Legacy of Slavery Still Monumental

The reparations movement in the Caribbean has lessons for blacks in the U.S.

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Brimstone Hill Cannon in St. Kitts (Thinkstock)

All of this activity by CARICOM doesn’t mean that there’s universal support across the Caribbean for reparations. There are plenty of voices against the idea. Before, during and after the conference, they were heating up the letters and comments sections of major news outlets like Jamaica’s Gleaner. Some regard the call for reparations as a straight-up shakedown of Europeans and a canny way to divert attention from Caribbean politicians’ own poor leadership. But the pro-reparations folks, led by actual heads of state, clearly run the show. (Jamaica’s prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller, called for “an international discussion in a nonconfrontational manner on the question of reparations” at the United Nations General Assembly.)

Things are a bit different here in the U.S. Over the years, there have been sporadic, reasoned and publicized debates among scholars, and even in Congress. Prominent African-American opponents such as Roger Clegg and Armstrong Williams from the right, and Paul Gilroy (an Afro-Brit who taught at Yale for a time) from the left, have weighed in. But the debate always stops at a certain level of officialdom before it can become part of the national agenda.

Since 1989 Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has been trying to move House Resolution 40, a bill that proposes a seven-member commission to study reparations. This is not a cabal of bureaucrats preparing to toss taxpayer dollars at every black person they can find, but a half-dozen-plus-one people sitting around a table with only the power to talk and write reports. H.R. 40 dies in committee every time, even with backing from the likes of the American Bar Association and the Episcopal Church.

Folks like Iowa’s Republican Rep. Steve King deploy arguments popular among people who wish to undermine any broader, governmental examination of government redress for slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. At a 2007 hearing of a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, King (no relation to Martin Luther King Jr.!) equated the sacrifice of his Yankee relatives in the Civil War with that of the enslaved — people who endured centuries of legal, state-sanctioned bondage — and their descendants, who lived under American apartheid for another century and a half because of their skin color.

I asked Verene A. Shepherd, keynote speaker at the Kingstown reparations conference, a crude but obvious question: How much of this is about money, and how much of it is symbolism? Her reply was succinct: “Reparation is about repairing the damage done because of a crime committed.” Shepherd, who is director of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, chairs Jamaica’s National Commission on Reparations. “People will always argue about financial versus symbolic settlements. We will see.”

We in the States should keep an eye on the reparations movement in the Caribbean, whether we are in favor or opposed. There may be no resolution soon — or ever — but if CARICOM and its legal partners launch serious litigation, buried information about the slave trade will come to light. That benefits all of us.

Brian Palmer is a journalist and documentary filmmaker currently teaching at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University.  

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