Note from BBT: Surely you’ve heard it a hundred times. “Don’t blame white people for black slavery when Africans sold other Africans into slavery”. Not only have I heard people say this in debates or just discussions, I’ve heard it in documentaries and I’ve seen scholars and conservatives refer to this argument directly and indirectly whenever the issue of affirmative action, reparations or any other proposed action to diminish the social inequalities of societies in which white people enslaved blacks. I sometimes hear other black people point this out.
A few days ago I stumbled across a video by long-time black American conservative Larry Elders. In the video, he didn’t exactly use this same argument, but he pointed out that groups all over the world have enslaved people from their own group for centuries. It’s true. I explored this point in a past post. Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates has also made speeches based on the blacks selling blacks argument. A few years ago, the now deceased funkeiro Mr. Catra also referred to blacks selling other blacks into slavery.
I’m always amazed at how little people know or are willing to learn about the complexities of Africa and its peoples and both the contributions to society as well as its disasters. No one really discusses the not so great pieces of European history. And there’s plenty to discuss there. I would love for someone to explain to me how it is that between World War I and World War II, more than 100 million people were killed, with the overwhelming amount being white people killing other white people, but yet Africans are the ones considered savages. If anyone were to read about the horrific, mind-boggling destruction inflicted upon the German people by the Allied powers, I’m sure they would have to re-consider how it is that Europeans and their descendants are considered the most civilized people on the planet, but as the old saying goes, history is always told from the perspective of the victor.
In the piece below, Guilherme Oliveira further develops the argument of the simplicity of presenting the “blacks sold other blacks” argument.
Why is it wrong to say that “blacks enslaved blacks”?
By Guilherme Oliveira
Who has never heard anyone say that blacks themselves enslaved blacks? This is one of the main arguments used by racist people to delegitimize black movements, to disqualify the struggles of black populations over time and to even remove Zumbi dos Palmares from being a national hero. The most common phrases used in these situations go in the following direction: “Racism is not the fault of whites, as blacks themselves have enslaved blacks”. Or again: “Ethnic-racial quotas are not a historical debt, since it was the blacks themselves who sold and enslaved the blacks. So, the blak population itself is to blame.”
In 2018, months before the presidential elections, the then presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, when discussing ethnic-racial quotas in the Roda Viva program, said that he was against the quota policy, because “he never enslaved anyone in life” and that “the Portuguese didn’t even step foot in Africa, it was the blacks who delivered the slaves.” In the same logic of thought, there are the arguments that put Zumbi dos Palmares on a level of villain, tyrant, the worst of blacks who enslaved other blacks. A clear example of this argument was the controversy created by the president of Fundação Cultural Palmares, Sérgio Camargo, who declared in April 2020 that: “I don’t have to admire Zumbi dos Palmares, who for me was a son of **** that enslaved blacks. ” And with that, a series of other attacks follows to persecute, delegitimize, dismantle and diminish the struggles of the black population in Brazil over time and the black movements of today. It is as Nei Lopes says in his poem “Brechtiana”: “They blamed slavery on the ambition of the victims themselves and debited racism in our poor account”.
Exalting Zumbi dos Palmares as a national hero is a political and ideological position, as is blaming the black population for racial inequality. The idea of this article is not to discuss whether Zumbi dos Palmares had enslaved or not, nor to argue whether or not there was enslavement on the African continent or to discuss who enslaved whom first. The objective is to start a reflection on the racist logic that runs through the argument of “blacks who enslaved blacks” and dehumanizes the experiences and pluralities of African and Afro-Brazilian peoples.
The first error of this argument is in the generalization of Africa as a single thing. We say “Africa” or “Africans” or “blacks from Africa” as if we are talking about the same people, the same region, the same ethnic, cultural and linguistic identity. When we talk about Africa, we are talking about a continent made up of 54 countries, with more than 800 million inhabitants, distributed in more than a thousand language groups. But, even so, we forget all this plurality and generalize it. We talk about African culture, African cuisine, African literature. The same is not true for Europe. We don’t say European culture, European cuisine and European literature. We talk about French culture, Italian cuisine and English literature. Generalization is part of a historical process that placed Europe at the center of the world and other peoples and continents as if they were large peripheral masses.
