During his recent trip to Ghana, President Obama did not discuss the brutal history of the Atlantic slave trade that began in Ghana, and only mentioned the word slavery once during his speech. Instead, the President spoke in general terms about “oppression” and “evil.” In fact, in the opening sentence that he delivered standing outside the haunting Elmina Castle, Obama likened his trip to Ghana to his visit to a concentration camp in Germany. For decades, historians have been trying to dissuade the American public from comparing the slave trade to the Holocaust, which often leads to explosive debates on which group suffered more, and to the imminent question: would the President standing on the grounds of a former concentration camp evoke the history of slavery?
By discussing the history of the slave trade in Ghana as part of larger history of “evil” and “cruelty,” the President missed the opportunity to educate the American public (and the world for that matter) about the actual history of the slave trade: the 2 million slaves who died en route to the Americas and the millions more who suffered in the crowded, disease-ridden, dark bowels of the slave ships. He also gave up the chance to discuss the effects of the international slave trade: the destruction of African cultural traditions, languages, and religious practices by New World slaveholders; the pain felt by African families torn apart by the hands of Dutch, Spanish, and English traders and merchants; the greedy profits gained by European nations and the burgeoning colonies in the Americas; and even the transformation of West African economies; political structures; and military strategies.
Throughout his speech in front the 15th century slave castle, Obama only mentioned the word slavery once and when he did invoke it, he made enormous historical leaps. He reflected on the 19th century abolitionist movement when whites and blacks fought together to end slavery. While white and black people did eventually work together in the early to mid-nineteenth century to terminate slavery, one cannot ignore that on the ground where the President made such a comment, whites and blacks worked together during the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries to send Africans into chattel slavery in the New World. While Obama more than likely made this remark in order to illuminate a moment of interracial solidarity with the hope of improving race relations, he forfeited the opportunity for Americans to actually reflect on the horrors of the slave trade—a cultural memory that most black people acknowledge but one that most non-black Americans know little about. A more informed reflection on the actual history of the slave trade could do more to improve race relations than cherry picking a moment in history that happened after the international slave trade ended and did not even lead to the abolition of slavery. President Obama ought to know that it was not just abolitionists who ended slavery, but enslaved people themselves. Southern blacks dismantled the institution of slavery by fleeing from plantations across the Confederacy and joining the Union Army, contributing mightily to the North’s victory in the Civil War and the collapse of the slaveocracy.
Jim Downs is a history professor at Connecticut College, focusing on African-American history and 19th century U.S. History. His books include Taking Back the Academy and Why We Write. His articles have appeared in History Today, the Chicago Tribune, The Southern Historian, Prologue, History News Network, and Reviews in American History, among other places.