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The Truth About African Slave Trading, by Stanley Crouch

From: New York Daily News, News and Views, — Opinion —
Monday, July 23, 2001, by Stanley Crouch

Truth, at Last, About
African Slave Trading

Stanley Crouchrecisely who was responsible for the slave trade is a hot topic these days. Africans themselves are busy changing our image of the central role Africa played.

This is much to the good.

A remarkable African film about the subject is Roger Gnoan M'Bala's "Adanggaman," showing at the Film Forum until tomorrow. The human complexity of the characters gives tragic dimension to the tale of Africans enslaving other Africans or selling them to Europeans.

But M'Bala's is just one of several voices rising to reexamine some of our long-held myths about Africa's clean hands. Revelations on "60 Minutes" about contemporary African slavery, for instance, recently drew the Rev. Al Sharpton to Sudan. Such openness has been a long time coming.

In the mid '60s, as the civil rights movement went into decline, American black nationalists began to depict Africa as a paradise lost. Africa was the great motherland, distorted by white people and denied by Negroes who had been taught to hate themselves — their color, their hair, their national origin. The slave trade, we were told, was imposed by whites.

This vision took hold in the early black studies departments on college campuses. And by the time Alex Haley's "Roots" told its plagiarized tale on television, Americans were given to believe that the slave trade was kept going by white men bagging Africans in the bush. The simpleminded vision of good guys and bad guys was established — the very vision now under serious siege.

The first strong African assault came when the great Senegalese filmmaker Ousemane Sembene's "Ceddo" got its U.S. debut more than 20 years ago, and the black nationalist movement was stunned. Sembene showed Africans, European Christians and Muslims working together to sell Africans into slavery.

Then, in February 1999, Mathieu Kerekou, president of Benin, which was once a hotbed of slave selling, got down on his knees at the Church of the Great Commission in Baltimore to apologize for the central role of Africans in the slave trade. Later that year, the president of Ghana, Jerry Rawlings, attended a conference in Benin and also apologized.

This spring, Kerekou contacted Henry Louis Gates, head of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, Harvard's black studies department, and invited him to the University of Benin for an honorary doctorate. Gates just received that doctorate in recognition of what Kerekou considered his courageous examination of the African role in the slave trade and his simultaneous role in celebrating the splendors of ancient African civilization through his PBS series "The Wonders of the African World."

This is a big leap from the firestorm of hostility Gates received when the PBS series aired — much of it initiated and sustained by East African scholar Ali Mazrui, whose BBC series, "The Africans," had fudged the slavery issue some years earlier (perhaps because Mazrui was descended from a family that had made piles of dough in the slave trade).

Now Kerekou is forging a reconciliation movement, which could come at no better time. Every group needs to know that evil transcends color, place, politics, sex and religion. It is a universal and recurrent problem we all have to face and fight.


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