-Contributing Writer-

Activists, scholars: U.S. can’t avoid responsibility for slavery

CHICAGO (FinalCall.com)  – Although they believe Henry Louis Gates Jr. trivializes a most heinous crime against humanity–the European enslavement of African people–advocates say he has become an unwitting ally to the reparations movement.

Dr. Conrad Worrill took “strong exception” to the April 23, 2010 opinion piece, “Ending the Slavery Blame-Game,” by Mr. Gates, a Harvard professor, due to “gross errors, inaccuracies and misrepresentations in Mr. Gates’ presentation of the trans-Atlantic European enslavement system.” Still the director of the Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies thanked Gates for bringing reparations back into public debate.


Dr. Worrill, and the National Black United Front hosted a community forum held in Chicago June 18 to discuss the resurgence of the reparations movement, fueled by reaction to the Gates’ commentary.

“People were scared to have the discussion on reparations over the last year and half because they said we have a Black president and should not be discussing it,” said Dr. Worrill. “I want to thank Henry Louis Gates for his opinion editorial, published in the New York Times, because he actually is helping us reenergize the discussion on reparations.”

Reparations is defined as the making of amends for wrong or injury done. Advocates argue that reparations is a process of repairing, healing and restoring a people injured because of their group identity and in violation of their fundamental human rights by governments or corporations.

Dr. Raymond Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University and author of “Should America Pay?” and “Belinda’s Petition: A Concise History of Reparations for the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade” led the community forum discussion, titled “Revitalizing the Reparations Movement & a Critique of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s ‘Ending the Slavery Blame Game.’ ”

After giving some historical context, Dr. Winbush began to address the main point of the Gates article which “contradicts his stated purpose of ending what he refers to as a blame-game, by erroneously making African rulers and elites equally responsible with European and American enslavers.”

In his article, Mr. Gates said that “most vexing is how to parcel out blame to those directly involved in the capture and sale of human beings for immense economic gain. While we are all familiar with the role played by the United States and the European colonial powers like Britain, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain, there is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa.”

Mr. Gates shifts the “blame” in a clear attempt to undermine the demand for reparations, Dr. Winbush explained. Despite Gates’ assertion, scholars of African history and reparations activists acknowledge the collaboration of some African rulers, elites, merchants and middlemen in the slave trade. Indeed, “collaboration accompanies oppression as a continuing fact of history,” said Dr. Winbush.

But collaborators were part of two other major Holocausts: the Jewish Holocaust and the Native American Holocaust. The Jewish Holocaust had its Judenräte, Jewish councils which chose Jews for enslaved labor and for the death camps and facilitated their transport to them, as well as its “kapos,” Jewish camp overseers, who brutalized their fellow prisoners along with Nazi guards. In the Native American Holocaust, there were Native Americans who fought alongside Whites to defeat, dispossess and dominate other Native Americans.

Such collaboration in oppression is not unique to Africa and Africans, said the scholars.

“Yet Gates, ignoring the historical record, merges three distinct groups involved in the Holocaust of enslavement: perpetrators, collaborators and victims,” said Dr. Winbush.

Reparation advocates say the facts are that White Europeans and North Americans initiated the Atlantic slave trade and profited most from it. How much did they profit? Harper’s Magazine estimated the total of reparations for slavery due is over $100 trillion, based on 222.5 million hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865, with a compounded interest of 6 percent.

The call for reparations is also not a new one. In Dr. Winbush’s book, “Belinda’s Petition,” he gives the account of a captured female African who petitioned the court of Massachusetts asking that her former slave master pay her for 30-plus years of free and forced labor. In 1783, Belinda requested an income from the estate of her former owner, Isaac Royall. The Massachusetts House and Senate awarded Belinda “15 Pounds, 12 Shillings” per year. The “pension” awarded to Belinda may be one of the first cases of reparation for slavery and the slave trade, according to the Winbush book.

Another monumental call for reparations was declared in the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s 10-point answer to one of the most frequently asked questions directed at him: What the Muslims Want. His answers can be found on page 39 of every Final Call or in his monumental book “Message to the Blackman.”

Point number four detailed some of his demand: “We want our people in America whose parents or grandparents were descendants from slaves, to be allowed to establish a separate state or territory of their own–either on this continent or elsewhere. We believe that our former slave-masters are obligated to provide such land and that the area must be fertile and minerally rich. We believe that our former slave-masters are obligated to maintain and supply our needs in this separate territory for the next 20 or 25 years until we are able to produce and supply our own needs.

“Since we cannot get along with them in peace and equality after giving them 400 years of our sweat and blood and receiving in return some of the worst treatment human beings have ever experienced, we believe our contributions to this land and the suffering forced upon us by White America justifies, our demand for complete separation in a state or territory of our own.”

The reparations movement has also been waged in the political arena. In January 1989, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) first introduced H.R. 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. He has reintroduced H.R. 40 at every congressional session since that year.

Rep. Conyers proposed legislation does four things: (1) acknowledges the fundamental injustice and inhumanity of slavery; (2) establishes a commission to study slavery and its subsequent racial and economic discrimination against freed slaves; (3) studies the impact of those forces on today’s living Black Americans; and (4) would allow the commission to make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies to redress the harm inflicted on living Black descendants.

During the forum, Dr. Winbush outlined four steps to true racial reconciliation.

“First, the nation committing a crime against humanity must formally apologize to its victims; secondly, the nation must then conduct an investigation and accounting for the impact of the crime against humanity; thirdly, international law, such as United Nations recognizes that whenever crimes against humanity have occurred, compensatory measures must be made by the nations that committed the crimes; and finally the optional step is prosecution of the wrongdoers. This decision is made by the victims; however, an international court of law may prosecute regardless of victims’ desire,” said Dr. Winbush.

Another critique of the Gates opinion piece, as highlighted by Dr. Worrill, is that the reparations debate includes much more than reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade and hundreds of years of chattel slavery. “There are 18 reasons for reparations. We seek reparations because of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, 400 years of our labor, slave codes laws, destruction of the African family, raping of African women, fugitive slave laws, colonization of our African culture, KKK lynchings, the 13 and 14th Amendments–they didn’t ask the captured Africans if we wanted to be citizens–denied 40 acres and a mule, Jim Crow laws, forcing us to fight in imperialist wars, the assassination of Black leaders, COINTELPRO, the crack cocaine epidemic, criminalizing our young people, jailing our freedom fighters, and centuries of miseducation and mental atrocities,” said Dr. Worrill.

As the reparations movement finds resurgence, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, known as N’COBRA, is hosting its 21st annual conference in New Orleans June 25-27. N’COBRA is a mass-based coalition organized for the sole purpose of obtaining reparations for African descendants in the United States. Since its inception N’COBRA has embraced public education, mobilization, and organization to obtain reparations. The conference theme is “United Voices for Reparations.”

As N’COBRA continues to support the House version of the reparations bill, the group is pushing U.S. Senator Roland Burris, a Democrat from Illinois, because he is a “proponent of reparations, an Afro-descendant” to sponsor a Senate version as well.

(For more info on the conference or the desired Senate bill, go to www.ncobra.org.)