Monday, March 19, 2007

Reminisce 2001

For many 2001 was a seminal year and so it was for me too. In my case there was two reasons, the performance and tour of my first play Abyssinia and the consequences of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban South Africa. Both came to critical eruption in September that year . This year one of those seeds showed shoots again. The issue of slavery is abroad again. In the UK we focus on 200 years of legislation to stop the traficking of Africans. I commend a related article written to honour the complexity of the issue but simplifying the process to achieve the prescribed balm of reparations. I am not really sure anymore where I stand but present a view from that time.

September 2001 , Bristol, United Kingdom


“ We acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity not only because of their abhorrent barbarism but also in terms of their magnitude, organized nature and especially their negation of the essence of the victim, and further acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the transatlantic slave trade and are among the major sources and manifestation of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and that African s and people of African descent, Asians and people of Asian descent and indigenous peoples were victims of these acts and continue to be victims of their consequences…”

WCAR Durban 2001 Para 13 Declaration

The world met in Durban to explore through common humanity how we have and intend to respond to our cultural differences. I packed my bag a pragmatic Diversity consultant; sceptical of activists and mindful that the press had declared the Durban conference a non starter as the powerful queued up to punch holes in the two balloons up in the air i.e. Reparations and Zionism as a form of Racism. I wondered about reparations and thought it to be a pie in the sky. Certain that it did not matter since in my head it was an excuse for those who did not want to accept responsibility of how Africans have squandered opportunities. As the United States threatened boycott it seemed that Durban was destined to become a fruitless exercise of left wing windbags’ self indulgence, maybe I should not bother I thought.

In Durban, my world view changed as I came to understand on a physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual level what reparation means. At the very least recognising the dialogue that it will generate is a much needed form of catharsis for our collective humanity. Perhaps more profoundly, it represents an opportunity to fundamentally change the relationship of African peoples and their descendants to a more sustainable and healthy one. This process is essential to improving our collective self esteem and prompting a more assertive and interdependent relationship with other cultures. Whilst the media focused on the walkout by the United States and Israel, the issue of reparation started to generate disequilibrium especially for the EU delegations. It brought home how little consideration is ever given to the collective pain and suffering engendered by the transatlantic slave trade, its legacy of European cultural supremacy and its pervasive by-product, institutionalized racism.

So lets talk Reparations, many of you probably come from the Condeleeza Rice School of thought, reparation she says “Given the fact that there is plenty blame to go round for slavery, plenty of blame to go around among African and Arab states and plenty of blame to go around among Western states, we are better to look forward and not point fingers backward”. Yes Condi and all those who have a bit of Condi in them, there is blame to go to all but the degrees are different. Heck this no simple blame game, I wonder how we can go forward when a substantial population of the world carry around a gaping sociopychic wound.

The wounds are deep and personal yet we want to gloss over it and move on. Those who were sold, abused and killed are not anonymous. For nearly four centuries, the Ibo, Oyo, Madinka, Benin, Ashanti, Hausa, Angola, Krahn, Wolof, Kalabari, Ibibio, Calabar, Ijaw, Itshekiri, Nupe, Igbira, amongst many other nations were thorn apart and institutions destroyed because of the transatlantic slave trade. Many individuals where subdued through sheer brutality and a few rose out of the adversity, Equanoh Oludah, Toussaint L’overture, Fredrick Douglas, Denmark Vessey, Soujourner Truth. These people’s lives were sacrificed to build great wealth from Tobacco, cotton, Sugar et al which greased the wheels of Global commerce and fuelled the industrial revolution. Whilst the Europeans used free African labour to accelerate their development , African societies were being weakened by depopulation, corrupted through its role in the wholesale dehumanization of its own people, damaged its institutions credibility and its long term viability . The spiritual structure was being laid for Colonization of the entire continent the seeds for the Berlin conference of 1885 was planted in the triangular trade.

