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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

When comparing the Slave Trade and the Holocaust, there are only losers

Published: March 7, 2008
Section: Opinions

One of my least favorite experiences in Senegal came when I visited Goree Island, the major Slave trading port for that section of the Guinea coast. Today the island is the designated place in Africa for western leaders to visit and apologize for the Slave trade (except for President Clinton, who made his mea culpa in Uganda) and the gift shop proudly displays photos of Bush, Sarkozy, Chirac, etc, all appearing very serious and grief stricken. I have visited a few slave castles before; Cape Coast and Elmina, both of which are in the same town in Ghana, but I was actually relatively unprepared for what happened at the end of the tour.

These kinds of places have become relatively famous since the 1990’s, when the Afro-Centrism movement prompted many middle and upper class black Americans to visit West Africa as a way of re-connecting with their roots. As a result, Slave castles then began to cater to these tourists by employing English-speaking tour guides who would, in graphic detail, explain every horrible aspect of slave life, starting with the overcrowded and filthy waiting rooms, then to the rape rooms where the slavers would take advantage of the female Africans, and finally to the “door of no return”, where the now sobbing tourists would pass though (this time from the other side) to symbolically complete their journey. After this there is of course a gift-shop -and a donation box. Inside the House of Slaves we were treated to the usual speech of the suffering of the slave trade and the wanton violence of the European traders (without accounting for the responsibility of the Africans who facilitated much of the trading itself) by an impassioned older gentlemen who is well known in Dakar as the longtime curator of this “essential” stop in the city.

The curator’s speech was a perfect example of a few things I absolutely despise in the study of history, namely inaccurate reporting of the facts for an emotional effect (and in this case profit), “scientific” racism, and the worst of them all: comparable suffering. In a few phrases the curator had made me realize just how ignorant most people, even “experts” are to the facts of the slave trade, and the effect that reporting inaccuracies can have on the hapless masses of even more ignorant tourists can be.

In all honesty I really did not expect the curator to assign even the slightest bit of blame on African’s for the growth and continuation of the Slave Trade (it is smarter to have your audience sad and ready to give money then angry at the country they just spent two grand to visit), but what he did end up saying left me both surprised and as I said earlier, rather incensed. In the speech he first explained that “the Yoroba made up the majority of those enslaved and brought to the New World, and their athletic build and their ability to survive the slave boats explains why African Americans are the best athletes in the world”. He then followed that gem later with “No one wants to talk about the slave trade anymore, when so much more of our people were killed then in the Holocaust. People tell me to get over the slave trade but I’m gonna keep talking about it till the day I die” (this was followed by clapping). He then concluded by showing an unmarked black box and asked that people donate to keep the building open (because I guess Shell is not dolling out enough), and a long line of sobbing tourists.

This was the pinnacle of insult, the final straw in a day full of contradictions and sights that left me angry and disappointed. These little phrases are symptomatic of a larger problem in the study of History; one that it is so bad that it actually manages to effect the non-academic community. Simply put, continually comparing one horrible event to another is not fixing the problems of the past; rather it is creating a host of new ones.

While the “slave breeding” issue is and incredibly stupid thing to mention in a supposedly historical tour, it is a minor problem when compared with the bigger issues of using comparable suffering, especially when the curator was using it to elicit donations afterwards. The Holocaust and the Slave Trade are two periods in history that should never be addressed or discussed lightly, nor should anyone ever make connections between the two without an extreme amount of care. These two events are the embodiments of the worst of human nature and the continued study of them is extremely important for several reasons, not the least of which being that they each affect international politics and global relations on a regular basis. In a sense, it is this singular discussion that continually places a massive divide between the Black and Jewish communities of the world, where the emotional impact of each example of “ultimate suffering” has lead to a prolonged mistrust of the “other” amongst both of the victimized groups.

This problem is not just resigned to the ignorant in society either, Toni Morrison has stated that the slave trade killed 60 million people (notice the multiple of 6 in the calculation), and the academic community shudders every time another academic attempts to assign a tangible number to the suffering of either Blacks during slavery or Jews during the holocaust out of fear that if that the result of the new study (whether it discusses economics or the exact number of people who perished) will destroy the generally accepted narrative of what happened, and consequently that event will then be perceived as less abhorrent by the public. It is this contradiction, where the world is less willing to learn about its past because they fear the truth will lessen its impact, that has lead to the creation of a popular (and grossly inaccurate) reading of the Slave Trade.

The popular narrative of the Slaver Trade comes as a result of several aspects of contemporary society. For one, the slave trade ended a long time ago (officially on 1808), and this passage of time has resulted in the use of hyperbole at times to emphasize just how horrible it was in the hopes that through the creation of historically based myths, that the memory of those who suffered during slavery will not be lost to time. Secondly Black Americans were until recently, the largest minority group in this country, and their position in the United States even after slavery has been so degraded at times that it somehow feels alright to many in America to participate in the creation and continuation of the hyperbole as a way of repenting for 400 years of oppression. What neither group realizes however, is that relying on an emotional history of Slavery with a general disrespect for the facts of the event actually cheapens reality, and that if a more accurate teaching of history was present in schools and popular culture, more people would really understand the plight and journey of the people who in a real sense built this country.

The same argument might someday be made for the Holocaust as well. As time marches on and first person accounts are lost, it will be up to Historians to preserve this memory in its truest, most complete form. That means refusing to edit out people and actions that distort the commonly accepted narrative and to avoid philosophical or emotional polemics that deviate from actual events. Right now some academics are accusing groups within the Jewish community of starting an entire industry out of Holocaust tourism, financially benefiting off of the need for people to come to terms with what happened. While this charge is at best debatable and at worst disgusting, there is a certain danger with creating a capitalist interest by using tragedy as a business plan. Recorded facts might be less heroic at times but it is only through an absolute adherence to academic integrity that one can insure that future generations will understand the true meaning of loss the competing forces of oppression and defiance.

In the end however, we all feel safer at times identifying with a group whether it be our traditional religions, cultures, or races, and afterwards taking on all the glory and pain of its past. We are all guilty of this sociological tendency and in most ways it is a rather benign trait that we individually assume as our personalities develop. It is only when we attempt to place these histories of our ancestors in opposition within an unanswerable debate over who is greater, or conversely, who has experienced the most pain, that we truly betray the memories and struggles of our past relatives, and only perpetuate the type of society that they wished to overcome.