Africa’s Role in the U.S. Slave Trade

Eric Foner – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
From the Letters desk:
Published: April 25, 2010
To the Editor:
In “Ending the Slavery Blame-Game” (Op-Ed, April 23), Henry Louis Gates Jr. notes that African rulers and merchants were deeply complicit in the Atlantic slave trade. Despite Mr. Gates’s contention that “there is very little discussion” of this fact, it hardly qualifies as news; today, virtually every history of slavery and every American history textbook includes this information.
Mr. Gates’s point is that the African role complicates the process of assigning blame for slavery and thus discussion of apologies and reparations by the United States. I believe that apologies serve little purpose and that reparations are unworkable. But the great growth of slavery in this country occurred after the closing of the Atlantic slave trade in 1808.
It was Americans, not Africans, who created in the South the largest, most powerful slave system the modern world has known, a system whose profits accrued not only to slaveholders but also to factory owners and merchants in the North. Africans had nothing to do with the slave trade within the United States, in which an estimated two million men, women and children were sold between 1820 and 1860.
Identifying Africa’s part in the history of slavery does not negate Americans’ responsibility to confront the institution’s central role in our own history.
Eric Foner
New York, April 23, 2010
The writer is a professor of history at Columbia University.
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