There is no doubt there is blame to be shared and Africa holds a big share of that. I cannot absolve my ancestors from their complicity in this tragedy and its continuing consequences. As a proud Oyo man, I know the wars my people fought and their ascendancy in the 17th Century helped fuel the transatlantic Slave trade. We sold our people in a short sighted and greedy endeavour. Slavery existed from antiquity and was used in civilizations from Eygpt, Rome, Greece to Axum and Kush. It is also true that slavery in the African, Continent as it was in Europe was a benign and redemptive process. In Africa it meant slaves married into families and became Kings. Whilst all these mitigates African culpability there was enough learnt in the first century of the Triangular slave trade to have prevented any well meaning African from being involved in the trade. There is no doubt that the wealth from human sales generated greed and corruption which kept this trade going for the next 200 years. Many Kings rebelled and fought the trade but very serious consequences befell them from forced abdication and exile to coup d’etats. Every effort was made to stop the trade by the many who were against it including amongst my people the facial disfigurement that became so called ‘ tribal marks ‘ which still persists today. The many stories of disappeared family members that become the mythical stories of being carried off by the whirlwind. Yes in celebrating my ancestors I must agree their complicity in the triangular trade this means we are also culpable for reparations and the need to give account for the role of African nations in the dehumanisation of our own people. The transatlantic slave trade is unique in the human experience not only in its brutality but the systematic, institutional and efficient subjugation of humanity for generating great wealth and industrial growth. The work of slaves gave their masters space to pursue political, cultural, intellectual and scientific development to accelerate their socio economic expansion which they used to affirm their supposed superiority.
Take the much celebrated Thomas Jefferson whose words embodied in The American constitution are a source of great pride to every American. His words should be juxtaposed with his book on the Notes on the State of Virginia. This great American on art , science, beauty thought the African so inferior he comments “ Add to these , flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their judgement in favour of whites, declared their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oran-ootan for the black woman over those of his own species. This heartfelt analysis of a man who will father children through Sally Hemming his slave. If we must celebrate his industry in nation building we must acknowledge how minute his humanity was and how underdeveloped his morality was even for those times.

The gaping wound on the soul of the world is the lack of conscience exhibited by European and American nations for the callousness with which their civilisation and development exploited Africans and their descendants as the labourers for their economic growth and expansion. While in Durban we heard the EU countries argue that Transatlantic Slave Trade cannot be a crime against humanity because such a principle did not exist during the period of its practice. I am sure Hugo Grotius the father of International Law would do a twist in his grave. Does this mean the principles of Jus Cogens the customary laws of nations can now be ignored? The fact that many accepted slavery to be a crime against humanity even then for example Lord Palmerston said

“If all the crimes which the human race has committed from the creation down to the present day were added together in one vast aggregate they would scarcely equal the amount of guilt which has been incurred by mankind in connection with this diabolical slave trade"

Let me be direct, the perpetrators knew the moral repugnance of their trade and were very calculating to maintain the economic advantage that slavery gave them. Even the Queen Elizabeth 1 who started with a strong anti-slavery position sold her soul to the economic riches which it brought. The grand design of what we call racism was laid, piloted and perfected as propaganda to defend the benefits of slavery. In fact from the building of cities, railroads to rearing of husbandry, cash crops, domestic and child rearing amongst many other slaves built the USA for free. In recognition of their economic importance, many insurance companies including Lloyds of London and Aetna of the USA issued slaves policies. There are many modern companies and institution which have the foundation of their wealth and greatness on the blood of slaves, the many newspapers Gannett publishers of USA Today, Tribune and Knight Rider. The likes of Fleet Boston descended from Browns bank owned by Mr Brown an active slave trader and founder. The Cotton trade financers such as Barings Bank and Rosthchilds which compensated slave owners after the abolition of slavery in England. What ensured both brutality and longetivity of Slavery were the economic benefits it provided.

It is against this backdrop the walkout of the USA government is particularly galling. An amazing disrespect for 13 million or more African Americans on the pretext that the walkout was in solidarity with Israel. So the interest of a foreign ally and a net recipient of national handout are prioritised over those of millions of taxpayers? It is obvious who has more influence. In spite contributions that started as early Jamestown 1619 if the dead could talk the thoughts of Antonio the Negro belatedly Anthony Johnson who worked his indenture with his white colleagues. In spite of achieving freedom and owning 230 acres of land and the respect of his community how Massachusetts’s legalisation of slavery in 1641 must have been a cruel joke. Unlike the white indentured servants who would have achieved respectability, tenure and social status probably as founding pioneers for Anthony and his people their way was strewn with severe adversity, constitutionally 3/5 of a human by 1787. The 1857 Supreme Courts finding in Dred Scott “we have come to the decision that the African race….. was not intended to be included in the constitution for enjoyment of any personal rights”. His pain must reach a high point at the disappointment that emancipation, promises of 40 acres and a mule and reconstruction were replaced with vilification and death, Jim Crow and segregation. The blood, sweat, bravery and assassination of the civil rights era till today’s mandatory incarceration. It is enough pain to drive anyone mad.

