No. 12 Bookworm Podcast: Slavery was a blessing for today’s African Americans

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Though slavery was awful, for today’s American blacks what would have been even worse was an absence of the slavery that brought them to these shores.

(If you prefer listening over reading, the companion podcast to this post is embedded below, or you can listen to it at Libsyn or at Apple podcasts. I’m trying to make a go of my podcast so, if you like the podcasts, please share them with your friends and on social media. Giving my podcast good ratings helps too.)

My co-blogger, Wolf Howling, has already written two excellent posts savaging the shoddy scholarship and evil motives behind the New York Times’ 1619 Project. He’s right, of course, but that hasn’t stopped the project from benefiting from the fact that the Times, while it no longer even makes a pretense of reporting news (instead it works as a Democrat propaganda arm), still has a disproportionate reach into American minds. For example, at Twitter, Stu Cvrk does a quick rundown of the Times’ decades’-long control over American newsrooms, a power it still holds today — as can be seen from the fact that USA Today has already published its own echo of the 1619 project.

Even the meanest intellect can understand the message that the Times’ and its fellow travelers are pushing: Americans cannot hide behind the Constitution to claim that they are a society founded on a great and colorblind idea (albeit one that was imperfectly implemented for a long time). Instead, from the moment Europeans set foot on America’s shores, they brought with them an evil so great that America is irredeemably corrupt. And of course, the proggies know the only way to purge that corruption: America must be destroyed and rebuilt in a socialist mold.

I’ll repeat here a true family story about this notion of purification: My aunt, along with her siblings (one of whom was my father) managed to escape Nazi Germany before the war. After the war, my aunt found her way to Israel. Israel was socialist, which ought to have satisfied her, but it wasn’t socialist enough. She wanted true communism, so she abandoned her husband and child and returned to Berlin. When she first raised the idea of leaving Israel, her friends asked her how she could return to the land of the Nazis. She confidently assured them that this was not a problem: “They’ve been purified by communism.” Looking at how people in the 20th century suffered under communism, I guess you could call that purification — and it’s that kind of “purification” that the new American Left wants for us so that we can atone for the sin of slavery.

Many people more intelligent and informed than I have pointed to some very obvious problems with the 1619 project. There’s

  • the shoddy, dishonest scholarship;
  • the fact that slavery was the norm throughout the world up until the Enlightenment, something that was a purely Western concept;
  • the fact that Africans enthusiastically participated in the slave trade as a way of ridding themselves of prisoners taken in their endless tribal warfare;
  • the fact that millions of Europeans were enslaved in Africa and the Middle East even as Africans were enslaved in other parts of the world;
  • the fact that slavery continues today across the Muslim Middle East and Africa; the fact that America fought its bloodiest war to end slavery, with the loss of 650,000 men (or 2% of its population); and
  • the fact that, after the 1830s, both slavery and its descendant, Jim Crow, were phenomenons unique to the Democrat Party.

That’s all the obvious stuff.

I’d like to talk about something less obvious, which is the fact that slavery is the best thing that ever happened to the African-American diaspora, by which I mean black Americans whose ancestors were forcibly brought to America as slaves. This is not to excuse the inhumanity of the slave trade nor is it meant to lessen the horrors visited on those Africans whose fellow countrymen consigned them to the slave ships. I’m also not trying to lessen the generational pain, suffering, and humiliation experienced by those who survived the ships only to become slaves, sharecroppers, and people on the receiving end of virulent racism. But what I’ve said is still true.

To begin, I’d like to talk a little bit about life in Africa today. Let’s start with life expectancy. African nations have the lowest life expectancy in the world — pathetically, tragically, horrifically low. No matter the source (the WHO, the UN, or other NGOs), the message is always the same: If you live in Africa, your life will be shorter than the life expectancy of any other people in any other parts of the world, no matter how impoverished. And just as one point of comparison, an African American man in America, although he is unlikely to live as long as a white male in America, can still expect to live 10 to 25 years longer than his African brethren.

