Very recently, I heard Esther Stanford-Xosei speak. A little doubtful at first, I was totally won over by her undeniable charm, enthusiasm and knowledge on the hugely contentious subject of reparations. She admitted she lived and breathed her subject and if she was woken in the middle of the night she would be more than able to develop arguments about reparations! If I’m woken in the night I’m unlikely to engage in any semblance of intelligent discourse – inane ramblings are all I can muster.
Embarrassingly, I thought I understood reparations and naively I thought it was all about financial solutions for those Africans who had been appallingly treated by other mainly white cultures. Yep, I’m white so I do come with some disadvantages here but the old man has spoken about reparations and also, with his son, reflected upon the long-term effects such horrors as slavery continue to affect Black people now.
Just to ground the subject in history, for more than 200 years Britain was at the heart of a lucrative transatlantic trade in millions of enslaved Africans. It is estimated that 12.5 million people were transported as slaves from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean – to work in shockingly brutal conditions on plantations – from the 16th century until the trade was banned in 1807. In 1833, Britain emancipated its enslaved people and raised £17bn in compensation money to be paid to 46,000 of Britain’s slave-owners for “loss of human property”. (Make sure you read this carefully) Those compensated include General Sir James Duff, who it is claimed is a first cousin six times removed of David Cameron, being awarded compensation worth about £3m in today’s terms. Others who received compensation include the ancestors of novelists George Orwell and Graham Greene. Read again:
12 and a half million people were transported as slaves . . . 12 and a half million.
In 1883 Britain raised £17bn in compensation paid to 46,000 of Britain’s SLAVE OWNERS for loss of human property.
Now I suggest you research for yourselves how these people were treated by white relatives of yours and mine.
USI describes some aspects of plantation life for slaves:
The most brutal aspect of their lives was not so much personal ill-treatment but the system itself. Those who were forced to work on the plantations were considered chattel (items of property), commodities owned by others. Slave owners determined the nature of the enslaved’s daily working lives – and even what happened to them when they were not at work. The lash – both its image and its sound – is perhaps the most common memory of plantation slavery . . .it was also employed for a range of offences or even in a cavalier fashion, in the hands of men and women to whom brutality was a way of life.
No less common and brutal was sexual exploitation. Slave women were always prey to the predatory sexual habits of their masters. Young and old, sisters, daughters and wives – all found themselves subject to sexual assault. The White men responsible for those assaults took little or no notice of the woman herself, her age, or her men folk, or family. Not surprisingly, it was a cause of deep hurt and humiliation, resentment or revenge.
So Esther explained that financial reparations is almost the least important element to resolving these injustices– it is a far more complex and thought-provoking issue than that. Esther explains in an interview with The British Blacklist:
“Reparations means to repair the harm, restore, transform a people or a group who have been disposed and lost status and standing in the world community as a result of historical and contemporary injustice. To put a figure on it is banal. Some have put the cost at trillions but we are still accounting for the damage done and losses suffered but how do you account for the loss of land, destruction of our environment loss of citizenship, heritage, wealth and self worth? We need to do a comprehensive assessment as to what happened. If we go straight to quantifying money we will lose the potential of reparations to truly transform our reality and the world. Our institutions are not strong enough yet so whatever money we get we will give it straight back to them due to our current patterns of over consumption of goods and dependency on non-African products and services. What is a bag of money when others control your currency? . . . The fundamental part is what we have to do for self. If we do for self they will come running to give us financial reparations. But we have to say enough is enough! We have to start trading amongst ourselves we have to start working and building together and loving each other and ourselves. Like John Henrik Clarke says
“Powerful people will not educate the powerless to take the power from them””
Esther makes her points succinctly, stating that financial reparation cannot transform reality and the world, especially when that money may never reach those it was sent to heal. We white people must listen to this message in order to reflect upon how reparation from us is something we can all participate in. I’m asking British P.M. David Cameron to understand this – what was he thinking when he spoke about this recently in Jamaica? How thoughtless and shallow must he have appeared? (although a Socialist I appreciate Cameron’s intelligence and suspect he just lacked insightful knowledge on the subject).
Amongst other thoughtless comments, he urged Caribbean countries to “move on”. He did state the bloody obvious, saying that slavery was “abhorrent in all its forms” and added, “I do hope that, as friends who have gone through so much together since those darkest of times, we can move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.” Mr Cameron also announced £25m in British aid for a new Jamaican prison and a £300m development package for the Caribbean which will provide grants for infrastructure projects, including roads and bridges. This visit was the first by a British prime minister in 14 years. It seems Cameron wanted to “reinvigorate” ties between the countries, and that he wanted to concentrate on future relations rather than centuries-old issues that needs resolution.
