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 today.
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.