By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(Plain Talk, July 19, 2019)
“There are decades when nothing happens — and there are weeks where decades happen.” — V.I. Lenin
Six years ago, 14 Caribbean islands with a combined population of just over 6 million people took a brave bold step that shook the world. Meeting in Trinidad, CARICOM heads of governments announced to the world that they were prepared to challenge the former slave holding powers, Britain, France and the Netherlands. The leaders argued that these countries that had enslaved African bodies, dehumanized and exploited their labour over the centuries had a case to answer.
The charge was that genocide was committed against the indigenous people of the Caribbean, that serious and despicable crimes against humanity were committed against Africans captured, chained, brought into slavery, raped, beaten, tortured and killed so that Europeans could exploit their labour. The wealth extracted from those enslaved bodies laid the foundation for the development of capitalism in Europe and the United States of America.
The CARICOM leaders said that they were not interested in confrontation with the former European enslaver. They very much preferred to engage in a developmental dialogue that will point to the fact that at one time the Caribbean was listed as the most profitable piece of real estate on earth, and that a tremendous amount of wealth was extracted from the region.
The leaders of the region also made clear that this wealth extraction from African labour was used to the detriment of the entire Caribbean region which as a result currently suffers a huge developmental deficit. They asserted that because of the force and power of the case against the former European enslavers, if the Europeans failed to enter into meaningful dialogue, the Caribbean was committed to take the case for genocide, slavery and forced underdevelopment to the International Criminal Court for a trial on the relevant issues.
While people were generally excited about the prospects of finally bringing the former European enslavers to account, only a small section of the population believed that the fight for reparations was meaningful. Many among those who did felt that the prospect of success was so far-fetched that to invest time, money and energy into such an endeavour amounted to a meaningless waste of resources.
In 2013 as well, one of the Caribbean’s most brilliant public intellectuals, Dr Hilary Beckles, published his critically acclaimed ‘Britain’s Black Debt.’ In this text Dr Beckles chronicled the conscious policies of the British government to exterminate the indigenous people of the Caribbean, to introduce African enslaved labour into the region and made a most powerful case for reparations.
Exactly one year after the reparations declaration of the Caribbean leaders, the Atlantic Magazine published an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates entitled the Case for Reparations. In this piece Coates demonstrated in simple but profound fashion the many ways in which American political and economic leaders and policy makers went about the business of enslaving, dehumanizing, robbing and extracting wealth from the Black community in the United States.
Coates said when he wrote the piece 5 years ago he was not expecting a game changer. He was simply hoping that “people will stop laughing whenever the issue of reparations was raised. I wanted people to begin to take the reparations issue more seriously”.
Coates is the most recent in a long line of American intellectuals who have raised the issue of reparations. In 2001 Randall Robinson, whom many would remember as the executive director of Trans Africa, the lobbying body that played a seminal role in the Boycott Apartheid Movement wrote “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks”.
That book was published in the very year of the United Nations Conference against Racism and Discrimination in Durban, South Africa. It will also be remembered that Colin Powell led the American delegation to the conference. Having failed to have the American position carry the day, Powell led an American walk out.
Most importantly, at United Nations sponsored Conference against Racism in 2001 the UN body resolved and adopted the position that ‘Slavery was and should always have been seen as a crime against humanity.’ By 2002, a group of African Americans filed the celebrated reparations case against a number of major American corporation seeking reparations for the enslavement and exploitation of African peoples.
No one can deny however that is was the declaration of the Caribbean leaders in 2013 that has given a real fillip to the reparations effort. And what a change it has been. Each year for more than 3 decades the African American Congressman, John Conyers introduced a resolution in the American Congress to establish a committee to investigate slavery and the ways in which the government could make amends to those who suffered. Conyers resolution never got out of committee while he was a member of the US Congress.
But Lenin is absolutely correct. ‘There are decades when nothing happens—and there are weeks where decades happen.’ The resolution to investigate slavery, which is known as the Conyers resolution was recently tabled and discussed in the House of Representatives. At the hearing, Ta-Nehisi Coates offered a powerful rebuke to Mitch Mc Connell, the leader of the Republicans in the House. The Alabama Congressman argued that slavery was a thing of the past and should not be revisited.
Today, interest in reparations in the United States is at an all time high. Several Democrats vying for the nomination to confront Donald Trump in the 2020 elections are openly supporting the call for Reparations for African Americans.
Momentum is growing. Last Tuesday, Senate Minority leader Democrat, Chuck Schumer called slavery ‘the poison of America’ and agreed to co-sponsor a resolution to study slavery and its impact on African Americans. It is said that so goes America, so goes the world. We can only hope that this reparations train pick up even more steam.
We can be sure that the plotters are planning to derail this freedom train. Therefore, we must never forget that the world belongs to those who fight for it. Forward ever.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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