Over the years the seeds planted in the transatlantic slave trade have survived in many poisonous guises especially in the wholesale partition and colonisation of the African continent. The pain of subjugation was whitewashed into alleged efforts at civilisation and development. The structure and finishing touches were being put to the greatest and most enduring con job in the history of the world, the myth of African inferiority. Ancient and effective institutions were replaced by administrative shells for processing raw materials for European economic expansion. Africans were actively brainwashed to view anything African as a primitive and unsophisticated expression of underdeveloped minds. Those who rebelled were killed or expelled; genocide was practised as part of the process of keeping the natives in check. The Colonial administration was in effect the overseers of the Great African plantation project and it worked a treat. By the end of colonisation all the Institutions that were left standing were cheap European imitation guided by pseudo-European elites clamouring for the same unearned luxury with the brutal exercise of unchecked power. From European laws, education and clothing which are ill fitting clothes metaphorically and literarily. As ever we come cap in hand to the front door of the Worlds Institutions like the IMF and World Bank seeking handouts and occasionally throwing pebbles at windows. A once proud people reduced in meaning and ideas of self.

This is not just about history but about how these dynamics underpin how Africa and her dependants are understood and treated in all parts of the world. In many ways the world is viewed from European eyes and meaning making system. Let’s borrow African eyes for a few moments and see the world through another perspective. In the Worlds most successful economy in spite of notable exceptions the descendants of those people whose unrewarded efforts built the nation are randomly vilified and treated with worst indignities even by the most recent immigrants. Take the disparity of sentencing in death penalty to differences in crack and powder cocaine mandatory sentencing they are subject to disproportionate incarceration in privately owned and run prisons. Major American corporations making profits out of their humiliation and exploitation. The G8 industrialised nations contains 4 major benefactors from the transatlantic slave trade and 34 of the 48 least developed countries are those forged out of the ravages of slavery and colonialism in Africa. The relations have scarcely changed the largest single destination for African exports is the EU and it is mainly primary products and few Europeans know that most if not all Francophone African countries use a cheap imitation of the Euro in the revised CFA as their currency. The brutal wars fought in Liberia and Sierra Leone two nations created for repatriated slaves seems to have their root cause in the enduring strength of the dynamics unleashed through the triangular trade. We relive the legacy of slavery and colonialism not because of the failure to blame but because of the disdain with which we treat its consequences.

The most remarkable aspect of the sorry process is the majesty of spirit and grace of slaves and their descendants so far. There is a remarkable ability to rise against adversity, to deal with daily and insipid injustices and ignorance rising to the challenge, often excelling when given the limited opportunities. This story disappears in a media industry that thrives on simple stereotypes and jaundiced self expression. All over the world every people are allowed the space to express anger, despair before translating into ambivalence and finally hope. For Africans the world worries and fears any attempt to have real catharsis we are so used to it that we give lessons through Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King et al on forgiveness and getting over pain. Compare the grinding humiliation, subjugation and murder that was Apartheid and explore how it would be received by any European country.
Reparations is about us exploring our pain, legitimising our anger, dignifying our ancestors and learning to build a new future. It is about sharpening our humanity and education posterity.

Whilst this not been about money, what made slavery endure to my mind is the economic advantages. I think there should be some financial restitution, allow me to suggest how any agreement of restitution can work. The first point is that African, European and American countries should give restitution. Africans should have a system of dual nationality for any person of African descent whose ancestors were sold or kidnapped. African countries should prioritise their limited International investments and partnerships with communities and organisations of such descendants Africans sold into Slavery.
Europeans should return all African cultural treasures and documents taken as part of their colonial pillage. Europeans and Americans should develop school curriculum that explore the issues of racism, its roots and consequences especially the primacy of the transatlantic slave trade. A major museum and monument be built on the Western Coast of Africa with sister structures in the Caribbean naming as far as possible those taken and telling their story as human beings possibly housing African treasures to celebrate their achievements and civilisation. Education Trust be set up for a free university education programme for anyone who is descended from those sold and kidnapped. Most importantly all interests paid on current African debts be used to develop economic plans for any area in the African Diaspora that needs long term development.

The first step will be that all Great powers were involved in the transatlantic slave trade should follow the brave lead of the French Parliament which in May 2000 stated
“We recognise that slavery and the slave trade have contributed to the existence of contemporary forms of racism and racial discrimination. They have also contributed to poverty, under- development, marginalisation, social exclusion, economic disparities, instability and insecurity which affect many people of the world.”

In Durban we stood children of Africa three and four deep candlelight burning, song in our throats, we spoke Spanish, French, English, Portuguese and Dutch officially as we translated bullhorn song intermingled. It was a beautiful sight our diversity in full display in honour of our ancestors. Of course this was the only demonstration that will be officially stopped. In spite of that and how little we knew of the tragedy to come in a few days, one thing was certain, the time for reparation is here and it is no longer whether it is possible it is how it will be fully achieved.