I am confused. The response of many American institutions to the Black Lives Matter protests is to embrace the notion of “white fragility”. Major corporations are rushing to organise antiracism training workshops.    

Pioneered by New York Times best-selling author Robin DiAngelo in her book of the same name, this means that white people (or rather White people, with a capital W to underscore that they belong to a dominant and oppressive race) are uncomfortable and defensive when confronted with systemic racism.

As in every idea which seizes the popular imagination, there is clearly some truth in DiAngelo’s arguments. White progressives may grieve at the evidence of black oppression, but they are unlikely to surrender their privileges. And African-Americans, as a group, are still disadvantaged after decades of affirmative action and fluttering of government busybodies.  

But that’s not exactly what she means. She believes that awareness of power relationships is the fundamental avenue to achieving social justice. This is the lens through which Marxists view human interaction. But does a relentless focus on racial oppression really give greater moral clarity to injustice?

Because sometimes things aren’t black and white. And if the racial element is removed from injustice, how are we to make moral decisions?

This is the theme of an extraordinary feature on the BBC website this week, “My Nigerian great-grandfather sold slaves”. The author, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, is a well-known Nigerian journalist and novelist.

Her great-great grandfather, Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku, was an Igbo businessman in the southeast of what today is Nigeria. He traded in tobacco, palm produce and human beings.

Nwaubani’s agents procured slaves for his business. Traders brought them to the ports of Bonny and Calabar on the Nigerian coast. There they were sold them to white merchants. After abolition in the United States and Britain, slaves were still being shipped legally to Cuba and Brazil. Slaving continued in Nigeria until the 1940s or 1950s.

Buying and selling of human beings among the Igbo had been going on long before the Europeans arrived, [she writes]. People became slaves as punishment for crime, payment for debts, or prisoners of war.

The successful sale of adults was considered an exploit for which a man was hailed by praise singers, akin to exploits in wrestling, war, or in hunting animals like the lion.

Oriaku had a licence from the Royal Niger Company, a company which oversaw trading in the region. When officials of the British colonial government seized some of his slaves, he protested vigorously. He made his point and his slaves were returned.

None of the locals at the time saw anything wrong with the slave trade. In fact, Nwaubani cites the King of Bonny, who declared:

“We think this trade must go on. That is the verdict of our oracle and our priests. They say that your country, however great, can never stop a trade ordained by God.” 

Nwaubani’s forebear was so esteemed that when he died, six of his slaves were buried alive with him. This, apparently, was one of the many drawbacks of being an Igbo slave. The custom even gave rise to an Igbo proverb: “A slave who looks on while a fellow slave is tied up and thrown into the grave with his master should realise that the same thing could be done to him someday.”

Nowadays we would describe this as barbarity. But why? Because it was racist? That seems a morally impoverished way of assessing it. The deeper issue is that the slave traders, of whatever race did not respect the dignity of their fellow human beings – or did not even regard them as human beings. Perhaps a bit of both.

What Nwaubani’s family history suggests is that racism is not the core issue in analysing prejudice, cruelty and oppression.

But that’s in Nigeria – it’s not relevant in the United States, you might say.

Not so fast. In 1924 the editor of the Journal of Negro History, Carter G. Woodson, published a study of the US census of 1830, “Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830”. He found that “a considerable number of Negroes were owners of slaves themselves, and in some cases controlled large plantations.”

Woodson believed that in most cases the relationship between black slave-owner and slave was benevolent:

The census records show that the majority of the Negro owners of slaves were such from the point of view of philanthropy. In many instances the husband purchased the wife or vice versa. The slaves belonging to such families were few compared with the large numbers found among the whites on the well-developed plantations. Slaves of Negroes were in some cases the children of a free father who had purchased his wife. If he did not thereafter emancipate the mother, as so many such husbands failed to do, his own children were born his slaves and were thus reported by the enumerators.

Even so, slaves were still slaves and masters were still masters. This led to abuses. Woodson observed:

Some of these husbands were not anxious to liberate their wives immediately. They considered it advisable to put them on probation for a few years, and if they did not find them satisfactory they would sell their wives as other slaveholders disposed of Negroes.

Relying on Woodson’s pioneering study, later historians by and large supported his portrait of black slave-owners as – for the most part — “benevolent despots”. But finer-grained studies in recent years have raised doubts about this. Reviews of the careers of free black slave-owners sometimes uncovered depressingly familiar stories of cruelty and injustice.

A 2005 study in the Journal of Southern History of the 1830 census data emphasised that slavery was largely a story of white oppression: 86.3 percent of all African-Americans were enslaved and 99.7 of all slaves were owned by whites. But there were more than 1,000 free blacks who owned four or more slaves.

Exploitation was also a feature of the lives of slaves owned by free blacks. One allegedly boasted that he had sold his own father, saying that “the old man had gone to the cane fields about New Orleans where they might teach him some manners”. The authors of the 2005 article concluded that most – between 57 and 66 percent — of the slaves owned by blacks were exploited.

Doesn’t this depressingly familiar picture undermine the simplistic notion that oppression is strictly a vice of white Americans? Anyone or any race is capable of gross injustice. The problem is not merely racial. It is also ethical.

Nwaubani’s response to the crimes committed by her great-great grandfather are deeply humane and make a lot of sense. Instead of indulging in “cancel culture” denunciations, she asserts: “It would be unfair to judge a 19th Century man by 21st Century principles.”

Assessing the people of Africa’s past by today’s standards would compel us to cast the majority of our heroes as villains, denying us the right to fully celebrate anyone who was not influenced by Western ideology.

Igbo slave traders like my great-grandfather did not suffer any crisis of social acceptance or legality. They did not need any religious or scientific justifications for their actions. They were simply living the life into which they were raised. That was all they knew.

Nonetheless, (as she writes elsewhere) her relatives, most of whom are Anglicans, were pained by their ancestor’s reputation as a slave-trader, his many wives and his human sacrifices. These were crimes which could be excused but not forgotten. They weighed them down so much that they decided to do something about it.  Scattered all over the world, they fasted and prayed for forgiveness for three days. As a text for meditation, her father sent all of them verses from the Book of Psalms:

Who can understand his errors?
Cleanse me from secret faults.
Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins;
Let them not have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
And I shall be innocent of great transgression.

Forgiveness and a profound awareness of our own weakness. They’re deeply Christian — don’t they bring greater moral clarity to our response to historic wickedness than repudiation and “cancelling”? It did for Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. She recalls: “I was overwhelmed with relief”.  

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet