'A reparation wi seh'Thursday, October 15, 2020
In the past, the reparation debate was low-key, with its supporters being the lone voices crying out in the wilderness. I recall about 10 years ago when I sought the support of the late Martin Henry, intellectual and noted journalist, he confessed that he “was still on the fence”. I often cringed when I read the anti-reparation writing of Michael Dingwall. The late Wilmot “Motty” Perkins often expounded that we derived benefits from being brought here into slavery and, thereafter, ruled under colonialism. In fact, there is a YouTube record of a heated debate between us on that very issue, posted in February 2011.
In the past, few recognised lawyers supported the compensation case for reparatory justice for more than three centuries of forced free labour by our ancestors. I must, however, pause to recognise the support given to the movement by one of our most senior and distinguished lawyers, Frank Phipps, with over 60 years at the Bar. History will record his unbridled advocacy for this just cause, including the drafting of an ingenious petition to the UK Privy Council for reparation.
Ironically, amidst the rubble of the disastrous year 2020, reparation has been fast-tracked and ushered on to the front burner. As protestors of all ethnicities all over the globe take to our streets in support of the black cause, the movement has taken centre stage. Finally, because black lives matter, reparation inevitably must also matter.
The awakening of the conscience of the more privileged, on behalf of the oppressed, has unfolded before our eyes — a virtual televised revolution on the side of justice for all. The vintage video recording of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, in which he makes the case for reparation crystal clear, has revived and is being abundantly “liked” on social media. In 1968, Dr King Jr said he was marching to Washington to collect his cheque; that is, to collect payment for the forced free labour of African Americans.
In April 2014, just six years ago, we transitioned from Dingwall's piece, titled 'Reparations argument too weak, one sided' to a much better place in 2020. Dingwall was bold to say then that, “[T]hose calling for reparations use half-truths and emotionally overcharged and baseless arguments.” The reparation detractors have been silenced by the current, unstoppable march in support of reparation.
Prestigious universities, located in many First World countries, built by “slave money”, have had to respond to the call of their students to admit that they received direct financial benefits from our enslavement. Our own The University of the West Indies (UWI) is built on two old sugar estates, Mona and Papine.
The arguments in support of reparatory justice are fact-filled. Sanchez Manning, writing in The Independent, revealed: “The true scale of Britain's involvement in the slave trade has been laid bare in documents revealing how the country's wealthiest families received the modern equivalent of millions of pounds in compensation after slavery was abolished.” The case for a payout to us is reinforced by the fact that many of the wealthy families in the UK are still, indirectly, enjoying the proceeds of slavery, passed on to them by their ancestors. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron, who told us to “move on” from the legacy of slavery, on his visit here in 2015, and whose great-great-grand uncle was paid 4,101 pounds for his 202 enslaved persons in Jamaica, dares not today repeat his insensitive chiding in his address to our Parliament.
Suddenly, history has absolved reparatory advocates, recalibrating them as the bearers of good news and not dreamers. What decades, if not centuries, of struggle could not achieve, 2020 has finally exposed. The issue is not going away. The monuments celebrating those who participated in centuries of forced labour are toppling, and so are the arguments against justice for our ancestors.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in his recent October 2020 Black History Month address, said: “Black history is our history.” This is a most interesting concession coming from a British Conservative party head. Firstly, there is no record of any prime minister in our recent past giving a Black History Month national address. Also, he conceded that Britain failed to give recognition to the black soldiers and public servants who protected and built Britain. He must, however, not limit his reflection merely to our 20th century contribution, but must go on to speak to centuries prior to the last century, and speak to the 300 years of British slavery enrichment. This amounts to selective memory, where we hop over the main issue and remain in our denial of the big picture, conveniently clinging to the more visible present.
In the language we coined for ourselves, let the struggle continue because “a reparation wi seh”.
Bert S Samuels is an attorney-at-law. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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