Reparation: Magical dreams and uncertain destiny

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Reparation: Magical dreams and uncertain destiny

CHRISTOPHER BURNS

Sunday, May 17, 2020

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History is for arguing. Despite the rhetorical brilliance of some of the arguments put forward in favour of reparation by prominent scholars, researchers and legal luminaries, such as the late Professor Barry Chevannes, Professor Verene Shepherd, Sir Hilary Beckles, Bert Samuels, and Lord Anthony Gifford, et al, one thing is true — intrinsically, reparation is not a panacea and cannot guarantee human harmony, neither will payment of whatever amount create happiness in ways that love or simple laughter can. So, as serious as the topic of reparation is, we must also find ways to love one another more and use “kin teeth kibba heartbun” in moments of fierce disagreements.

Decades-long discussions around reparations, as well as the untameable anticipation that massive financial windfalls are inevitable, remind me of the after-effects of adding water to a tablespoon of “Andrews Liver Salts”. When water is added to liver salts it creates much excitement: It effervescences for a few seconds then falls flatter than “Sammy mouth”.

There are times when proponents of reparation amp up their rhetoric to have a multiplier effects on people's anticipation sufficient to cause them to dream about financial restitution. For, as any teenage boy would most likely not disclose, we prefer to under-report certain experiences, there are no balms in Gilead for certain magical dreams, especially those showcasing sexual corporealities, despite them being only nocturnal emissions of the most embarrassing kind.

That aside, we must find ways to continue to amplify the horrors of slavery, but simultaneously temper expectations and limit the confusions between haplessness and helplessness. We have to be careful not to fall prey to the victimhood mentality, or become slaves to magical dreams about financial reparations. The dream for a handout — justifiable or not — could not have been more evident than when Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, visited Jamaica in 2002, as part of her Golden Jubilee Tour. Hundreds of people lined the street of Kingston to see them. The royal couple then flew down to Montego Bay, the day after The Queen addressed a joint sitting of Parliament. As thousands more lined the streets of the second city to catch a glimpse of Elizabeth II, scores of onlookers could be heard saying odd and foolish things. Of note was the persistent antics and brave expressions of a middle-aged woman, who, if one were to guess cavalierly, would assume was high on “fowl pills” as evidenced by weighty protuberances in front and behind her rotund frame. Like a typical 'chan-pong Nanny', she yelled: “Look yah nuh, unno nuh push mi! Mi deh yah suh fram mawnin a wait...Missi Queen is one lovely woman, according to wha mi 'ear. Si mi nice little purse yah; if ah even farthing…mi know she ago giv wi! Mi bredda seh she carry a whole heap 'o money fi share up pon har golden 'jumbilin'; suh unno nuh push mi. T'ink seh mi a mek anybody box out the little recompense outa mi mout'…”

It has been 18 years since the Queen visited. The Royals, who happen to be the beneficiaries of slavery, came and we feted them well. They, in turn, compensated those who gathered in large numbers with polished smiles and superficial waves, even as old men painfully bowed and their female counterparts curtsied. At the end of the tour, they bid us “ta-ta”, but without doling out a farthing much less tuppence to offset the millions of dollars we spent to host them. Yet another transfer of wealth from the poor to the filthy rich. The embarrassingly wealthy Queen paid us nothing, except a visit.

Whether one agrees with the unlikelihood of reparation payments happening in this century, or the next, the awareness is helpful. Furthermore, understanding the pangs of the transatlantic slave trade, with its attendant indignity and cruel contempt for human life, makes it criminally boring for anyone with a conscience to ignore the message of reparation. This is so because the basis for reparation is cast on years of extensive research, scholarly legal arguments, and evidence of lingering sociocultural subjugation. Centuries of resource extraction, exploitation, free labour, and myriad other disgusting crimes against humanity have left signs of the hellish reality of wide-scale poverty, malnutrition, disease, hunger, inadequate shelter, and food insecurity all over, but disproportionately among Africans and descendants of African slaves.

Pragmatically, my deep-seated concerns remain about the achievability of reparation, given the inherent inflexibility of an imperialist past, capitalist present, and an uncertain global future — one chock-full of emerging counter-intuitive sociocultural, economic, and political oddities. There are eccentricities that are bound to create new challenges for achieving reparation, as target countries seek to insulate and fortify their economies and protect their social structures, even as we invest time and effort developing reparation algorithms.

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing unserious about developing algorithms to calculate the costs of the overextraction and depletion of our natural resources, human underdevelopment, and various forms of human and environmental degradation. At the same time, though, I wonder if our status in life would not be greatly enhanced if all those efforts were redirected towards our own advancement with surpluses to sell to countries such as Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

Truth is, slavery was declared a crime against humanity by the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in South Africa in 2001. It has been 19 years since and, apart from propagating greater awareness of our history, what other significant gains have that declaration delivered to the hundreds of millions of descendants of slaves?