The same logic applies to the historical experiences of these peoples on the African continent and this is where the biggest mistake of saying that “blacks have enslaved blacks” is inserted. Do a quick mental exercise and try to recover in your memory if, in a history class, you heard someone talking about some historical event in Europe with the following argument: “Whites killed whites, or whites themselves harmed whites”. You probably never heard that. In studying the Middle Ages and how the Catholic Church persecuted those who were considered to be sinners, with penalties that included torture and bonfire deaths, it was not highlighted that whites killed whites. You studied that during the Second World War the “Allies” – United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union and the United States – fought against the “Axis”, formed by: Germany, Italy and Japan. In this approach, too, it was not emphasized that whites themselves killed whites or that Europeans themselves waged war against Europeans. But it was enough to talk about Africa to prevail the argument that “blacks enslaved blacks”.
This is because, over time, the history of European peoples has been extolled as human experiences with complexities, specificities and plural identities. The history of Europe was portrayed considering different peoples, different nations with specific issues. And it is with this complexity, which permeates the breaking of the generalization of Africa that we need to face the history of the African peoples. It is necessary to consider the different African peoples in their specificities. When it is said that “blacks enslaved blacks” which “blacks” are we talking about? Kings? Subjects? In what customs are these “blacks” inserted? What are your beliefs? On what is slavery based within your respective society?
In Central Africa of the 17th century (region where Angola, Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo are located today), for example, there were several kingdoms. The kingdom of Congo, the kingdom of Dongo, Matamba, Cassange, Benguela, among others. The inhabitants of each of these kingdoms did not identify themselves as “blacks” or as “Africans”, much less identified themselves as equals. The kingdoms were constituted in rigid hierarchies, based on ancestry, blood ties, power over territory, power over people, political and military alliances. There were people with more rights than others; people with more powers than others. Considering the organization of Quilombo dos Palmares as the reconstruction of a Central African kingdom in Brazil, it is possible to say that these values and hierarchies were also reproduced here.
Take, for example, the kingdom of Dongo, formed by the ambiguous ethnic group, in which the language was Kimbundu, whose sovereign of the kingdom was called Ngola (which gave rise to the name of the country Angola). Ngola was the highest authority within the entire kingdom. But the kingdom was divided into several regions and each region had a local leader, called soba. The soba was the chief of the village, represented the maximum leadership within his domain and exercised power over all the people who resided in that territory. Within the villages, there were official family members, called “murinda” children; and those who were called quijicos, servants obtained through war, but who could not be sold. Quijicos were an extension of the assets of Soba and Ngola. Finally, in Dongo, there was the social category of mubicas. Mubicas were the enslaved obtained in war that could be sold and were often used as bargaining chips. The mubicas were below the quijicos, who were below the children of the murinda, who were below the sobas, who in turn were below the Ngola. All are distinct social categories, divided into extremely organized hierarchies and based on the values of the environment. Realize, the quijicos were not free and rights holders, but they could not be sold, unlike the mubicas. This is because the logic of slavery within the Mbundu values is completely different from the slavery that develops in the American continent.
In this complex society, it is evident that it was not about blacks enslaving blacks. It was sobas and Ngolas who exercised their powers and legitimate dominions over people. They were not blacks themselves selling blacks. Sobas and Ngolas were selling mubicas, because mubicas were not considered equal to sobas and Ngolas. And these are the differences that we need to see. There was no single identity, no single social class, no single African group. The Mbundu, like any other African people, saw themselves within their differences. And, just as it has occurred throughout human history, these differences resulted in disputes, wars, hierarchies and powers distributed in different ways.
However, it is in no way possible to say that the slavery of the mubicas of the kingdom of Dongo was equal to the slavery of Colonial and Empire Brazil It is not possible to say that the enslaved people of Dongo were equal to the millions of Africans enslaved in the Americas. The existence of slavery on the African continent has its specificities that profoundly differ from the slavery process that developed in Brazil. Slavery among the African peoples is proof that, like the European, Asian and other peoples, Africans are human beings inserted in historical experiences of great density. It is not a question of denying the existence of slavery within the African continent. But to say in a general way that “blacks enslaved blacks” is to deny the complexity of African societies, to reduce them to a single group, to diminish their humanity. And most importantly, the existence of slavery on the African continent is not a justification for reducing the cruel, violent, genocidal and dehumanizing experience of African slavery in the Americas, it is not a pretext for reducing the severity of the ills caused by a racist society, nor should it be used to deny the demands of black movements.
When we recognize the humanity of the experiences of African peoples, when we see African societies in their complexities and pluralities beyond a racist perspective, we will be able to come out of the shallow and generalizing argument of “blacks that enslaved blacks” and we will understand that History is something that goes beyond the dichotomy between “good and bad”, “oppressors and oppressed”, “victims and executioners”.