What about infant mortality? Once again, Africa lives in the bottom half, nay, the bottom third of any infant mortality chart.

The African continent does top some charts, though. Many of its nations are in the top 20 percent when it comes to lists identifying the most dangerous countries in the world. See here, here, and here, for example. Africa also tops the charts for illiteracy, poverty, and horrific diseases.

Life in Africa is truly Hobbesian: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” — except that, given crowding in African cities, the one thing life isn’t is solitary. Instead, it’s over-crowded, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Just today, I picked up a couple of stories about life in Africa. The first was a tweet showing a South African mob, in full xenophobe mode, beating to death a Nigerian Uber driver and his passenger:

In response, someone tweeted a reminder to me that, just this past June, several thousand miles away on the northwestern side of Africa, there was a little reported story out of Mali:

Bodies recovered from a massacre of almost 100 people by a Malian ethnic militia included at least 24 children, many of them shot in the back, the prime minister said during a visit to the crime scene on Tuesday.

Attackers believed to belong to the Fulani ethnic group raided the rival Dogon village of Sobame Da, in central Mali, between Sunday and Monday.

They killed at least 95 people and burned houses to the ground in an escalation of the tit-for-tat ethnic slaughter that has engulfed the country this year.

That massacre did not get the coverage of a shooting in a Texas Walmart. Instead, it got almost no coverage. That’s because it’s a dog bites man story. Massacres are normal for Africa. Mass slaughter for religious, ethnic, political, tribal, and racial grounds is an ongoing, day-to-day experience. It’s what they do there.

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If you want a pithy summary of life in Africa, read Kim du Toit’s post entitled Let Africa Sink. du Toit grew up and lived for 30 years in Africa, so he has first-hand experience when he makes the following points. I’m offering here just a portion of his post, but I urge you to read the whole thing. It makes for both painful and eye-opening reading:

In Africa, life is cheap. There are so many ways to die in Africa that death is far more commonplace than in the West. You can die from so many things: snakebite, insect bite, wild animal attack, disease, starvation, food poisoning… the list goes on and on. At one time, crocodiles accounted for more deaths in sub-Saharan Africa than gunfire, for example. Now add the usual human tragedy (murder, assault, warfare and the rest), and you can begin to understand why the life expectancy for an African is low — in fact, horrifyingly low, if you remove White Africans from the statistics (they tend to be more urbanized, and more Western in behavior and outlook). Finally, if you add the horrifying spread of AIDS into the equation, anyone born in sub-Saharan Africa this century will be lucky to reach age forty.

[snip]

So because of my African background, I am seldom moved at the sight of death, unless it’s accidental, or it affects someone close to me. (Death which strikes at total strangers, of course, is mostly ignored.) Of my circle of about eighteen or so friends with whom I grew up, and whom I would consider “close”, only about eight survive today — and not one of the survivors is over the age of fifty. Two friends died from stepping on landmines while on Army duty in Namibia. Three died in horrific car accidents (and lest one thinks that this is not confined to Africa, one was caused by a kudu flying through a windshield and impaling the guy through the chest with its hoof — not your everyday traffic accident in, say, Florida). One was bitten by a snake, and died from heart failure. Another two also died of heart failure, but they were hopeless drunkards. Two were shot by muggers. The last went out on his surfboard one day and was never seen again (did I mention that sharks are plentiful off the African coasts and in the major rivers?). My experience is not uncommon in South Africa — and north of the Limpopo River (the border with Zimbabwe), I suspect that others would show worse statistics.

[snip]

My favorite African story actually happened after I left the country. An American executive took a job over there, and on his very first day, the newspaper headlines read:
“Three Headless Bodies Found”.
The next day: “Three Heads Found”.
The third day: “Heads Don’t Match Bodies”.