We must be extremely careful not to allow awfulness of history to prevail upon us in ways that cause us to harbour unrealistic expectations, morph into zombies, become dead Roman candles, or foster a culture of chronic cynicism that could eventually weaken our ability to produce our own subsistence and build better futures for our children and their children's children. Simply put, sustaining useless fairy tale dreams at the expense of taking the requisites steps toward a viable path of self-improvement, modernism, and success — irrespective of our antecedent travails — is a false choice, akin to the rigid dichotomy between progress and regression.

At times the debate surrounding the issue of reparation becomes emotive and equally divisive. Naturally, opponents and proponents will never see eye to eye on anything. And agnostics (like me) are not exempt from disparaging comments for simply not taking sides either way. Late comers — whose new thinking or acceptance of reparation as pursuable endeavour reflects a process of evolution — too are excoriated and demeaned. In those instances, having a new point of view is not an acceptable synonym for “enlightenment”.

Irrespective of the obviousness of their activism, progressive thought leadership, or effectiveness of advocacy, which may be more beneficial and relevant to the cause, vis--vis decades of musings without much success to show for it.

This brings me to a recent article, penned by Mike Henry, under the banner: P J Patterson focuses on scoring own goal …instead of the real goal'. In that piece, Mike wrote narcissistically about himself, but scathingly of Patterson: “I have been there front and centre on this mission, and nowhere along the way can I recall him as a useful partner or even a fervent supporter on this very long journey. Indeed, as I prepare to release an upcoming book on my fight for reparation, with the proceeds to help fund the remainder of the fight, I personally find it heart-rending — and almost amusing in the same breath — that this giant of a political figure in Jamaica's history is only now seriously calling for a focus on the subject matter; this while conveniently pitching for debt relief for poorer countries like Jamaica when he never, from my memory, pitched for reparative justice for the Jamaican and wider Caribbean people, of whom he was one of the most recognisable leaders who, interestingly, benefited immensely from the black power syndrome...”

Congratulations, Mike, for self-servingly retelling about your years of work on reparation, as well as for announcing your plans to donate proceeds from the sale of your upcoming book toward funding the “remainder of the fight”. Is there any useful purpose, perhaps or except to pick a fight with your fellow octogenarian by reminding everyone how consistent you have been in the reparation struggle? Rhetorically, what certainty is there that had P J Patterson been as active or visible as you have been that his activism would have accrued success?

As I said earlier, we should view reparation within the context and construct of an inherently inflexible imperialist past, capitalist present, and an uncertain global economic structure and political system. Honestly, and without requesting a boxing match between Mike and P J, the provocative nature of some sections of Mike Henry's article reminded me of the last time I witnessed fisticuffs between two octogenarians. It was epic! Still, we do not need to tear down one another in order to elevate ourselves.

I do not subscribe to the notion that because 'slavery was a long time ago', so we should move on. As descendants of slaves, we face tremendous and too often incapacitating odds due to slavery and race. Yes, it has been more than 300 years since the oppression and brutality, but no one can deny modern-day slavery — who is asking for repatriations? The collective scholarship on slavery, the slave trade, and the disabling legacy it has bequeathed us is without contest. Our advocacy in Jamaica has been strong. Yet, it is not just Jamaica that is seeking payback for slavery. There is also the Caribbean Reparation Commission that was set up to establish the case for reparation by the governments of all the former colonial powers. It set up a 10-step plan for the same.

The objectives of the commission and are to secure a formal apology for slavery; secure monetary reparation and/or development grants to assist indigenous peoples; funding for cultural institutions; development of African knowledge programmes; assist with health crisis; help to eradicate illiteracy; debt cancellation; psychological rehabilitation; and facilitate technology transfer.

We are stronger together than alone; but forgive the Jamaica-first focus. Basically speaking, until the formal apology arrives, until most of the other things we hope reparation will deliver come true, we have to shift focus towards self-development, self-reliance and self-sufficiency. We have to redirect minds, attitudes, and efforts toward education, research and learning. There are many ways to achieve greatness without sitting in front of “Gate Beautiful”. We must rid Jamaica (any country, for that matter) of its historical extractive economic model, where profits are repatriated abroad at higher levels than are retained for domestic economic development. We do not have to wait on reparation to start empowering ourselves — reparation, oh; reparation, no; the country has to go on regardless.

Realistically speaking, we must get rid of the culture of entitlement, violence, institutionalised corruption, and the antiquated constitutional arrangement we so love to celebrate. Reparation sounds cool as a concept, but let us get truthful with ourselves about its realisation any time soon. We have to tend the natural resources we have in great abundance.

Sensibly speaking, we have to create an enabling society that gives opportunities to all, for only then will we be able to reclaim and retain our brightest people to help modernise and expand the perimeter of the kingdom of the mind.

Christopher Burns is CFO and vice-president of finance for a multinational. Send your comments to the Jamaica Observer or burnscg@aol.com.


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