History Swept Under The Rug: Only Western Civilization Put An
End To Slavery

By Thomas Sowell

A haunting picture of a thin and forlorn-looking African girl has
this caption under it: "A 12-year-old girl, given up as a slave
to atone for a crime by a member of her family, stands at the beck
and call of a traditional priest in Tefle, Ghana." This is
not a painting of something that happened long ago. It is a photograph
that appeared in the New York Times of February 2, 1997. According
to local customs, some crimes can only be atoned for by the family’s
giving up one of its young virgins for sexual enslavement.

I have not seen a word of comment, much less outrage, from any
of those who cry out so loudly about slavery in centuries past
among people long dead. Not only does slavery persist to this
moment in the backwaters of Ghana, it persists on a larger scale
in Sudan and Mauritania, which has about 30,000 people still in
bondage, often under brutal conditions.

During Black History Month, this part of that history is swept
under the rug. Far more popular are the myths that cater to current
psychological and political needs. Myths like the image of Kunta
Kinte in "Roots," who is puzzled by the chains clapped
on him, even though slavery was widely known in the part of Africa
from which he came, long before the first white man appeared on
the scene.

Challenged by professional historians, Alex Haley’s reply
was, "I tried to give my people a myth to live by."
No doubt Haley’s intentions were good, but it is the truth
that sets you free, not myths. The most painful of all truths
is that slavery existed all over this planet, among people of
every race and color, for thousands of years. Nobody wanted to
be a slave, but that is completely different from saying that
they opposed slavery for others. Slavery was as accepted in Africa
as it was in Europe or Asia, or among the indigenous peoples of
the Western Hemisphere.

Incredibly late in human history, a mass moral revulsion finally
set in against slavery–first in 18th century England and then,
during the 19th century, throughout Western civilization. But
only in Western civilization.

Africans, Arabs, and Asians continued to resist giving up their
slaves. Only because Western power was at its peak in the 19th
century was Western imperialism able to impose the abolition of
slavery around the world–as it imposed the rest of its beliefs
and agendas, for good or evil.

Now that Africa has its independence again, there is no great
interest in stamping out the slavery that did not get stamped
out during the age of European imperialism. People around the
world who crusaded for years against the evils of apartheid in
South Africa have no interest in the fate of this little girl
in Ghana or vast numbers of others like her elsewhere in Africa

Think of all the years when Ghana’s first president, Kwame
Nkrumah, was being lionized by Western intellectuals while this
kind of degradation continued to flourish under his rule. Nkrumah’s
rhetoric and his symbolism were what mattered–especially his
promotion of socialism and pan-Africanism, as well as his denunciations
of the West. There was much less interest in what actually happened
to the African people who lived under his rule–or under the rule
of other despots, unless those despots were white, as in South
Africa. The African leaders whose names became household words
among Western intellectuals in academia and the media were those
who talked the talk. Nobody cared whether they walked the walk.

Felix Houphouet-Boigny, first president of the Ivory Coast, was
nowhere near as well-known, or as favorably regarded in the West,
as despots like Nkrumah in Ghana or Julius Nyerere in Tanzania,
even though the Ivory Coast achieved one of the highest economic
growth rates in Africa–or in the world. The economic and political
achievements of this country and its president were all the more
remarkable because the Ivory Coast had fewer natural resources
than Ghana or other African nations and was much poorer when it
and these other nations became independent back in the 1960s.
But, while Houphouet-Boigny’s market-based policies gave
his people a rising standard of living, he did not give the intelligentsia
the ideological raw meat they craved.

Clearly, the actual well-being of Africans was not what mattered
most to the Western intelligentsia or to "black leaders"
in the United States. For them, rhetoric has been more important
than reality.

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