This week has been awash with historical nonsense -and some corrections- which has broken through my writer’s block enough to rouse in me the motivation to open a discussion. The incompetence and corruption of American education alarms me for a host of reasons, but today we will discuss one in particular.
This week a new movie opened in theaters which purports to be “based on true events”. Note that they did not say that it was “inspired by true events”, which would have been bad enough. The producers claim the film is “based on” true events. What true events might those be? I’m glad you asked. First, here is the film’s trailer:
The Woman King is loosely, very loosely, based on the story of a group of female warriors, the Agojie, who fought for the Dahomey kingdom. The film portrays their leader, Nanisca, as a fierce but wise warrior who very desperately wanted the Dahomey kingdom to get out of the slave trading business and invest resources into a market for palm oil instead. These abolitionist-leaning women are portrayed as heroes who fight against the Europeans who want the Dahomey kingdom to continue providing slaves for them. To their credit, the website History vs. Hollywood breaks down the reality for us.
…in real life, the Dahomey are much more the villains than the heroes. The Kingdom of Dahomey was a bloodthirsty society bent on conquest. It was customary for the Dahomey to return home with the rotting heads and genitals of those they killed in battle. They conquered neighboring African states and took their citizens as slaves, selling many in the Atlantic slave trade in exchange for items like rifles, tobacco, and alcohol. Many of the slaves they sold ended up in America. They also kept some slaves for themselves to work on royal plantations. The business of slavery is what brought Dahomey most of its wealth. For them, it very much came down to either enslave others or become enslaved yourself.
Reality also undercuts the cinematic portrayal of this popular narrative; the sage, fierce black woman serving as the conscience for the kingdom ruled by the young and less wise male king:
The Agojie (women warriors) fought in slave raids along with the male fighters. There are accounts of Dahomey warriors conducting slave raids on villages where they cut the heads off of the elderly and rip the bottom jaw bones off others. During the raids, they’d burn the villages to the ground. Those who they let live, including the children, were taken captive and sold as slaves. The movie strategically downplays this part of Dahomey’s history, so as to not complicate the story with the truth.
Needless to say, there will be large swaths of the American public, and especially the African American contingent, who will see this film as an accurate portrayal of what actually happened. Our educational system, despite its frequent protestations of wanting to teach all of America’s history, somehow manages to churn out millions of graduates each year who sincerely believe that African slavery began with Europeans running into the African bush to kidnap Africans onto ships and sell them into slavery. I admit that this was my impression for most of my teen-aged life, having only been exposed to what I was taught in school, and the miniseries Roots, which portrayed African people being chased around by white men with guns before being rounded onto ships.
The release of this movie has opened a conversation in which all people, including black Americans, are confronting the reality of what the Atlantic slave trade was and how it started. This is a good thing. People who are opposed to the conversation are concerned that focusing on African participation serves to undercut the the full story of the unique racial flavor of American slavery and the 100 year legacy of discrimination and oppression that followed. That’s not my intention here, as I recognize that we Americans have a particular habit of doing things in the most extreme and often the ugliest ways possible. Contrast the European abolition movement with the way slavery was abolished in the U.S. as exhibit A. It’s a contrast of 600,000 dead Americans. I’ve learned to chalk it up to the fact that we were born of a literal insurrection. It’s in our DNA.
Nevertheless, there are other perspectives, valid ones, from which to discuss the history of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Our Marvel induced addiction to black hats and white hats with no shades of gray make it difficult to appreciate or acknowledge the sinful, selfish, and greedy nature that is bound up in the hearts of all men, every where, in every time, and in every place. Slavery, like many other sinful practices, was complicated.
A British expert on the royal family took a moment this week to enlighten an American reporter of this very thing. When Don Lemon chose the worst possible moment to lecture and confront this grieving Brit about the excesses of the royal family (and what about reparations?), she offered him a brief history lesson:
These are the types of things we need to consider carefully when discussing these issues. Entitlement, grievance peddling, and the wails for justice based on wrongs of the past will never go away. The Bolshevik revolution, China’s communist revolution, and many other historical events point to the reality of this human trait.
However, a decent history education might go a long way towards turning down the volume of ignorant screeching and incoherent arguments which only serve to create dissension between people who would be better served by collectively turning our attention towards the true threats to our freedom and prosperity.
Get your kids out of the cesspool of government education.