Misleadingly titled "Ending the Slavery Blame-Game", Henry Louis Gates's recent op-ed in The New York Times attempts to throw a wet blanket on the once-hotly debated question of reparations in the United States by highlighting African participation in the transatlantic slave trade. Misguided at best, his piece ought to be titled "Inverting the Slavery Blame-Game", because it achieves nothing new except substituting one villain for another.
Let me begin by saying a bit about Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., better known as Skip Gates. He is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. His scholarly accomplishments are both numerous and significant, including several award-winning books, not least among them The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (Oxford, 1988), which won the American Book Award in 1989. Along with Kwame Appiah, Gates is the co-editor of the impressive Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. He has made important contributions to the field of African and African American Studies not only as an author, but also as an institution-builder at Harvard and beyond.
The totality of his prolific accomplishments could easily fill the length of this column, so I will only briefly mention that in recent years he has become even more well-known for several high-profile documentaries in which genealogical research and genetic history were used to trace the roots of prominent African-Americans, including Oprah Winfrey. But the op-ed under consideration here comes out of a less-feted enterprise: Gates's 1999 Wonders of the African World video series in which he travelled the African continent in search of its historic treasures.
As Biodun Jeyifo, the widely respected Harvard Professor of African and African American Studies and Comparative Literature, has argued, a profound tension exists between the series' glorification and vilification of the African past. While four of the six episodes laud the achievements and histories of the Nile valley civilisations, and also Ethiopia, Timbuktu, and Great Zimbabwe, two other episodes are, in Jeyifo's words, "relentless in the way in which they assail African complicity in the brutal and tragic history of modern slavery in Africa." The two episodes he refers to--The Slave Kingdoms and The Swahili Coast--explore...