[snip]

More to the point, the West has evolved into a society with a stable system of government, which follows the rule of law, and has respect for the rights and life of the individual — none of which is true in Africa.

Among old Africa hands, we have a saying, usually accompanied by a shrug: “Africa wins again.” This is usually said after an incident such as:

  • a beloved missionary is butchered by his congregation, for no apparent reason
  • a tribal chief prefers to let his tribe starve to death rather than accepting food from the Red Cross (would mean he wasn’t all-powerful, you see)
  • an entire nation starves to death, while its ruler accumulates wealth in foreign banks
  • a new government comes into power, promising democracy, free elections etc., provided that the freedom doesn’t extend to the other tribe
  • the other tribe comes to power in a bloody coup, then promptly sets about slaughtering the first tribe
  • etc, etc, etc, ad nauseam, ad infinitum.

In other words, for vast numbers of Africans, life in Africa is awful, really and truly awful. Not to be in Africa is a blessing.

And that loops me back to my earlier point, which is that those American blacks whose ancestors were enslaved here, are the lucky ones. This idea is not original to me. Instead, I first learned it when I stumbled across a book by an African-American, former Washington Post correspondent named Keith Richburg. Back in the early 1990s, Richburg was thrilled when he was appointed to be the Post‘s African bureau chief for it would give him the chance to return to the land of his ancestors. That thrill did not survive the African experience, especially given that he was in Africa during the Rwanda massacres.

In 1997, after returning to America, Richburg wrote about his experience in a book entitled Out Of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa. I cannot recommend the book highly enough. The fact that it was first published in 1997 does not make it one whit less relevant to what’s going on in the world today and, indeed, given the iniquity of the 1619 Project, it makes the book more relevant than before. If you have $12 lying around for the Kindle edition, do yourself a favor — follow the my link to the book and get yourself a copy.

Rather than trying to summarize Richburg’s core point in the book, I’ll let him explain in his own words the staggering realization he had about America once he had done his time in Africa. Richburg begins by describing the overwhelming horror of being in Tanzania and watching bodies from Rwanda float down the Kagera Rivera by the thousands. That was not the only time he was confronted by dead bodies in Africa. He saw hundreds more, whether the people died from Nature’s aggression, poverty, ordinary African violence, or all-out war.

Maybe now you’re asking yourself: How does he deal with it? How does he cope with seeing those horrific images every day? Does he think about it? Does he have nightmares? What on earth must go through his mind?

I’ll tell you, if you’ll let me describe it. Revulsion. Sorrow. Pity at the monumental waste of human life. They all come close, but don’t quite capture what I really feel. It’s a sentiment that began nagging me soon after I first set foot in Africa in late 1991. And it’s a gnawing feeling that kept coming back to me as the bodies kept piling up, as the insanity of Africa deepened. It’s a feeling that I was really unable to express out loud until the end, as I was packing my bags to leave. It was a feeling that pained me to admit, a sentiment that, when uttered aloud, might come across as callous, self-obsessed, even racist.

And yet I know exactly this feeling that haunts me; I’ve just been too embarrassed to say it. So let me drop the charade and put it as simply as I know how: There but for the grace of God go I.

You see, I was seeing all of this horror a bit differently because of the color of my skin. I am an American, but a black man, a descendant of slaves brought from Africa. When I see these nameless, faceless, anonymous bodies washing over a waterfall or piled up on the back of trucks, what I see most is that they look like me.

Sometime, maybe four hundred or so years ago, one of my ancestors was taken from his village, probably by a local chieftain. He was shackled in leg irons, kept in a holding pen or a dark pit, possibly at Goree Island off the coast of Senegal. And then he was put in the crowded, filthy cargo hold of a ship for the long and treacherous voyage across the Atlantic to the New World.

Many of the slaves died on that voyage. But not my ancestor. Maybe it was because he was strong, maybe just stubborn, or maybe he had an irrepressible will to live. But he survived, and ended up in forced slavery working on plantations in the Caribbean. Generations on down the line, one of his descendants was taken to South Carolina. Finally, a more recent descendant, my father, moved to Detroit to find a job in an auto plant during the Second World War.

