Reparations is a reverberating issue! Right-mindedly, being wronged — no matter the distance between the then and now — one feels a sense of incompleteness, deep, raw, open wounds that figuratively will not heal until there is satisfactory accountability on the part of the aggressor. The ever present cry for justice — whether by someone wronged in the narrow personal capacity or by a nation, a race whose DNA bears the stain of injustice — is a common denominator among the wronged. No matter the generational gaps between the present and the past, the need for restitution will always burn bright because it is alive in the memory and as black elder ancestor Ivan Van Sertima states: as long as it is in the memory the hurt never goes away. This is true of the movement for reparations for slavery.
One of the critical pillars to the call is that slavery ended with the former enslaved in total bewilderment as to how to fashion a life of “freedom” out of literal nothing. Emancipation’s grand contradiction was that it brought freedom for millions of enslaved people and monetary pay packages for those they gave unpaid labour to for over 400 years. How do you square that? There was no emergency financial “Marshal Plan” — post-WW2 — in place to assist in the transition from chattel to individual freedom. This is the legacy. As the indicators of transformational change continue to be forever elusive and apparently exclusive, more and more contemporary post- colonials have grown weary of their lack of far-reaching, qualitative socioeconomic development, propelled by the fact that their ancestors contributed so much through unpaid labour, to the industrial development of western civilization. I might add that the Movement is both multiracial and multiethnic. The family of indigenous peoples across the board, long silent are now letting their voices heard. Subcontinental India is also demanding restitution. So reparations are not just a black thing.
Contextualize, it is an awakening that is more than an issue of morals — it’s an economic imperative; an obligatory demand to address the imbalances and inequities brought on by slavery/colonialism and the legacy which was bequeathed to those in the deep end. Despite all the objections, it is a just cause even as it has proven to be inordinately problematic — among and for blacks at least.
Understandably, we are not going to put the issue on the table and have it greeted with open arms — the surrealism is too overwhelming. Demands for payment for 400 plus years of unpaid labour is so inconceivably “presumptuous” it’s enough to make the lame walk when it comes to quantification and what that would mean in payout, even though it should be remembered that reparations don’t have to take the form of individual cash payout.
Like the subjective rights and freedoms that blacks have won over the years, we are all too aware that those on whom we make these claims will never willingly accept liability or relinquish what is due to us — it took four hundred years for the chains to be removed after all.
All manner of barriers has been erected to thwart the effort even before it gets going. Of primacy among some in the white community is the “my family was not engaged in slavery” abdication. Wrong! Slavery was an institutionalized, capitalist economic superstructure that redounds to the socio-economic and political development of western civilization from the 15th century on. Contemporary western economic world system was built on the back of slavery and is sustained because of the fundamentals created during its epoch. If we are to embrace the principle that everything has to have some genealogical root, then slavery is the cradle of the current world system.
Slavery was the transformational tool that set western capitalism on a path of high development and reparations give identity to this historical fact.
Additionally, advocates are finding that they have to battle resistance too from a very unlikely source: blacks themselves and the ghosts and demons of the past — the psychic trauma and psychological enslavement which have become all too influential in shaping conversations about the past. It’s one thing when the white community, as beneficiaries, scurry to excoriate themselves from responsibility — that’s expected! But it’s personal and quite another when lack of knowledge and full understanding of the historical implications of the system vis-a-vis the contemporary socioeconomic relations, causes many a black to acquiesce to the foibles of white supremacy which seek to play games with their psyche. Many unfortunately have fallen victims to the “let bygones be bygones”, just “move on, they owe you nothing” tactic. Wrong again! There can be no transition to full post-slavery psychosis until justice is served. I refer again to Van Sertima’s dictum re memory. The subconscious and the psychological make it difficult for that to happen.
False pride is another prohibitive factor as many feel a sense of failure in their own abilities if they were to go as they see “begging” for handouts. Wrong again! You can’t beg for something that rightfully you should share in.
Phenomenally mystifying is the absurd notion of “transferred guilt” where some blacks believe that reparations would mean profiting from the brutality, the suffering of the great-great-grand ancestors. Ambient discussions have brought into focus the abhorrence that many would suffer “profiting” from the murder and rape of black men, women and children. A rather interestingly, odd way of looking at the issue, but a combative element nonetheless. Incorporate the extremely absurdity of compartmentalization and separation of past and present history, by some, and the advocates are in a battle to forge a workable plan.
Despite all the indicators foreshadowing a battle ahead, however, reparations is a legitimate and legal claim. You see a dialectic relationship underpinned colonialism/imperialism. A contradiction where the forces of development and underdevelopment interacted to produce opposites. This was always going to play a definitive role in the consciousness of post- colonials. Simply put, European development was contingent on the underdevelopment of black people through the system of slavery, which fundamentally altered the course of black history. If the fictional Wakanda spurs Sankofa musings of “what if” or “if only”, then reparations is no small matter. What the hell if slavery hadn’t happened?
