Many years ago, I went to graduate school with a bright young man from Ghana. One morning, during a class discussion about slavery, he turned to another history student—an African-American woman—and announced, “You know, my people sold your people.”
The class broke into laughter, because we assumed he was kidding. But here in Ghana, it’s no joke. Slavery evokes a complex set of emotions that can surprise Western visitors. On the one hand, Ghanaians regard slavery as one of the great crimes in human history; on the other, they’re proud that their own ancestors were not slaves. And that, in turn, raises the dicey question of who sold whom—and who should take the blame.
The most obvious answer is the European colonial powers, who bought and transported an estimated 12 million Africans over four centuries. One million to two million probably died during the so-called Middle Passage across the Atlantic.
But Africans had practiced slavery for hundreds of years before white people got here. Most slaves were women, working as servants or concubines. They could become members of their owners’ families, which frequently freed them after several generations of bondage.
The arrival of Europeans—and, especially, of new consumer goods—changed slavery forever. Eager to obtain guns, liquor and other Western products, Africans engaged in widespread raids that brought millions of captives to slave castles on the coast. These raids generated new wars across the continent, which in turn generated fresh supplies of slaves. “Wars make gold scarce but negroes plenty,” a 17th-century trader wrote.
But Ghanaians still bridle at the idea that their own forefathers were implicated in slavery. In 2006, Canadian Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean—the first person of African descent to hold her post—sparked outrage here when she argued that Africans should apologize for the part they played in the trade.
But Ghanaians were even more offended by reports that then-President John Kufour had agreed to Jean’s request. As one newspaper editorialized, any such apology would represent a “recreation of imperialism, which always seeks to blame the victims.”
Kufour waded into these muddy waters again in 2007, during the bicentennial of the British abolition of the slave trade. Addressing demands that Europeans pay reparations for slavery, Kufour suggested that Africans’ own complicity in the trade made such payments inappropriate.
This time, too, reaction was swift and sharp. “All Africans and their descendants have been and continue to this day to be predatory victims of the European culture,” one critic raged. Under Kufour’s logic, he added, “drug barons should not have their assets confiscated … because drug addicts are partly responsible for these crimes.”
But this argument actually diminishes Africans, all in the guise of defending them. Hardly passive victims of a grand imperial plot, Africans participated in the slave trade for the same reason that Europeans did: They thought they could profit from it. And they were right, alas, no matter how wrong it looks in retrospect.
Even as they portray Africa as a victim of the slave trade, meanwhile, Ghanaians also emphasize they do not descend from slaves themselves. When President Obama visited Ghana in 2009, for example, newspapers proudly noted that he—like most Ghanaians—came from “free” rather than “slave” stock.
“The 44th President of the United States had a Kenyan Luo father who went to study in America where he married a white woman,” one columnist wrote. “Obama’s skin coloration did not link his ancestry to the dehumanizing trade started in the 17th Century.”
Into the present, “slave” is one of the worst things you can call someone in Ghana. It conjures the millions dragged away in the ships, never to be seen again. But they loom heavily in the Ghanaian conscience, nevertheless, a lasting reminder of a complicity that becomes ever more apparent whenever it is denied.
None of this suggests that Europeans and Africans should bear equal responsibility for the enormous tragedy of trans-Atlantic slavery. Colonialism converted a small-scale, family-centered practice into a hellish global network for the transport, sale, and exploitation of human beings. Africans collaborated in the new system, to be sure, but they didn’t create or control it. White people did.
But many different peoples—of many different colors and cultures—got their hands dirty with slavery. That’s important, too, because it reminds us of our shared duty to challenge other kinds of injustice today. In Africa, for example, an estimated 200,000 children are sold by their parents into unpaid servitude. Here in Ghana, a fisherman can buy children for $30 to $50 each; these “assistants” are forced into lakes to untangle nets, risking injury and death. They are, in essence, slaves. And we must not forget them, either.
That’s why Barack and Michelle Obama brought their two daughters to a slave castle in Ghana, back in 2009. “Hopefully one of the things that was imparted to them during this trip is their sense of obligation to fight oppression and cruelty wherever it appears,” President Obama told an audience outside the castle. Amen to that, no matter what your ancestors did. Or mine.
This essay first appeared in the Providence Journal.