Yes, Africans Did Sell Africans Into Slavery
A beloved talking point that ignores how White people reshaped slavery in Africa
“Blacks sold Blacks into slavery.”
This smug proclamation is often used by people who wish to silence discussions of slavery and sooth White fragility. On the surface, it is a easy phrase to repeat. It seeks to derail any White responsibility for slavery and put Black people in the driver seat of causing their own suffering. After all, the slaves wouldn’t have ended up on those ships if not for the African hunters who pulled them out of the jungle, right?
This phrase is sexy. It requires the person saying it to learn very little about historical context and simply know that Africans did take part in the slave trade. Wrapped in a bow, it is the perfect zinger in their mind to shut other people up. While there is truth behind the statement, it broadly ignores context and role of White people in the Atlantic slave trade.
“Africans Were Part of the Slave Trade…”
Slavery did exist in Africa before the arrival of White Europeans; as it did in many parts of the world. In truth, the practice of taking someone’s freedom and making them work for you with little to no pay or benefits is a simple idea. It is not as if White Europeans thought it up. However, White Europeans did craft a system that spanned continents and created an international economic system built on it. This new system of enslavement changed Africa, as observed by historian Marcus Rediker in his book The Slave Ship: A Human History: “The number of slaves held and the importance of slavery as an institution in African societies expanded with the Atlantic slave trade.”
Slavery looked different in Africa before the arrival of White Europeans, and we have historical records to prove it. As author Adaboi Tricia Nwaubani recalled in an article about her great-grandfather, an African slave trader:
“Long before Europeans arrived, Igbos enslaved other Igbos as punishment for crimes, for the payment of debts, and as prisoners of war. The practice differed from slavery in the Americas: slaves were permitted to move freely in their communities and to own property, but they were also sometimes sacrificed in religious ceremonies or buried alive with their masters to serve them in the next life. When the transatlantic trade began, in the fifteenth century, the demand for slaves spiked. Igbo traders began kidnapping people from distant villages.”
Nwaubani’s story is essential because it highlights a part of history that is rarely discussed within the narrative of “Blacks sold Blacks”. It shows that the Igbo people responded to the changes in the economic system (the selling/purchasing of humans). What Nwaubani’s narrative does not do is say that life was more humane prior to European arrival. Slavery within itself is a traumatic experience. However, as Nwaubani notes, prior to the arrival of the Europeans, slavery was focused on personal disputes, war, and punishment. The Europeans turned it into a formal system that relied on supply and demand.
It is no surprise that many Africans turned to selling other Black people to advance their wealth and survive in a rapidly changing world. This is not the first and only time in history that people from a vulnerable group sided with oppressors for their own benefit. In fact, this was common, especially in situations of colonialism: side with the oppressor who has more visible power than your own people. For many Africans, being part of the slave trade was a form of personal protection; both financially and physically.
However, this participation does not derail the idea that legacies of slavery, like the Confederate monuments, should be demolished. It only broadens the scope and understanding of how slavery damaged communities. The African role in the Atlantic slave trade has left a legacy within African nations as some are now trying to cope with their part in this traumatic history. The Atlantic Slave Trade tore apart Black lives. It encouraged people to take part in a system where they sold their fellow man and established generations of Black trauma that diaspora communities are still working through.
When someone utters the phrase “Blacks sold Blacks into slavery”, it is a scripted response. Rarely, do the people who use it know the specifics surrounding that experience of Africans selling other Africans. They only know that the phrase feels good to say because it blames Black people for their slavery experience. It removes responsibility for the legacies of slavery from White ancestors, hoping to preserve the flags, monuments, and revisionist history that is soothing to White fragility.
In the end, the role of Africans in the Atlantic Slave Trade does not discredit the trauma or anger of Black Americans towards the institution that bound our ancestors. That knowledge only broadens how we understand the power of the system. It was so potent that it changed the way African societies operated in concern to pre-existing systems of slavery. As such, the quickly quipped “Blacks sold Blacks,” statement is a weak derailing technique.
September 22: Updated article for grammar and added context in paragraphs 3, 4, 5 to strengthen paragraphs. For example, “many communities” became “diaspora communities” in paragraph 5. New citations have not been added.