The basic equation is this: Columbus = New World = Sugar/ Cotton = Slaves = wealth. Slavery was a calculated impulse grounded in the good old market principles of the Dow Jones, Nasdaq, S & P of our time. For the purpose of massive wealth creation, the slave economy was a socio-economic construct of European entrepreneurial thinking, race differentiating and imagined differences that came to be the cover for the racialization and exploitation of African labour.
There is little doubt that the system of slavery and the voluminous returns it generated became the axis upon which spun capitalist transformational development. A solid, sustainable economic foundation laid by the returns from enslaved labour.
If you were to lose each year more than 200 million livres that you now get from your colonies, if you had not the exclusive trade with your colonies to feed your manufactures, to maintain your navy, to keep agriculture going, to repay for your imports, to provide for your luxury needs, to advantageously balance your trade with Europe and Asia, then I say it clearly, the kingdom would be irretrievably lost.
— Bishop Maury of France (Arguing in French National Assembly in 1792 against France’s ending the slave trade)
Maury’s declaration provides an eye into the extensive reach of the trade into the many strategic areas of colonial French economy. More than that it foregrounds what historians refer to as the “slave society”; a model different from a mere society where slavery co-existed alongside other means of economic activities. The “slave society” advanced beyond a society where enslaved labour was present in large or marginal numbers. The “slave society” was a socioeconomic construct where every form of social, political, economic activity and social consciousness became organised around the system of slavery. That was how important slaves were. (Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands, Elsa Goveia)
The advocacy for reparatory justice then looms larger than demographics and moralistic matters. Reparations are foreground by the notion that African enslaved labour was central to the productive process, wealth creation and the sustainability of the entire colonial social and economic system. Enslaved labour was responsible for entire societal operations. In colonial slave societies, there was no social class, no economic activity, no infrastructural development, no social or political institution or acquisition of wealth that was independent of the hegemonic system of slavery. Slavery was a definitive feature of every nook and cranny of colonial life. Hence, for those who seek to remove themselves from the equation on the basis of direct participation, that argument becomes moot. It is the transformational economic benefits that it brought to the stalwarts, the transitioning into major industrial powers and the converse lack of economic upward mobility on the other side of the equation that gives body to this movement for reparatory justice. Reparations are rooted in the indelible link between the history of slavery and the history of capitalist development and the continuing effects that this relationship has on black transformation. That is why it cannot be dismissed.
Continuity of history
The Movement for Black Lives organizational platform document “A Vision for Black Lives” at once acknowledges this link between slavery, capitalism and the continuing effects on contemporary black issues, as they call for, among other demands, reparations. There’s no escaping this continuity whether in the informal consciousness or in the ambit of social activism. The history of slavery and capitalism and the lasting effects on the black man is the standpoint from which the call for reparations is made. We refuse to sever this linkage as Orthodox discussions on the issue have done and co-opted to discredit the claim.
The Reparations Movement categorically rejects western conventional theorists and Marxist notions that slavery was a residual form of emerging global capitalism; that wage labour and the propagation of the factory system was the economic ideology that underpinned the evolution of capitalism. This school holds that slavery was a non-contributory factor. Objection! Slavery, colonialism and capitalism were concomitant forces that shaped western development and continue to shape the struggle for social and economic justice. This is the platform.
Emergence of Major Industrial Centres
The black man, as so eloquently put by WEB Dubois (The Black Worker) is a subject of capitalism. Without his labour capitalist, transformational development could not have taken place. DuBois reaffirms:
“Black labour became the foundation stone not only of the Southern social structure but of Northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system of European commerce of buying and selling on a worldwide scale; new cities were built on the results of black labour…”
— Black Reconstruction In America
British trade is a magnificent superstructure of American commerce and naval power on an African foundation.
— Malachi Postlethwaist
Established and reinforced is the notion that slavery and capitalist development were inseparable forces. The political slave economy provided the scaffolding for wealth creation. That wealth was channelled towards innovative transformational changes in strategic areas in European economies. Wealth created by slave labour was repatriated to Europe to be repaid with massive development in exploration, banking finance, shipping, forestry, fishing agriculture and notably the emergence of major commercial and industrial centres. Liverpool, Bristol, and Manchester in England; Nantes and Bordeaux in France; Seville in Spain; and New England and New York in The United States; all notorious slave-trading ports where profits generated by the enormous turnover in human cargo facilitated their transformation into major manufacturing centres, which became the epicentre for Europe’s and America’s dramatic industrial take-off. Development in Europe and North America — contrasting underdevelopment in Africa.
Precisely why development and underdevelopment — even more than ethical and moralistic considerations — contextualize, give life and identity to the need for restitution. The theoretical framework: slavery and colonialism were collaborative forces systematically engineered to guarantee the development of Europe and North America and the underdevelopment of Africa and the New World colonies. Development in one section and concomitant underdevelopment in the other. Development and underdevelopment — — two economic states that are inextricably linked. So much so that they operate in tandem and produce equal, direct opposite results — the historical dialectics of slavery. To put it another way, they cannot produce similar results. The developed parts of the same global economy cannot interact with the marginalized sectors and produce equal developmental results. Development is a natural counterpoise to underdevelopment and vice versa. The rich man’s heaven is the direct consequence of the poor man’s hell.
