- African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame, and: The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech
The Atlantic slave trade has been studied for many years. We have had seminal works from W. E. B. Du Bois's The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 (1896) to Philip Curtain's The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969), and these classics have been augmented by recent scholarship on both sides of the Atlantic. Anne C. Bailey's African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame has joined this long line of research lists as a pathbreaking attempt.
There is a "deafening silence" on the issue of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade among African or African diasporic communities. Born and growing up in Jamaica, Bailey herself experienced this silence, and she tried to examine and break through it. "What is behind this silence?" she asks (10). The question brought her deep into an unknown aspect of studies on the slave trade.
Unlike many previous works on the slave trade based on European and American records, Bailey's study focuses on the perspectives of the Africans or African societies from which slaves were taken. The book's main setting is the Anlo-Ewe community in the area of southeastern Ghana, once called the old Slave Coast. After years of research, including many interviews with chiefs and elders in Ghana, Bailey tries to untie entangled threads of history concerning slavery in the region. Not only European and American agencies but also African agencies are discussed in the system of the Atlantic slave trade. Domestic slavery in Africa, having existed long before its Atlantic counterpart, is also discussed in the book. Memory of domestic slavery and the history of the involvement of some Africans in the sale of others in the slave trade are shown as some reasons for the silence on slavery.
Yet, through studying oral histories such as the incident at Atorkor, involving the kidnapping of famous local drummers and traders by Europeans and Americans in or around 1856, Bailey argues, "[T]o see Africans as partners implies equal terms and equal influence on the global and intercontinental processes of the trade. This was simply not the case. Africans had great influence on the processes of enslavement on the continent itself, but they had no direct influence on the engines behind the trade in the capital firms, the shipping and insurance companies of Europe and America, or on the plantation system in the Americas" (62). Not only was equal partnership between the two groups impossible, but Bailey also finds that even partial African involvement in the trade had devastated their society nevertheless.
In some of her accounts, I see somewhat problematic issues such as the simple comparison between the author's oral collection of the Atlantic slave trade and survivors' voices of either the Holocaust or the Soviet Gulag. This needs a more [End Page 195] sensitive and careful argument with a sustained political, cultural, and psychological examination. Despite these drawbacks, the author successfully combines oral and written sources, and historical and literary approaches to unveil the aspect of silence of the Atlantic slave trade. Vivid voices and images of slavery or slave traffic in the region can surely be heard and seen.
In this book Bailey goes beyond the simple writing of the past. In the final chapter she deals with the current issue of reparations. Recognizing roles of Africans as well as Europeans and Americans in the slave trade, Bailey remarks, "An apology from African nations and even specific groups whose involvement is on the record would go a long way toward establishing a high moral ground upon which to ask likewise for apologies from Europe and America as well...