Columns

That long journey to getting reparations

By EWIN JAMES

Monday, February 18, 2013    

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ENSLAVING a person is the ultimate atrocity against his/her dignity, soul and decency. The only thing worse is doing so against a race as occurred against black Africans by white Europeans and Americans. The shame, degradation, and maladjustment to life that enslavement causes persist for long, maybe to eternity. In many parts of the world where his forbears were enslaved, the black man still manifests the effects of slavery by seeing his race as inferior to the white race and in his inability to form a cohesive family or maintain one.

I'm not trying to blame slavery for all the defects of character and turpitude of some black people, for this would further dehumanise them; I'm only recognising the horror of slavery and the role it has played in hobbling the black race in its quest for progress in the modern world.

The horror of slavery appears even more atrocious when you realise that it wasn't introduced and maintained primarily for economic reasons -- the building and sustaining of the economies of North America and Europe and other countries that enslaved blacks. For there were millions of whites and people of other races who were available to work on the plantations but they weren't enslaved. Many of them would have welcomed the chance to work for even a pittance to put food in their mouths.

Black people were enslaved because many whites saw them as animals, or little better — certainly well below the white man; hence the justification for enslaving them.

Contrary to what is widely believed, it wasn't economic need that created and sustained slavery. It was the devaluation of the black man that led the white man to pass over others of his own skin colour and dehumanise the black man on the plantation. I said this once to a professor of sociology in New York City who used to come in the class with a question about slavery, which seemed to antagonise the blacks. He dismissed me by saying "James, you are paranoid." Had the black man been seen as a human being, equal to the plantation owner, he would have been offered a decent job, wage and humane working conditions, and given the choice to either accept or reject these offers.

Also, how do you explain that some of the most brutal and exploitive slave masters were preachers who went to church every Sunday and preached the gospel of God's love for man and man for his brother, while hating and degrading men created by God? I read that one woman on the plantation in America, confided to her friend that as a Christian woman she was disturbed by the treatment of her slaves; whereupon her friend, 'a good Christian' put her at ease by saying "They — the slaves — have no soul"

Even after law emancipated slaves, thereby forcing the white man to treat the black man as his equal, the white man still sought to dehumanise the black man by segregation laws in America (called Jim Crow) and by exclusion from certain rights in places such as Jamaica and South Africa. He saw him as inferior; that was why he tried to circumvent the law ending slavery.

People who treat people as whites treated blacks on the plantation and after it, are eternally guilty of crimes against humanity; though many such people and their descendants would argue that ending slavery is enough atonement for their guilt. But it isn't enough. For as long as the effects of slavery remain upon the descendants of slaves, the guilt of the forbears remain upon their children, who refuse to make atonement for the wrongs of their ancestors.

This is why reparations are due to black people as they were due to the Jews and their children who were brutalised and exterminated by Hitler in his death camps -- and duly paid. Between 1952 and 1999 the German government paid billions of marks to Jews who suffered in the Holocaust and their survivors for the "mass murder, the human suffering, the annihilation of spiritual, intellectual, and creative forces, which are without parallel in the history of mankind". (Jewish Virtual Library 2008).

But having said all this, how likely is that reparations will be made to the descendants of slaves? That is the issue.

Preliminary to any decision to make reparations must be apologies for slavery; for those who are guilty won't pay a cent or make any material settlement until they acknowledge the wrongs that their ancestors did. But I can't remember any nation, whether North America or any in Europe, whose ancestors enslaved black people, apologising with any earnestness for slavery. In 2009 the United States Senate made a mea culpa for slavery, but it said nothing to black people outside America whose ancestors it enslaved; and it was quick to put out a "disclaimer that nothing in the apology supports or authorises any claims against the United States for reparations", which means that it won't pay reparations. If it won't make reparations to its own citizens why would it do so to Jamaicans?

The government of the United Kingdom said sometime ago that there is no evidence that people today are suffering from the effects of slavery. No reparation is due. France admitted its responsibility for the slave trade but hasn't acknowledged the need for reparations.

There are a few questions that the National Commission on Reparations in Jamaica and those seeking reparations must settle: what form will reparations take? And to whom will reparations go and how much will each claimant receive? Though reparations aren't only monetary, it seems cash is what most of those calling for reparation seek; for it is money that is due to us for our forbears' unpaid labour; and money is the most convenient. Second, how much will the countries pay? To whom will they pay it? Most likely the government. And how much will the governments give to each claimant, after the lawyers have received their fees? Until these are settled, Jamaica cannot even approach any responsible country for reparations.

And even after settling these, what likelihood is there that in these difficult times the responsible countries will pay the substantial sums due? Europe, a responsible continent, is suffering. Countries such as Greece are on the brink of economic collapse and are being propped up by the other members of the European Union, who in turn have their own suffering, compounded by having to give their scarce resources to countries whose economies are collapsing. Many of them are complaining that doing so is unfair. How likely is it that these countries will pay millions of dollars to Jamaicans whom they don't know for what their ancestors did to theirs long before anybody alive today was born?

The United States, the world's most powerful economy, has money, but it is experiencing great difficulty recovery from recession in the past decade. Plus, because of pride, it won't pay reparations.

It seems that though due, reparations will not be coming our way any time soon. The black man had better resign himself to doing what he has always done with the abuse heaped upon him: "Tek him lick and gwaan."

Ewin James is a freelance journalist who is based in Florida.

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