(Jim Crow Laws in the American South legalized white supremacist violence against blacks long after the end of slavery)
(A slave could be lynched purely on the basis of accusation from a white person)
Transnational Links and the
Integration of European
But apart from just raw capital for investment, of far reaching benefit was that slavery helped to integrate the economies of the whole of Europe, forging the establishment and consolidation of what Afro-Guyanese historian Walter Rodney (How Europe Underdeveloped Africa) terms transnational links, effectively integrating the national economies so that those nations not directly involved gained through a multiplier effect. Your modern-day European Union or NAFTA of sort. Trade blocs in action— the religion of globalization.
For example, raw material for the production of dyes, critical to the textile industry in the 17th century, was produced by Brazilian slaves, sent to Portugal and re-exported to the Mediterranean, the North Sea and parts of Eastern Europe. Sugar from French and British colonies was exported to the outer reaches of Europe thus propelling Hamburg to the centre of world sugar refining in the 18th century (Rodney).
Rodney contends that Western Europeans were supremely poised to revolutionize their productive base because by the 15th century: feudalism had been usurped by capitalism and land expropriation had witnessed the establishment of mercantile capitalism and technological innovations which had transformed food production and increased turnover rate to sustain a rising domestic market. Guess what? Proceeds from the slave trade expedited this revolutionary socio-economic/ technological model.
The naked, unpalatable truth?: on the backs of African labour colonial centres experienced not only quantitative economic changes but adjunctively, greater qualitative changes in their economic fundamentals and sufficiency. Undoubtedly, slavery was the great Atlas on which Europe’s socio-economic development heavily rested. Demand for compensation is not an arrogation: slaves contributed to the qualitative development of Europe in terms of capital accumulation and in its long term development by creating real, durable and solid multi-dimensional transformation. Europe’s prevailing economic and industrial endurance is a grand collaboration of this. Simple facts that consolidate the need for restitution.
The United States
Slavery, however, was not only a socio-economic transformational vehicle for Europeans. The United States is by no means exculpatory in this action for remuneration, albeit it being a former colony itself. America’s economic rise to globalism cannot be excoriated from the African dynamics for the simple reason that it benefitted from the colonial arrangement.
America had a number of unique features: a predominant European settler population; the institutionalization of the European economic model, resulting in a structurally formidable capitalist productive organizational base, orchestrated out of forced African slave labour (Rodney). The American colonies had the unique distinction of having at their disposal, capital injection from the rewards of slavery in its South, along with that from the British and French West Indian colonies (Rodney). Seminal here is that although the American economy was organised along similar lines as those in the West Indies (a source for capital gain and profit repatriation ), unlike the West Indian colonies, it had finance capital for re-investment in primary sectors, resulting in an almost meteoric rise in its economic fortunes in the mid 19th century (Rodney).
America’s stock in trade at this interval was in export trading, and cotton which provided more than half of that trade was from the toil of slaves. In fact, it would by no means be absurd to say that America’s pioneering economic activities were underwritten by the ill-gotten proceeds from slavery. The rise of the New England colonies is proof of this.
The quadruple trade between New England, Africa, Europe and the West Indies for the purchase of slaves and slave produce commerce was the main source of profit for the shipping industry; profit from which was re-injected in strategic areas such as maritime technology, construction, environmental planning, marine and agricultural development, paving the way for vast developmental transformation (Rodney).
Yet, at the pinnacle of the African contribution was the great impulse it gave to the American independence movement. So economically powerful had the colonies become, due in large to slavery, they could now sever the colonial ties. Moreover, the profits from slavery provided the linchpin for their political evolution, providing funding for the creation and maintenance of political parties. Indeed, in critical areas of America’s socio-economic and socio-political formation, slavery was the rudder that steered it towards enduring growth and development.
Finally, western orthodoxy boast that their economic development is a testament to socioeconomic, cultural Anglo-Saxon intellectuality cannot be complete without the primacy of the contribution made by Africans. That contribution cannot be diminished and relegated to a footnote or entirely surgically removed from the history of modern western development. Similarly, the crime of slavery and its continuing damages cannot be washed away from the memory of those who came from slaves. If after emancipation, development had been forthcoming; if with political independence the once colonised peoples were able to shake off the lasting social effects of slavery by progressing towards sustainable growth and development, then perhaps a sincere apology, a commemorative memorial edifice or the proverbial Kumbaya joining of hands and letting bygones be bygones would be a start in the healing process. But development was never or could ever be the legacy of slavery, considering the historical dialectics.
The Jews suffered the Holocaust, were compensated and today are not economically worse off because of it. Slavery which lasted four hundred years is comparable in suffering. The horrors of slavery lasted longer, hence carried with it greater social costs.
African slave labour is inarguably the foundation upon which imperialist/capitalist socio-economic and political social structure was realised and sustained today. Conversely, Africans and the independent nations in the Diaspora continue to be pinned down by the weight of the past. A past that may never go away until reparatory justice is forthcoming. History and the law rule that there is a case to be answered.