America’s slavery is always painted with a broad-brush stroke involving blacks and whites only, that is, blacks as slaves and whites as slave owners. Such an ugly perception invokes emotions not favorable to amicable relationships between races. The concept of oppressed (black) and oppressor (white) is often cited beginning with slavery. That concept or perception is based on a faulty historical narrative that omits the full story of slavery. This is also “the history you didn’t learn in school,” that is, slavery’s oppressors were multiracial.
America’s history of slavery! Will it ever fade? Two major national newspapers recently published articles relating to this American tragedy—The NY Times and The Wall Street Journal. The former’s articles were a collection of articles under the title, The 1619 Project, while the latter’s involved three articles published on September 19, 2019.
One NY Times article begins with this statement: “Most Americans still don’t know the full story of slavery. This is the history you didn’t learn in school.” In looking over the various titles of articles, I realized that some important history was also completely omitted—slavery’s multiracial aspect.
The Wall Street Journal did a better job by focusing on the parties most involved in capturing and selling millions of black Africans into slavery—black Africans. The article entitled, When the Slave Traders Were African, was written by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, a Nigerian writer and journalist.
This article, however, is addressed to America’s black and white Christians who, of all people, should care about truth. We must be the last to hold enmity against others based solely on race in either direction. America’s slavery is painted with a broad-brush stroke involving blacks and whites only, that is, blacks as slaves and whites as slave owners. Such a one-sided perception evokes emotions not favorable to amicable relationships between races. Oppressed (black) and oppressor (white) are often cited beginning with America’s slavery. That concept is based on a faulty historical narrative omitting the full story of slavery. This is also “the history you didn’t learn in school,” that is, slavery’s oppressors on both sides of the Atlantic were multiracial.
The biblical truth related to the human condition from God’s perspective is vitally lacking—that truth is the fall affects all races. Human depravity is universal affecting all races. Extensive evil and magnanimous good are experienced by every race. Pointing fingers at one race as more righteous or more evil than another is futile, evil, unjust, and totally unbiblical.
Besides omissions of facts in history, there is the critical omission of a basic, simple, but most important word—“Some.” “Some” whites owned slaves. “Some” blacks were slaves. Can we capture this word and thought? It’s not about entire races—all the black or all white! “Some” of both races were involved, but not all. “Some” blacks were oppressed and “some” whites were oppressors. However, the omitted truth is “some” blacks and others were also oppressors! It’s time for the truth be revealed and be taught, because full truth aligns more with God’s Word of truth than the current narrative. American slavery represents a collusion and complicity of races as to the oppressors.
It’s imperative to firmly state there is absolutely no intention to dismiss or decrease the guilt of anyone of the white race. There is also utterly no intention of denying or ignoring the racism suffered by or the indignant treatment of African Americans in our history. It is authentically recorded. Christians, regardless of race, cannot escape recognizing the grave wickedness and unrighteous malice a people experienced due solely to race.
In the article, When the Slave Traders Were African, Ms. Nwaubani contends, “But the American side of the story is not the only one.” Europeans had many collaborators in the brutal traffic in human cargo. African middlemen and merchants brought slaves to them. She writes, “The anguished debate over slavery in the U.S. is often silent on the role that Africans played. Some families have chosen to hide similar histories. ‘We speak of it in whispers,’ said Yunus Mohammed Rafiq, a 44-year-old professor of anthropology from Tanzania. In the 19th century, Mr. Rafiq’s great-great-great-grandfather, Mwarukere, from the Segeju ethnic group, raided villages in Tanzania’s hinterland, sold the majority of his captives to the Arab merchants who supplied Europeans and kept the rest as laborers on his own coconut plantations.” Ms. Nwaubani admits, “I also felt apprehensive before deciding to write about my own family’s history. . . How would black Americans respond to the descendants of a man who sold some of their ancestors into slavery?” She writes a Zambian pastor feels the need to go public with his family’s history. His ancestor moved to Zanzibar to establish slave markets in Zambia. “He grew up hearing this history narrated with great pride by his relatives.” Black Africans, Arabs, and Europeans colluded in slave traffic.
Interestingly, I just learned from the daughter of one of my dearest missionary friends and colleagues originally from Zanzibar, a Christian converted from Islam, told his children that their ancestors owned and sold black African slaves. He was part African and part Omani. What an admission to leave his children who are now citizens of the United Kingdom. Their father, a member of the Royal Air Force came to Christ in the desert of Libya.
An accompanying Wall Street Journal article, “An Ancient Practice Transformed by the Arrival of Europeans,” written by Robert Harms, professor of history and African Studies at Yale University, affirms slavery existed in Africa long before Columbus. He contends the trans-Atlantic trade turned into a very different institution. He states: “New World slavery was a racialized institution in which slaves were black and slave owners were white. In contrast, owners and slaves in the Old World were generally of the same race.” That may not be true of the Barbary Coast slavers. It is definitely half true in that, while American slavery was by race (black slaves), slave owners weren’t solely white. Thousands of black slaves were owned by thousands of black slave owners in the South. Five Native American tribes’ slave owners also possessed black slaves. This is not taught in our history courses. The facts and veracity, nonetheless, were discovered and written about by black historians and scholars, such as John Hope Franklin, Carter G. Woodson, Larry Koger, et al.
These excerpts paint a broader picture containing the nuanced complicity of races in both Africa and America as to the institution of slavery. It’s not just to blame solely one race for what several races played major roles in.
For Christians, we are all called to embrace truth over prejudicial falsehoods or half-truths. We serve a God of truth and a Redeemer who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14: 6). We are called to be people of truth. The normal narrative of American slavery is prejudicial. Thanks to black Africans and historians and scholars, we are now aware the culpable parties involved in our history of slavery are multiracial. This is one less reason for bitterness or enmity directed toward the whole white race.
Regardless of race whether black, white, Arab, or Native American, the word “Some” must be remembered. “Some” were victims and “some” of each of these were oppressors—not all! Hence, it is unjust and unrighteous to blame all of any race.
Furthermore, our understanding from God’s divine revelation is that sin—including unimaginable evils toward others—affects all of humankind—all races.
Black and white Christians must resist the world’s narratives manipulated in line with agendas or prejudices. We have an opportunity to show we strive to value truth and practice love. We value truth in not blaming all for what “some” have done. We practice love by recognizing “some” in their group or our group are guilty, but Christ calls us to love all. As Christ’s followers, let’s ALL lead the way in acknowledging slavery’s complete, factual history. American slavery is, ironically, one more proof of the universality of sin and evil. Let’s both—black and white Christians—ensure God’s Word is our guide and not errantly-related history. We have a higher calling that includes truth—unadulterated truth.
Helen Louise Herndon is a member of Central Presbyterian Church (EPC) in St. Louis, Missouri. She is freelance writer and served as a missionary to the Arab/Muslim world in France and North Africa.