As a child, long before I guessed family members would someday live somewhere in Africa, the continent intrigued me. Maybe it was from reading The Little Prince, set in the Sahara. Maybe it was from its size on our household globe, much of it labeled “French West Africa.” Picture books depicted Africa as a country like Mexico or Poland.
In recent adult conversations and study groups, I hear shock at role of Africans as sellers in the transatlantic slave trade. The white slavers who created the cruel market rarely captured human “cargo” by themselves. Africans were complicit. How could they have sold their own people into slavery?
Who are “your own people”? No one expects people of India or China to identify primarily as Asian. No one seems aghast that France and Germany fought each other even though both are European. Africa in the heyday of the slave trade comprised dozens of nationalities such as the Yoruba, Bakongo, or Fulani. “Their own people” would be those of the same ethnicity. The idea of “Africa” scarcely existed. Pan-Africanism took shape only much later, outside Africa, among descendants of enslaved workers torn from their ethnic roots.
Image: Africa from space. NASA.www.nasa.gov/image-feature/africa-and-europe-from-a-million-miles-away
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.