American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
Reparations and our Rendezvous with History
Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political
Science, and Director of the Institute for Research in African-American
Studies at Columbia University. This article is from his column
"Along the Color Line" available at <www.manning
marable.net> Copyright (c) 2001 Manning Marable. All Rights
The twenty-first century truly began--politically, socially, and psychologically--with two epochal events: the World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa this summer, and the terrorist attacks of September 11 which destroyed the World Trade Center towers and part of the Pentagon. These events were directly linked.
At Durban, the Third World, led primarily by African Americans and African people, attempted to renegotiate their historically unequal and subordinate relationships with western imperialism and globalized capitalism. "Reparations" was seen by black delegates at Durban as a necessary precondition for the socioeconomic development of a black community in the US, as well as for African and Caribbean nation-states. September 11th was a violent statement by fundamentalist Muslims demanding an end to American imperialism's economic and political subordinate relationships throughout the Arab world. Both events symbolized a challenge to the US's uncritical support for Israel, and were to some extent expressions of solidarity with the Palestinians. The aftermath of both events left the US government more politically isolated from the African and Islamic worlds than ever before.
Although the traumatic events of September 11 have pushed the
black reparations issue temporarily into the background, the reality
is that US and Western European imperialism ultimately will be
forced to acknowledge the legitimacy and necessity of at least
a limited reparations agreement. US policy makers will attempt
to solidify their shaky relationships with African countries,
to separate them from any possible coalition with radial Islamic
states. The price for their diplomatic support may be debt forgiveness
and some kind of financial aid package to assist in development
projects. If African countries are successful in renegotiating
their debt payments, based in part on the history of colonial
exploitation and slavery, black reparations in the US becomes
The challenge for reparations in the US
Indeed, this was Malcolm X's greatest insight and gift to future generations of African-American people: he changed the way black people thought about themselves. Malcolm moved us from being the footnotes in someone else's history, to becoming the key actors in the making of new history. Instead of singing someone else's song, we discovered the beauty of our own voices. Reparations thus becomes a way for us to challenge and to subvert the master narrative of white capitalist America, and to testify to the truth of our own history.
During colonialism, slavery and segregation, people of African
descent were diverted forcibly into the history of another people.
To reclaim our birthright, we must emotionally and historically
return to the sites of the original crimes, and to speak on behalf
of the victims who perished so long ago. Can we empower ourselves
to bear witness on their behalf, to "speak truth to power,"
to tell their untold stories embedded in fractured, fragmented
memories long past?
Retelling the story and making whole
History is more than a simple record of the past; it is the prologue to the future. When we return to the source of our own history, we unlock new doors to finding our own identity. We can begin to imagine ourselves in new and exciting ways, as architects and builders of a new history, the tellers of stories not yet written, of great accomplishments and discoveries still distant from our view. I think Malcolm X really understood this. This partially explains the fierce loyalty and intense identification that African Americans still feel about him. One of my students several years ago explained the difference between how many black folk perceive Martin vs. Malcolm this way: "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., belongs to the entire world, but Malcolm X belongs to us."
Black reparations "belongs to us" in a similar way. "Reparations" means "to repair," to "make whole again." The "double consciousness" of Americans of African descent first described by W.E.B. Du Bois, the age-old chasm between our identification with this
country and our cultural affinity towards the black diaspora and Africa, cannot be bridged until there is a final rendezvous with our own history.
This is why, ultimately, that the demand for black reparations
It's not about money
At the recent United Nations World Conference Against Racism, these same points were made, in different ways, by many representatives from the Third World. The brilliant international attorney and former Foreign Minister of Jamaica, the Honorable Dudley Thompson, explained to hundreds attending the reparations plenary session: "Reparations is not about asking for money. You can't pay me for your raping my grandmother. You cannot compensate me for lynching my father. What we demand is the restitution of our human dignity, the restoration of full equality, politically, socially and economically, between the oppressors and the oppressed."
Harvard University law professor Charles Ogletree, a key theorist and organizer in the United States on behalf of black reparations also made clear the linkage between the past and the present at the Durban Conference. Ogletree reminded delegates that there were "millions of Africans today languishing in unmarked graves at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, for whom reparations is a final vindication." Ogletree also predicted: "This is a movement that cannot be stopped. There are no plaintiffs that will not be considered. I promise that we will see reparations in our lifetime."
At the Durban Conference, the official US position was that the enslavement of millions of African people was not "a crime against humanity." Around the same time as the conference, President Bush's National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice stated to the press that "in order for us to get along" in America's diverse society today, that some of us "will have to forget" about what happened in the past.
Should Condoleeza Rice, an African-American woman who was raised in Birmingham, Alabama, who was brought up when four little black girls were murdered by the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in September 1963--forget? We dishonor those who died, and disgrace ourselves, by distancing ourselves from the victims of past racist atrocities. They perished on our behalf, to realize the deferred dream of freedom. Can we deny their voices to history and to our collective memory?
There's a memorable line from "The Godfather" that's used several times in the film: "It's not personal, it's strictly business." By the end of the film, however, we learn that the business of life and death is always profoundly personal. So when I speak about my great-grandfather, Morris Marable, who was sold on an auction block in West Point, Georgia in 1854, for the sum of five hundred dollars, I say that this may have been a legal business transaction at that time, but I take it personal. When my grandfather was denied his Constitutional right to vote on Election Day in the Jim Crow state of Alabama for decades, I take it personal. When my son Joshua is racially-profiled by police officers, stopped and frisked when he leaves downtown shops and suburban malls, I take it personal.
Reparations helps us to understand the long-term effects of racial deficits, the historically constructed accumulated disadvantages that restrict and retard black advancement today. The business of the US state for centuries was to preserve, protect, and defend white supremacy as the central organizing principle determining access to political participation and power. It was for white racists at that time "strictly business," but the black reparations struggle makes it "personal" for all of us.
The future beckons as "an undiscovered country."
History and culture are the essential navigator's tools
in charting our sojourn from the present toward that undiscovered
country lying just beyond our imaginations. And in the words of
the famous song from the 1960 Freedom Movement, "Ain't
gonna let nobody turn