Sunday, August 7, 2011

Back Pay For Slavery

Carolyn Cooper, Contributor


THE PRINCIPLE of reparations was established long ago in the 1833 Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British colonies. But there was a catch to the act - not much different in essence from the original sin of catching Africans for enslavement in the Americas. Reparations were to be made to the perpetrators of human trafficking, not to the victims.

This is how the act opens: "Whereas divers persons are holden (held) in slavery within divers of His Majesty's colonies, and it is just and expedient that all such persons should be manumitted and set free, and that a reasonable compensation should be made to the persons hitherto entitled to the services of such slaves for the loss which they will incur by being deprived of their right to such services ... ," etc.

This is a classic example of the diabolical mindset of 'wicked white people'. Slaveholders were legally entitled to the services of their slaves and therefore had a right to 'reasonable compensation' for loss of service. The enslaved had no such rights or entitlements. They were freed with nothing in their two long hands; just like that rather sad-looking couple standing in a basin of water in New Kingston's 'Emancipation Park'.

When I talk about 'wicked white people' I don't mean specific individuals who have done me personal wrong. I'm not speaking about singular acts of evil. It's a far bigger issue. What concerns me is the collective crimes against humanity committed by gravalicious people who consider themselves absolutely entitled by God and nature to dominate the world. In many instances, these self-proclaimed rulers just happen to be white.

In the age of colonial conquest, 'wicked white people' as a special interest group committed crimes of unapologetic horror. They ravaged other people's bodies, souls, lands and histories; they vandalised sacred objects and then locked them away in 'museums' - those cemeteries of other people's culture. 'Wicked white people' invading and stealing, stealing, stealing without conscience.

I know I'm going to be accused of racism for exposing 'wicked white people' to public scrutiny in this way. But that's just another ploy of 'wicked white people' and their collaborators to perpetuate mental slavery. It's racism to talk about racist behaviour. But actual racist behaviour is not racism. It's just human nature. What an irony!

Justice versus expediency

So let's say instead that 'nice and decent' white people agreed that it was "just and expedient" to set the enslaved free. But the yoking of justice and expedience in the Act for the Abolition of Slavery reveals the central philosophical and practical dilemma at the heart of the emancipation enterprise.

Justice seemingly puts emancipation on solid moral ground. Expedience erodes all claims to moral authority. It was expedient to emancipate enslaved Africans because plantation slavery had become an expensive proposition. The substitution of beet for cane turned West Indian sugar into a rather sour deal.

After centuries of mostly verbal outrage - incessant talk, talk, talk about 'wicked white people' - we, the collective victims of transatlantic slavery, must finally decide to take legal action in the largest class-action suit in the history of the world. This is a truly wonderful idea. Not the wishy-washy, everyday sense of 'wonderful', meaning simply 'great'; it's the mind-blowing, original meaning of the word: full of wonder.

Five hundred years after the rape of the body and land of the original inhabitants of this part of the world; 500 years after the violent uprooting and enslavement of millions of Africans, we, their descendants, both native and immigrant, must lay claim to rights of reparation.

In the sweet by and by

For many Africans in the diaspora, it is in religion that we find hope for reparations. The Christian religion seems to recommend long-term investment in the celestial stock market. The concept of reparations has best been expressed in pious hymns like this: "In the sweet by and by I'll have a mansion so bright and so fair, won't it be glorious when I get there in the sweet by and by?" God will repair the breach. God is the ultimate human rights arbitrator.

Then we have those Africans who want hard cold cash in the here and now. Think of the title song from the movie The Harder They Come: "They tell me bout the pie up in the sky waiting for me when I die. But between the day you born and when you die, they never seem to hear even your cry. So as long as the sun will shine, I'm gonna get my share, what's mine. The harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all."

That's an excellent anthem for the Reparations Movement, the Garveyism of our times. It's the same kind of daring that made Marcus Garvey conceive the Universal Negro Improvement Association and Communities League: a global movement of African peoples who see themselves as having a shared history and a common destiny.

And don't think it's a joke. With derisive laughter cynics like to say, 'when you get the money you can check me.' But the Jews got compensation from the Germans; Japanese-Americans got compensation for the atrocities committed against them. Why not Africans? I'd like to know what, exactly, our National Commission on Reparations is doing about it.

If you think that after 500 years it's now too late for reparations, just remember Psalm 90:4 in which David, himself a Jew, converses with the Supreme Arbitrator: "For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past." Come to think of it, all we're really talking about is half a day's back pay.

August 7, 2011