The Past Is Not Over

The following letter was written by Helen Klonaris and published in The Nassau Guardian on Tuesday, 22nd October, 2013. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.

Dear Editor,

After a long silence, I return to these pages because it is more important to speak now than to hold my tongue.

I recently read a letter to the editor from Athena Damianos decrying, in a roundabout way, the idea of reparations for slavery; I also read countless Facebook commentaries in response, many of which were congratulatory of Damianos’ position, commentaries by white Bahamians and white expatriates who seemed happy and relieved to finally have a voice voicing their own frustrations with this idea – this crazy, over-the-top, embarrassing idea of reparations for slavery. Some of them just thanked Damianos, while others giddily climbed aboard the bandwagon and likened slavery to the “oppression” of their childhoods, calling on folks to sue their parents for “making us do all the things we hated – eating cabbage, going to bed early, getting up too early, going to school”. As if, as if, these activities were in any way similar, akin, to the condition of enslavement. As if, as if, being bought, owned, stripped of any identity other than “slave” and forced into labor that did not profit enslaved Africans, but did profit the European countries that bought and sold them, as if all this were simply for their own good, really, and what are they complaining about, and what more do they want, and why can’t they be quiet already about the past, after all, it’s done. It’s over. Let the dead past bury its dead. If only.

In her effort to point out the dangers, or, is it the absurdity, of suing European governments for slavery reparations, Damianos falls into the trap of the slippery slope fallacy – i.e., if we agree to this idea of suing European governments for slavery, then we may as well slide down a slippery slope into suing every oppressor for every oppression. Her argument, as most slippery slope arguments tend to be, is based on faulty reasoning, and distracts our attention from the singular argument at hand – one that says European governments should be accountable for the wealth they accrued through the forced labor of Africans, and that the descendents of enslaved Africans are justified in demanding some measure of restoration finally to a massive injustice against humanity.

Her argument is dismissive. And seems to imply that oppression is just a fact of life that everyone endures, so why should only one group get reparations? Her argument, if we were not vigilant, would also invite us to compete against each other for the right to justice. Why should black people get reparations when Jews also suffered the horrors of a different holocaust? But this is not reasonable. One group of people’s struggle for justice does not exclude anyone else’s. And, truth be told, the Jews did file an action against Germany, it was called the Reparations Agreement, and was agreed to by the Germans and passed by their parliament in 1953. The Jews were given 300 billion marks over a 14-year period; it was this money that helped to build the foundations of an Israeli homeland for Jews. Eight years earlier, in 1945, the Nuremberg Trials were held in Germany, and Nazi war criminals were tried and brought to justice.

And in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 assisted that country in the process of healing by hearing the truths of both victims and perpetrators of apartheid. None of these attempts to create justice was without flaws, or argument from all sides, but they happened, and have created precedents for others.

Why then are we, Caribbean folks of European descent, so furious when people of African descent request their voices be heard, and request material justice? Why are we so quick to roll our eyes and stamp our feet and huff and puff when our black sisters and brothers say that the past is not over, it is still with us and we need to attend to it? Why don’t we believe them when they tell us they still hurt? And why wouldn’t we want them to have healing, and justice? Why wouldn’t we stand in solidarity with them in their desire for some tangible apology that recognizes the ways in which European and North American societies benefited and were made quite wealthy as a result of their ancestors’ labor? A wealth that was never, and still is not, equally distributed, was never intended to be, engendering such deep economic and social inequities that communities of color, in the Caribbean and in the Americas, continue to struggle with the past in their homes, on their doorsteps, on their streets, in their schools, at banks and government institutions, and at all levels of their everyday lives. As Bahamian writer and political scientist Keisha Ellis pointed out so succinctly in a conversation I had with her some months ago, “Would you join a game of Monopoly that had started hours ago? Of course not, because you would never be able to catch up.”

I wonder where Haiti would be today if they hadn’t had to pay France for the “privilege” of their hard-won freedom. I wonder where African-Americans would be if the money European-American slave owners made off the sale of their ancestors and their labor had been returned to them, instead of providing the foundations for Wall Street, and the so many banking families that created the financial power of the U.S. as it exists today.

In The Tribune’s editorial dated October 15, the editor of this paper also took issue with The Bahamas’ participation via CARICOM in this class action case. The editor tells us that slavery has always existed. The editor says that Africans sold their own, and therefore, Europeans were not solely responsible for the slave trade that ensued. The editor tells us that even though slavery of Africans by Europeans was indeed horrific, it was England who moved to abolish it in the end. The editor tells us that there were many whites who fought against slavery, and who died in the cause of ending it. These may all be true, within a truer and more complex reality than was portrayed, but these realities do not make the case for reparations any less necessary.

And let’s be clear: it was not Africa who was made systematically rich off the sale and forced labor of generations of their sisters and brothers, nor was it Africans who devised and carried out a system of plantations and slavery unique in its ability to exercise physical, emotional and spiritual violence over the individual and the collective cultures of Africans, engendering a capitalist system that continues to prioritize the interests of the descendents of Europeans; and, while there were white abolitionists we can be proud of, far more Africans risked their lives to talk back, to escape plantations, to tell their stories, to agitate in the larger society, and to make profound arguments for the inhumanity of the slave trade; In 1834, England acted appropriately, finally abolishing the slave trade, as a result of risk taking on both sides; even so, £20 million were paid out to British plantation owners, for the loss of their “labor force”, not a penny of which went towards the freed men and women themselves. And, let’s not forget that by the 1820s, British industrialization was around the corner and the hands-on plantations would no longer be as cost effective as the machine-run factories to come; i.e., while moral considerations did have influence over abolishing the slave trade, it was arguably economic considerations that played an even bigger role.

So, again, I ask my brothers and sisters of European descent, why do we go to places of defensiveness first, so that we close ourselves off from hearing our brothers and sisters of African descent, and, importantly too, from better understanding ourselves? Why are some of us so resistant to the possibility of trying to create some balance in the world, out of the imbalances of the past? Why do we resent the possibility of a practical apology for damage done? I know, I know, I keep hearing it: the past is over, let’s leave it in the past. But that is not true; the past is not over, (anyone who has suffered any trauma knows this), damage done lives on, lives on in all of us still, in our bodies, in our blood and bones, in our cells, and importantly, in the places in our unconscious that are the spawning grounds of all our ideas and all the structures we create and all the policies we agree to or cannot imagine yet and all the decisions we make and the actions we take and all the ways we see each other and don’t. The past is still with us, and it is precisely our defensiveness that confirms this: it is not simply that we are uncomfortable with confronting the trauma of slavery and its consequences in the lives of our brown and black sisters and brothers; we are also uneasy and fearful of confronting what it means to be white people post colonialism, and how that past has compromised our own humanity here in the present.

In “Lee Daniel’s The Butler”, President Ronald Reagan asks the retiring African-American butler Cecil Gaines what his position is on the question of U.S. sanctions and South African apartheid; up to that point Reagan has vetoed congressional sanctions against South Africa. Reagan says, “Do you think I am on the wrong side of history?” Cecil Gaines pauses, and then says, and I paraphrase, “I’ve been afraid to stand up for what is right too, but I’m learning to be more courageous.”

There are many ways to pay for the past, and we who have benefited from a colonial legacy that privileges Europeans and light skin over Africans and dark skin are already paying for it in the fear and distrust and inequalities and violence and loneliness and ragefulness of our collective everyday lives. We have a choice: We can look away from our fear and discomfort, and pay for the past indirectly, or, we can learn to be more courageous, and confront that past with the dignity of true apology that seeks to create right relationships, restoring our own humanity in the process.