And so it was that I came to be born in Detroit and that thirty-five years later, a black man born in white America, I was in Africa, birthplace of my ancestors, standing at the edge of a river not as an African but as an American journalist—a mere spectator—watching the bloated bodies of black Africans cascading over a waterfall. And that’s when I thought about how, if things had been different, I might have been one of them—or might have met some similarly anonymous fate in one of the countless ongoing civil wars or tribal clashes on this brutal continent. And so I thank God my ancestor survived that voyage.

Does that sound shocking? Does it sound almost like a justification for the terrible crime of slavery? Does it sound like this black man has forgotten his African roots? Of course it does, all that and more. And that is precisely why I have tried to keep this emotion buried so deep for so long, and why it pains me so now to put these words in print, for all the world to see. But I’m writing this so you will understand better what I’m trying to say.

It might have been easier for me to just keep all of these emotions bottled up inside. Maybe I should have just written a standard book on Africa that would have talked broadly about the politics, the possibilities, the prospects for change.

But I’m tired of lying. And I’m tired of all the ignorance and hypocrisy and the double standards I hear and read about Africa, much of it from people who’ve never been there, let alone spent three years walking around amid the corpses. Talk to me about Africa and my black roots and my kinship with my African brothers and I’ll throw it back in your face, and then I’ll rub your nose in the images of the rotting flesh.

I’ll stop there, but let me say again that Richburg’s is one of those books you should read, indeed, you must read, if you want to understand the flip side of the sudden Leftist hysteria about the slave experience. Yes, slavery was bad, but America was scarcely unique. What is unique is that, out of that awfulness came something good: An African diaspora in which descendants of slaves can be Keith Richburg or Barack Obama or Beyonce, rather than the two Nigerians beaten to death on the street in South Africa or the 24 children killed in yet another tribal/religious battle that is day-to-day fare in impoverished, diseased, corrupt Africa, a place profoundly hostile to life.

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Moreover, you need to understand that today’s American Left is trying to import wholesale Africa’s horrors to America under the guise of socialism — and by that I mean that the Left is trying to reinstate tribalism.

Keep in mind that Marx’s idea was anti-tribalism. He was all about class divisions that he believed uniformly encircled the globe. Thus, he envisioned a world in which, eventually, the whole world would march under one banner. For those who read Marx in the late 19th century, WWI came as a shock. They had assumed that, when the capitalist powers went to war, the workers of the world would unite, resisting national borders and combining instead to bring down worldwide capitalism and replacing it with one-world communism. Instead, the only uniting the workers of the world did was to march behind the national banners.

(As an aside, one can say that nationalism is tribalism on a larger scale and therefore equally dangerous. This is one of the proggie arguments against Trump. However, as Milton Friedman and other economists have pointed out, truly capitalist nations, especially those built around the type of liberty-oriented principles that animate the Constitution, tend not to go to war. They enrich themselves through trade and the spread of liberty; not through conquest and the spread of tyranny.)

America’s socialists are not working for a unified America. To achieve power, they are doing their best to divide America into as many warring sub-parts as possible. In other words, even as the world is finally leaving behind the tribalism that led to chronic violence (a type of violence I described here), America’s progressives, through initiatives such as the 1619 Project, are doing their best to reinstate it. Think about my post, read Richburg’s book, and resist the pernicious, evil, ill-informed, dangerous 1619 Project.

A note about the picture: An image from the Ethiopian famine in the early 1980s, which killed between 200,000 to 1,200,000 people.

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Bookworm came late to conservativism but embraced it with passion. She's been blogging since 2004 at Bookworm Room about anything that captures her fancy -- and that's usually politics. Her blog's motto is "Conservatives deal with facts and reach conclusions; liberals have conclusions and sell them as facts."