Slavery, Africa and What Obama Can Teach

This history and black-studies expert says the president will make us re-evaluate our old stories.

Ibrahim Sundiata (Brandeis University)

IS: The very fact that he chooses to identify as an African American — he says he’s a black man of mixed heritage — is empowering because he recognizes and embraces all parts of himself. In doing so, he’s not at all postracial. And that’s a good thing. The book talks about how black identity in North American arose in slavery and is defined by rules written in slavery. Those oppressive rules today occasionally work in the maintenance of our solidarity. So I think it’s good that he defines himself as African American, but in a way that’s variant.

It’s mentioned often that Obama is a son of Africa. Well, he’s also a son of the African Diaspora and was raised by Anglo-Saxon people. He accepts himself as African American but makes us realize that he’s multiple; therefore we realize that we as African Americans contain multiple colors and multiple cultures. Africa itself is multiples. Traditionally we’ve been embedded in the Dixie story of slavery as well as a romantic and oversimplified story of Africa, and now we’re moving beyond that, and Obama is a sign of our movement.

TR: What’s the “old Dixie” narrative?

IS: It’s a fixed narrative which informs our politics, our view of the past, our view of the future, which is that slavery was driven by innate racial hatred, not economic greed; that the majority of slaves went to the United States and grew cotton; that slavery was the first form of psychosexual torture in the universe. Toni Morrison said something like, while the Holocaust was 6 million, the numbers immolated in the Middle Passage run to 60 million and more. That’s the narrative, and it’s basically ahistorical. Really, the numbers were more like 15 million; most slaves went to Brazil; and most produced sugar, not cotton. 

At the time of the American Civil War, there were 4 million African-American slaves and over 20 million serfs in Russia. People are very attached to the old Dixie narrative, though. When, for example, Skip [The Roots editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr.] talked about Africans trading Africans, there was a huge reaction because it disturbed one part of that narrative.

TR: So maybe our narrative isn’t 100 percent accurate, but if African Americans characterize slavery it in a way that’s “ahistorical,” either in terms of motivation, numbers or context, what’s the actual harm?

IS: When other human rights abuses occur, including present-day slavery, the people who talk most about it tend not to be African Americans. For us [African Americans], it ended in 1865, and then there was lynching and Jim Crow. That’s it. That’s our story. So when I mention slavery in places like Thailand, Mauritania, Brazil and Mali, the response I often get is, “I don’t know about that.” In some cases people don’t want to know. There’s a sense that it may deflect interest in our own continuing struggle, but in fact it leaves us out of an important conversation.

TR: In your experience, what are some African-American misperceptions about contemporary Africa?

IS: That it’s a country, not a continent — meaning that the individual peculiarities are molded into the larger narrative. So people will say there’s no big difference between Botswana and Equatorial Guinea. In a sense, it’s all one Africa to many people. There was this one African-American woman I met at a conference who said, “Anywhere I go, I’m at home in Africa.” She had been living in a West African country and invented an exaggerated kind of West African dress.

I asked what language she spoke, and she said, “What? I’m not learning any local language.” It was clear that when she went to an African country, she went to “Africa” — she wasn’t thinking with any nuance about the difference between going to country A, B and C.