Barack Obama’s victory in last week’s U.S. presidential election will likely have implications for Americans largely unfamiliar with the continent of Africa, said African historian Douglas Chambers, whose lecture Friday, Nov. 14, at Dominican University in River Forest covers African history and the slave trade.
Chambers, an associate professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, has studied the African Diaspora-the movement of Africans to Europe and the Americas during the slave trade-for more than 20 years. He is lecturing at Dominican for the first time.
His focus is primarily on the Igbo Nation (also referred to as Eboe or Heebo) and its importance to American history. Based in what’s now Eastern Nigeria, the Igbo people were the most heavily trafficked Africans during the Atlantic slave trade, which began in the mid-17th century.
Chambers’ research has shown that almost 60 percent of black Americans today have at least one Igbo ancestor. Some Americans, black and white, know little or nothing about the Igbo people and not much else about Africa in general.
Noting Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin’s reported misunderstanding of Africa, Chambers explained many Americans think of Africa as a country, rather than a continent with many countries. Obama’s win could help change that, Chambers said, given that Obama’s father is Kenyan, and the president-elect has relatives in Kenya.
“People know where his father is from. He’s from a country in Africa. It’s an excellent opportunity for people to begin thinking of Africa differently. That’s going to be the great challenge; to begin to think about Africa for what it is: a continent. The same way we think about Europe.”
A native of Virginia, Chambers’ research includes his home state, which was a major player in the slave trade. Many of the Igbo slaves were trafficked to Virginia, and leading up to the Civil War, black Virginians made up half of the state’s population. The slave trade to Virginia, Chambers says, wasn’t random either. There were patterns, one being the connection to Eastern Nigeria and to the Igbo people.
His 2005 book Murder at Montpelier: Igbo Africans in Virginia, explored their impact on Virginia, centering on the death of Ambrose Madison, grandfather of President James Madison, who was poisoned in 1732 by three of his slaves who were Igbo.
As for black Americans’ connection to specific African ancestors, Chambers explained many are unaware of that history, including some of his students.
“They get angry, felling like they’ve been denied,” he said. “They often ask, ‘How come I didn’t know this before?’ They’re sometimes anxious and a little nervous because they know very little. But they also become excited because they’re learning something new.”
He added that Obama’s whole story hasn’t been told-that Obama, like many Americans, is a child of immigrants.
“We’re a nation of immigrants. That’s one of the reasons why we care about what’s going on in the rest of the world, because there’s this sense of connection. The greatest tragedy of slavery was forcing African-Americans to forget those connections,” Chambers said. “I think it would be a wonderful healing process for African Americans to reconnect with their history.”