Gates’s April 23rd op ed piece in the NY Times, “Ending the Slavery Blame-Game,” does little to advance the study of slavery and the European Slave Trade, and fosters an erroneous and very sinister representation of the “advocates of reparations.” Indeed, for such a prominent figure who is identified as an African American Studies scholar at the country’s oldest institution of higher education, the editorial is an embarrassing bit of public intellectual activity. My son, who is a junior in high school, read his opinion piece together with me, and he asked me did the professor really write this? From the mouths of babes, I had to wonder did Dr. Gates actually write this drivel? To be sure he is responsible for it in the same way Sergeant James Crowley found him responsible for mouthing off “ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside.”
It was when I was nineteen that I met my first reparations advocates. There names were Queen Mother (Audley E.) Moore and RNA President Dara Abubakari (Virginia Collins). I met them in New Orleans and they both stressed that New Afrikans were owed double reparations. Sister Dara made it plain to me and many others that the U.S. government needed to repair what it did to our ancestors through the slavery and neo-slavery (Jim Crow) regimes, but on the African continent as well the governments there needed to make things right with us by providing citizenship and access to land to those of us who opt to return home. She started my investigation of Gates’s “untidy problem of the significant role that Africans played in the trade.” No reparations advocate that I’ve known promoted a “romanticized version” of the slave trade that has tried to hide Africa’s part in the institution of slavery.
As for President Obama, I trust he will not be as quick defend his friend Skip Gates’s latest lapse of judgment as he was to do so last summer. I trust he knows, as Eric Foner has observed, that “virtually every history of slavery and every American history textbook includes” information about how African rulers and merchants were deeply complicit in the Atlantic slave trade. Hopefully, he will heed his counsel “that as bad as history can be, it’s also possible to overcome.” He said that last July (less than a week before Gates found himself behind bars) at Cape Coast Castle after an “extraordinary tour” of the dungeons of that historic place. What I hope he knows is that those of us who advocate reparations, with sincerity, intelligence, and honesty, are people who feel, as he wished for his daughters, a “sense of obligation to fight oppression and cruelty wherever it appears, and that any group of people who are degrading another group of people have to be fought against with whatever tools we have available to us.”* We raise arguments for reparations not to polarize or denigrate any group of people but to oppose oppression with the tools available to us now that were not to preceding generations.
*See http://www.america.gov/st/texttrans-english/2009/July/20090711135243abretnuh0.7640955.html for the text of Obama’s Remarks at Cape Coast Castle.