rediker I came across a statistic that left me speechless. Over the course of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade the Igbo people ALONE lost 1.5 MILLION of their nation to the plantations of the New World. The number stayed in my head. I thought about the magnitude such a loss would have on a group of people. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters all disappearing without a trace, never to be heard from again. The pain is not ours alone. African-Americans have every right to grapple with the legacy of our experience on this eastern shore. But we would do well to occasionally view it from the western shores of Africa as well.

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A native Seattleite and East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been.

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