"The Africans Sold Us" Is One of the Greatest Anti-Black Tools Ever Used
African history deserves complexity & depth, critical thinking, & more interrogation beyond surface-level discourse
Jessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor | Guest Contributor
"The Africans sold us" is a phrase and narrative thrown around periodically in discussions about slavery and reparations concerning African Americans. On the surface, this statement rings true for many, as Africans did indeed participate in the slave trade. However, the phrase furthers a narrative of falsehoods that inaccurately describes the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade into a single event rendering the entire continent of Africa happily complicit.
This line of thinking dangerously oversimplifies the slave trade. It excludes centuries of African battles and wars against the trade, and it disconnects African Diasporic descendants from the continent on the false basis of mass continental rejection. All of this fits perfectly into a white supremacist narrative used to stifle Black collective activism, position colonizers as saviors, and silence impactful truths about the global fight for African and African descended liberation.
In short, the “The Africans sold us" narrative is one of the greatest tools of anti-Black propaganda to ever exist.
Africa is Not “One Group”
First: the "The Africans sold us" narrative is flawed because it reduces hundreds of different African kingdoms and ethnicities to "one group" and makes it seem like they all rounded us up and waved goodbye at the shores. The reality is that many people lost their families during the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade and fought in battles and rebellions to save them. People were taking over slave ships on the shores of West Africa and setting others free.
Lorenzo J. Greene documented some of these rescues in his article "Mutiny on the Slave Ships" (1944) …
A more celebrated case was that of the Jolly Bachelor, a slave ship belonging to Peter Faneuil, his brother-in-law, John Jones, and Captain Cutler of Boston. While taking on slaves in the Sierra Leone River in March 1742, the vessel, according to George Burchall, was attacked and captured by the natives. In the fight, Captain Cutler and two of his men were killed. The Negroes stripped the vessel of its rigging and sails, freed the slaves in the hold, then abandoned the ship (pg. 350).
Second, "The Africans sold us narrative" ignores the complexities of a highly diverse continent.
Sylviane A. Diouf addresses this in the opening of Fighting the Slave Trade: West African Strategies …
The fact that Africans did not constitute one population, but many whose interests and needs could be vastly divergent has not reached the general public.
Indeed, we are always drawn in and even forced to understand the various wars, conflicts, histories, and political agendas that have challenged European civilizations and nation states for centuries. We create an endless stream of classes, documentaries and movies explaining each and every event in Europe. Yet, for some reason, we can't comprehend any of this when it comes to Africa. Africa never gets that kind of deep dive analysis. We need to keep asking ourselves and the world around us why that’s acceptable.
It’s not. Instead, it’s dehumanizing. In pop culture discussions of slavery, African ancestors are limited to two depictions. On one hand, African ancestors are depicted as one group of brutal beasts selling everyone in sight. On the other hand, they're portrayed as docile poor souls shipped off with no Africans fighting back or trying to save them. Much of this is based on falsehoods and pure erasure of the historical record.
They Did Fight Back
Third: Some of the same kingdoms folks point out for selling enslaved people also fought against the slave trade and lost loved ones. The Kingdom of Kongo serves as an example. They had internal conflicts over the trade as it caused destabilization and depopulation and weakened its Kingdom. King Afonso I participated in the slave trade due to pressures from the Portuguese, but later wrote letters in 1526 lamenting the harms of slavery on his people and pleading with Portuguese King Joao III to end the trade.
King Afonso I stated …
… [T]he mentioned merchants are taking every day our natives, sons of the land and the sons of our noblemen and vassals and our relatives, because the thieves and men of bad conscience grab them wishing to have the things and wares of this Kingdom which they are ambitious of, they grab them and get them to be sold; and so great, Sir, is the corruption and licentiousness that our country is being completely depopulated, and Your Highness should not agree with this nor accept it as in your service.
Some African Americans and Haitians are Kongolese descendants. Kongolese and their descendants participated in the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina and the Haitian Revolution. Historians believe they were partly inspired by Kongolese prophetess Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, known for her Antonian religious movement and attempts to unify the Kingdom of Kongo.
Also, not everyone left on the continent is a descendant of slave traders. The idea that every current-day West African is a beneficiary of the slave trade or descendant of slave traders is a gross and harmful generalization not grounded in history or reality. Most people had no control over the trade and were victims themselves. Many today are also descendants of enslaved people. And while we were brutally enslaved in the Americas, many of these African empires and nation-states that we derive from (that also participated in the slave trade) were being colonized and enslaved by the same Europeans that brought us to the Americas. However, the "Africans sold us" narrative positions a false "us against them" dichotomy that positions African descendants in the Diaspora as entirely separate from past slave trading societies and current-day African societies.
The Lie of the “African Betrayal Model”
Sylviane A. Diouf refers to this as the "Black betrayal" or "African betrayal model" and outlines its problematic assumptions:
Later generations developed the black betrayal model. It is no more historically true than the one it replaced. As has been evidenced elsewhere, the concepts of Africa, Africans, blackness, whiteness, and race did not exist in Africa, and they cannot be utilized today to assess people's actions at a time when they were not operative (Eltis 2000, 150; Inikori, this volume).
In addition, for this paradigm of continental Africans' collective culpability — quite a dangerous and devious concept anyway — to make sense, it has to be based on the (inaccurate) belief that the slave trade removed only people who had no parents, spouses, children, and friends; that it did not kill, wound, or mutilate more people in Africa than it deported overseas; that there were never any shifts in the military balance of power; that only certain populations were victimized to the exclusion of others; and that those who became captives had never been involved in wars, raids, or abductions that had resulted in the deportation and enslavement of others. With the sharp increase in African immigration, the African betrayal model has found new vigor. Contemporary Africans are frequently accused by some African Americans of having "sold us" and are expected to apologize. (xiv-xv)
The truth is much more complex than "they sold us" and "us against them.” Africans and African descendants were harmed both on the continent and in the Diaspora. No one group of people among us were the victims, captors, or saviors. African history deserves complexity and depth, critical thinking, and interrogation beyond surface-level discourse. Refusing to recognize these complex histories and minimizing them denies the humanity of our ancestors. It repeats the anti-Black, white supremacist belief that we are innately evil and weak and in need of European salvation. There are ways to discuss accountability and healing concerning various African ethnic groups and roles in the slave trade. However, many discussions are now rooted in falsehoods, generalizations, bigotry, and Afrophobia. We can tell the whole story without letting ourselves be used in the service of white supremacy.
Every time "the Africans sold us” narrative is raised, it is used back against us to deny reparations. It's already happening in the United States and Britain as Western Conservatives stay on script by saying that Africans were the first enslavers and "a Black man was the first slave owner in America, so why are they owed reparations?" Mark my words: It's already happening. Thus, it is vital to approach this topic with clarity and care. Otherwise, the “The Africans sold us” narrative is just another tool for ahistorical anti-Black propaganda that benefits none of us while it definitely benefits those against us.