Bloody hell Cameron, someone needs to smack your shiny white head! What were you thinking by spouting these platitudes? Essentially, these ‘centuries old issues’ must be concentrated on as they continue to influence Black culture, Black thinking and Black self-image right now, you middle-class white establishment pillock!
Other academics have reflected upon reparations, notably Ta-Nehisi Coates who writes (on American involvement) that , “The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay,” but also . . . “The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.” Coates’s demand for collective black recompense rests on the morally powerful but historically unfounded view of universally felt racial injury. There is focus on financial reparation with five methods of ‘repayment’:
- lump-sum payments – the most direct form of reparations, but this cannot correct the decades of lost human capital.
- to aggregate funds and allow African Americans to apply for grants for different asset-building projects (to promote homeownership or education) These reparations should build the human and wealth capital that black Americans struggled to gain over the past centuries.
- to give monetary vouchers to black Americans. This mirrors the goal of the second approach, but with a focus on building financial assets.
- the government could give African Americans in-kind reparations—free medical insurance or guaranteed college education.
- to use reparations to build entirely new institutions to promote collective well-being in the black community.
I find Coates suggestions useful, although the focus is still financial there are attempts to address ongoing issues, especially points 4 and 5, showing recognition that injustices continue in American society. I wonder how Esther reacts to these suggestions and whether my ‘white’ response is acceptable?
Inevitably, there have been responses to Coates essay from notable academics – these muddy the reparations water further. For me, these arguments are useful but have led to some volatile discussions between myself and Donovan. Cedric Johnson has written an open letter to Coates; amongst his assertions, he states that,
‘Ultimately, Coates’s views about class and race — and this nation’s complex and tortured historical development — are well-meaning and at times poetic, but wrongheaded. The reparations argument is rooted in black nationalist politics, which traditionally elides class and neglects the way that race-first politics are often the means for advancing discrete, bourgeois class interests.’ He continues with,
‘Most of all, Coates is wrong about how we have achieved black political and social progress in the past, and what we should do going forward. From the antebellum anti-slavery struggles to the postwar southern desegregation campaigns to contemporary battles against austerity, interracialism and popular social struggle have been central to improving the civic and material circumstances of African Americans’. . . . later he writes, ‘Today the reparations demand is different. It’s not a political issue that emerges from the discrete experiences and felt needs of the majority of blacks; instead, it is a moral claim advanced primarily by national black political elites and antiracist liberals. The reparations claim no longer functions as an actual political demand for land and territory, but rather operates as a territorial-identitarian claim for power and recognition within the shifting landscape of multicultural capitalism.’
Johnson’s article is lengthy and dense, packed with information and impressive knowledge; I have reread it several times. It is impossible to sum up the ideas he puts forward, but he categorically states that Coates is wrong; reparations is not a political issue but a ‘territorial-identitarian claim for power and recognition’. I apologise, but I am unable to further explain the last sentence in layman’s terms – what is the meaning of this? I suggest you read Johnson’s article: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/02/ta-nehisi-coates-case-for-reparations-bernie-sanders-racism/
To end on a personal note, I have had many late night discussions with Donovan that reflect upon race, Black history, racism and multi-cultural relationships. He has explained that Black Caribbean people have unresolved issues historically stemming from the slave trade. He argues that many Black people carry these injustices with them inter-generationally. Some of the same ‘historically felt racial injustice’ that Coates has describes in his writings. I admit to finding this difficult to comprehend fully as I am a relatively well-adjusted (!!) contented individual (although my grandfather was a Jewish illegal immigrant); I do not carry such historical baggage. I worry that I am one of the ‘well-meaning whites’ described by Johnson, who ‘mistook their guilt and pleasure of self-flagellation for genuine unity with blacks and authentic antiracist political commitment — in other words, solidarity’. Donovan has described some black groups as ‘angry’ and I dispute this – they are no angrier that some white people I’ve known; the reasons for their anger are diverse and complicated. We continue to disagree and he asserts that this might stem from historical injustices. I wonder how Esther might respond to our discussions: is there a ‘loss of self-worth’ that expresses itself in anger? She asserts that, “We have to . . . start working and building together and loving each other and ourselves.”
That appears to be where reparations begin, certainly not with hugely prohibitive financial payouts. However, a monetary settlement is only one aspect of the post slavery settlement, it also involves repairing the harm by offering an acceptance that genocide was committed on a vast stage. It also needs a legal recognition of Blacks living in the diaspora who want access to Africa by repatriation or citizenship entitlements. It may also involve the offering of psychological therapies to individuals and communities who currently experience cultural alienation and intergenerational trauma. Are you listening Mr Cameron and Mrs May?
This article was written by Ann Smith and Donovan Reynolds, CEO of Kingstonmouth.com and an independent writer. Readers of this article are welcome to provide feedback at the space provided at the end of this article or at firstname.lastname@example.org. useful commentary made on our Facebook and Kingstonmouth@twitter pages.