BY RUNOKO RASHIDI
I want to tell you a story and give you a thesis. It is only a perspective and is clearly a work in progress. I raised the question of why so many African-Americans and other Africans in the Diaspora repeat, largely without investigation, that Africans sold other Africans into slavery. Many of them do it with relish. Such an assertion is very harmful . It bothers me and I think that it is largely rooted in self-hate and ignorance.
Well, here is my thesis and my story. A few years ago I took an African-American tour group to the West African country of Benin. While there, we went to the community called Ganvie. I believe that the people there are the Fon. Ganvie is a community built on stilts on the water. The people who built Ganvie were running away from enslavers and thought that living on the water would provide safety for them. The head of the community asked us why we chose to visit. It was a formal question and I am sure they ask all groups that. Well, I started to give my little speech about African-Americans returning to our ancestral birthplace and how we got to America via enslavement. The leader stopped me as I was speaking.
He said, “You are are in America for the same reason that we are in Ganvie! We came here to get away from the slavers!” In this case, the slavers were from the Kingdom of Dahomey. They captured other people that today we call Africans.
Since then, I have done a lot of research on the subject and traveled to many parts of Africa in search of answers. Yes, some of the people that we call Africans today were involved in the capture of other people that we call Africans today. You can say that such “Africans” were corrupted and empowered by Europeans to do their dirty work for them, and that certain groups and classes of Europeans, obviously, were the ones who derived the great benefits from it.
But is it really that simple?
The idea that we are all African is very new. And this is why continental and global African nationalism is so hard – because it is so new! And in effect, it was a reaction and the result of the European invasion of Africa and the forced removal and enslavement of African people.
Family, I am not able to show that continental African unity is rooted in antiquity. So the king of Dahomey would not have seen himself capturing other Africans for European enslavement. He would have only seen himself attacking a neighboring kingdom! He would not have seen himself attacking and capturing other Africans for European enslavement in the same way historically that the Germans, for example, in their countless wars with the French, would have seen themselves attacking their neighbors. They saw themselves as national groups, not as peoples violating racial solidarity.
This is what I think. Of course, there is a lot more to it. But this is the essence of it. Does this make sense?
As a historian I have learned that the worst thing that you can do, if you want to understand history, is to look at the past with the same mentality that you have today. To understand the past, you must put yourself within the historical context of the people who lived it.
So no, Africans did not capture and sell or trade other Africans for European exploitation. It is not that simple. It would be more accurate to say that certain kingdoms in what we now call Africa attacked other peoples in what we now call Africa, and that certain groups and classes of Europeans benefited enormously from it.
That is my thesis.
In love of Africa!
Runoko Rashidi is a historian and anthropologist based in Los Angeles and Paris. He is also the leader of African heritage tours around the world, including Nigeria and Cameroon in December 2014 and Ethiopia and Kenya in May 2015. For more information write to [email protected] or go to www.travelwithrunoko.com