The descendents of the Atlantic Slave Trade are spread out all over the world. Where do the children of these former slaves stand today?
From the crime-infested projects of inner-city America to the dusty ghettos of West Kingston, Jamaica, from the verdant, leafy ghettos of Compton, L.A. to the pre-dominantly working class London neighbourhoods of Hackney and Harlesden, and from the corrugated shanty shacks in the favelas of Brazil to the white picket fences in the black middle class meccas of Atlanta, Georgia and the elegant brownstones of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, the children of ex-slaves have made their homes. Some flourish and thrive, whilst others still toil in grinding, humbling poverty. But one thing alone unites them. Despite the considerable differences in their economic and social status, all their ancestors were stolen from West Africa during the last five hundred years, during one the most shameful and sanguinary periods in human history.
In any discussion on a topic of this nature, it behoves us to remember that the children of the mighty continent of Africa (itself the lost Eden from which they were forcefully displaced and scattered across the globe by the cruel dictates of circumstance), have suffered more than any other race in human history. With no need for recourse to hyperbole, never in the history of humanity has the world witnessed a spectacle of such unparalleled barbarism, brutality, and evil as that of the institution known as slavery. The callous, calculated debasement of sentient human beings to chattel, to being bought and sold, enjoyed and used at the whim of another, must surely stand in the annals of time as the darkest cloud on the plateau of the gradual ascent of man.
Would it were possible to continue to talk in such wholly abstract, philosophical, and emotionally aloof terms when dealing with human suffering of such magnitude. But the ever-so-tangible reality is anything but abstract, and is to be seen on a daily basis wherever one looks. Although slavery as an economic institution officially ended some two hundred years ago (whether it be in 1807 in the British colonies or 1848 in the French Caribbean or in 1865 in the United States), black people throughout the diaspora are still today undeniably subject to various type underpins such as mixed-race dating, or even the facile and socially irresponsible exculpation of black male promiscuity due to the "breeding stud" plantation mentality; the scars inflicted on our people are unfortunately still all too evident.
The deep seated self-loathing which stems from the inculcation over hundreds of years of black meaning bad, and its ugly corollary, white meaning good, shows little sign of abating. Even the vicious denial of education during slavery is still even now playing itself out on society's chess board. Black middle class America and Francophone Caribbean apart, for the most part many black diasporic communities around the globe, including Britain, are essentially pre-literate.
Are we merely slaves to our genes? Does the callous separation of families in times of slavery excuse or explain the rampant philandering and chronic lack of nuclear families prevalent in many black diasporic communities? Or do other socio-economic factors play a much bigger role?
The struggle to find and then assert a bona fide black American or European identity, from Alex Haley's protagonists in Roots to the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, (Langston Hughes in particular), or for contemporary Black Britons, the dilemma of identity, caught as they often are between two divergent and essentially antagonistic cultures, continues to be a thorn in the mental side of many black diasporic people.
Despite the famous request for 40 acres and a mule as the fiscal recompense for slavery, to this day no reparations have ever been paid, nor any formal apology even offered to placate or appease the chronic sense of injustice felt by the children of ex-slaves. Yet taking into consideration the logistical impossibility of ascertaining the amount of compensation owing, or for that matter the sheer impracticality of devising a modus operandi for executing this, it is perhaps understandable to see why this has never happened.
Yet as someone who readily aspires to relocate to America, chiefly because it represents in so many respects the zenith of Black cerebral and material achievement, the home of the Black uber-man, it would be churlish to deny that the pernicious practice of slavery has not had some (albeit wholly unintentional) positive side effects. The latest trend in Black American conservative academic circles is to assert that slavery was the best thing that ever happened to black people. Despite the instantaneous knee jerk reaction which appals our “PC” conditioned liberal sensibilities and which is offended by the ostensibly ludicrous and unfeeling nature of this statement, let us examine this proposition in more depth.
It is on evidence hard to deny that, anthropologically speaking (and forgive my lapse into the vernacular of Victorian pseudo-science), the negro has attained the highest level of civilization in post-emancipation America. In terms of levels of education, material affluence and general standard of living, middle-class educated Black America towers like a colossus above the other black diasporic populations around the world. Black astronauts, black physicists, black classicists, black mathematicians, black doctors: only America really has these in abundance. Thus it is easy to see why America can be perceived by many as the acme of global black civilization.
However, the old chestnut remains: would black people in America or the U.K. have reached such levels of education and achievement without being transported to the New World, without suffering the barbarism of slavery?
Despite the heinous atrocities inflicted upon West Africans between, let us say 1500 and 1850, by white people, who were on balance remarkably successful in divesting them of all vestiges of their humanity, not to mention self worth, the black consciousness movements of the early twentieth century, like the Black Star Line Back To Africa movement led by Marcus Garvey, and the Jamaican religious cult of Rastafari, managed to provide a much-needed resurgence of black pride and self worth.
Even the separatist black militant Nation of Islam (despite its often risible racial ideologies) continues to do work tirelessly for black self-improvement and positive affirmations of black masculinity, and to engender black self-worth in communities plagued by social ills.
At an optimistic estimate, it will take at least between another fifty to one hundred years before the scars of slavery, just like those of Apartheid, begin to heal. Ultimately the wound itself may heal, but the scars, and the memory of the searing pain, will always be there, a potent reminder of the human capacity for man's inhumanity to man.
To end, an unpalatable question: Given the chance, would black people have enslaved whites, had it been socially and economically expedient for them to do so? Despite what we might like to believe, and despite comforting notions of the Manichaean polarity of white as evil and black as good, the truth is probably, yes. Human nature is unfortunately ever thus. The ills of greed and fiscal gain undoubtedly transcend all colours and ethnicities.
Nothing can ever erase the atrocities inflicted in the name of benevolent paternalism, "civilization," and human greed. The trade in human flesh from West Africa to the New World, and its economic, psychological, social, and cultural ramifications are perhaps the defining event in post-Renaissance world history. But good can occasionally emerge as a by-product of evil. To assert that nothing beneficial came out of slavery would be at best disingenuous, and at worst blatantly untrue. But was it a price worth paying? That is ultimately for the children of slaves to answer themselves.
1st March 2007