If you happen to find yourself in Savannah, GA during the tourist season, you may also find yourself on one of the many trolley services that offer historic tours of the city. Each tour is unique, as guides pepper important facts with tidbits of information from their own lives or offer their own opinions of the impact of historical events on themselves, the city or the region. On one of our recent visits to Savannah, we decided to try out the Confederate version of these trolley rides. Actors dressed in period garb hop on and off the trolley, portraying Eli Whitney, Mary Telfair and other of the city’s most famous residents.
Our driver that day was a jovial Black man who went by the name ‘Hollywood’ and peppered his monologue with high pitched groans – attempting to imitate the sound of a woman at the peak of a pleasurable (possibly sexual) experiencing. He had his Sambo act down pat, which in itself made me uncomfortable. He was proud of Savannah’s confederate past, replete with its importance as a commercial cotton and slave trading center. But when he went full on Pharrell, I was overtaken by an unsettling desire to leap from the moving bus and my torment at Hollywood’s hands.
“I want to tell all the white folk on here that slavery is not your fault. Oh yeah! Yuh-yuh-yuh see, the Kings and Queens of great African empires sold their own people into slavery. Africans sold themselves into slavery! Slavery was around in Africa long before white people got there. You don’t need to feel no guilt about that.”
It was an awkward moment for all of us, white and Black alike. Inherently, we ALL knew that this was an oversimplification of events, but since Ol’ Hollywood had sold his soul to the Confederacy and its Trolley Service for a pittance, it was his duty to propagate this half baked – and now increasingly accepted – aberration of the truth.
“Africans” didn’t sell each other into slavery. Traders, warlords and snitches from distinct and unrelated tribes did.
I know that in this age of anti-intellectualism and cognitive sloth that it’s easier to lump all of Africa into one massive monolithic society, but we must resist the urge to do that. Africa, its people, its cultures, languages and customs are diverse. And diversity often provokes tension. A part of that tension is a sense of superiority. Superiority feeds tribalism. And so when the Dutch, French, Belgians and British (and everyone else who participated in the Scramble for Africa) decided that they were no longer interested in congenial trading with Africans, desiring instead total control of their resources – slave labor being one of those – they instituted a tactic known as divide and conquer, exploiting ancient tensions between these tribes and ethnic groups. There were no “Africans selling other Africans”. The distinctions among whom we now think of as the homogeneous African were in those days very clear. For instance, there were Fantes allying themselves with the British in exchange for protection from their stronger northern foes in the Ashanti Empire, who found their capital burned and their citizens marched through to forest to waiting dungeons and ships all along the coast as a result of that alliance. Divide and conquer was replicated all over the continent – all over the world! – treaties were made and broken, the tribes who allied themselves with the French/English/Portuguese assimilated to their culture, assisted their allies by feeding, fighting for and procreating with them, and the real work of colonial expansion could begin.
To say that “Africans sold each other into slaver” is about as accurate as saying “Africans invited Europeans to colonize them”. There are as many documented examples of resistance to the never before seen brand of chattel slavery that the French, British and Portuguese had introduced to the continent as there are for support of the venture. Queen Nzinga fought fiercely against the ravages of slavery and all of the fallout that came along with it. She understood how destructive slavery was for her people and her neighboring kingdoms. At the same time, the Kings of Dahomey enriched themselves by inciting wars and trading the human lives of their captors, like flesh at a butcher’s shop, in markets. These people would later be marched and sold down the coast to dungeons likely never seen by these greedy kings.
In 1807, Britain declared all slave trading illegal. The king of Bonny (in what is now the Nigerian delta) was dismayed at the conclusion of the practice. He (in)famously said:
“We think this trade must go on. That is the verdict of our oracle and the priests. They say that your country, however great, can never stop a trade ordained by God himself.” *
It is important to understand that these slave raiding and trading kings, seduced by the wealth offered to them in guns, butter and whatever other trinkets the Western nations were peddling, did not see their captors as fellow Africans. They were Hausa, Dagaare, Ewe, Wolof, etc. They were others. In the timeline of the African continent’s existence, the concept of the unified, unilateral African is barely 20 seconds old, if that. It’s sexy, but it’s equally damaging to think that Africans have always thought of themselves as African first. It is for the sake of this flawed concept that people think that ‘African’ is a mother tongue, or that Africa is a country, and why American celebrities and philantrpopists can stand in the midst of captivated crowds, extolling the virtues of ‘African culture’ and how it reenergized their spirit. You went bungee jumping at Lake Victoria, then on safari and a Black boy brought you a Grapetizer. What about that particular experience denotes African culture? Eh?
I’m getting off track.
In the coming days – and as these things always do in the summer months when the streets in underserved communities all across America turn into killing fields – Black people everywhere will be asked to look inward, reflect upon their current state and ponder how THEY are to blame for their current condition. Invariably, some sanctimonious genius will piously assert (on Twitter, likely) that the Black man is to blame for his misfortune because we’ve been “selling each other (out) out since Africa”. That this is the curse of the black condition.
The tragedy is that globally – regardless of your race or ancestry – we have all been lured into accepting the idea that Black people are identical in our Blackness. That’s not because this idea supports or furthers our well being, but because it makes the work of white supremacy and/or black disenfranchisement easier. Before the one-drop rule became the standard to determine one’s Blackness – and destiny, by extension – there were about 200 racial classifications to describe blackness based on hue, hair texture and facial bone structure. This caste system and the classifications that accompanied it were replicated all over the New World. In Argenita, people of African heritage were categorized as:
- Mulatto: Black and White parents.
- Morisco: Mulatto and White parents, although in the early phase of Spanish colonization the term “morisco” also denoted a Muslim who had converted to Catholicism.
- Albino: Morisco and White parents.
- Quadroon: one-quarter Black ancestry/three-quarter White ancestry.
- Octoroon: one-eighth Black ancestry/seven-eighth White ancestry.
- Tercerón: White/Mulatto mixed, an octoroon.
- Quinterón: fifth-generation Black ancestry/one parent who is an octoroon and one White parent.
- Hexadecaroon: sixth-generation Black ancestry.
- Zambo: Black/Amerindian mixed.
- Zambo Prieto: Black/Amerindian mixed with predominant Black.
You can imagine how complicated this was…which is why eventually we were all loped into the category of ‘Negro’, regardless of how mixed ones ancestry may be. Similarly, it requires too much effort and investigation to identify one of our best-known pop performers as a Sisaala singing woman from Funsi in Northern Ghana. To the rest of the world, Wiyaala is an African singer, and it’s just that simple. Because as we’ve stated before, Africa is a country.
What I want people to walk away with is an understanding that 1.111 billion people, the population of this chicken leg shaped continent, though similar in some respects, do not identify universally as one thing. Recognize our diversity and individuality. Recognize that it wasn’t “Africans” who sold each other into slavery, but rather unscrupulous men partnered with other equally morally bankrupt men. There were no Ghanaians selling other Ghanaians. Ghana didn’t exist. Africa as we understand it today didn’t exist, either.
This post is dedicated to one of my favorite high school teachers, who always made room for my insanity, Chriss Tay. Thank you for contributing to the woman and thinker I am today. Thank you for making history classes fun and relevant. I hope to make you proud, always!
*Source: The Story of African Slavery/bbc.com