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Andrew Skerritt: We need an honest debate about slavery reparations

At a time when the reparations debate has gone silent in this country because there’s a black man in the White House, it’s getting a lot of play in the islands. Recently, the Caribbean Community (Caricom) heads of governments approved a 10-point plan for reparations for the lasting damage of slavery and the slave trade.

The demands include a full formal apology for slavery, repatriation to Africa, a development plan for the native Caribbean peoples and funding for cultural institutions. Folks in the region also want to address chronic diseases and “psychological rehabilitation for trauma inflicted by slavery,” technology transfer to make up for technological and scientific backwardness resulting from the slave era, and support for payment of domestic debt and cancellation of international debt, according to reports.

Regional governments plan to meet with their European counterparts next month to begin serious talks. If they’re not satisfied with the European response, they threaten to take their case before the International Court of Justice.

Let the talks begin.

I can hear the clicks already, the steam gushing from the nostrils, the splash of spilled coffee of upset readers. Some see reparations as a major distraction. Caribbean governments should be looking to address their own problems and not seeking handouts, critics contend.

Others say, if European powers have to pay reparations so do African nations. After all, Europeans bought African slaves sold by Africans. And they’ll also argue that the present descendants of slaves don’t deserve any compensation. Where does the pay-offs end, they ask.

I’m swayed by the proponents of reparation. Maybe that’s because I heard the arguments of Hilary Beckles, a university administrator and history scholar, known mostly for his writings on the politics and sociology of Caribbean cricket. Reparations, he contends, must begin with an apology. “A crime has been committed. I accept responsibility. I will commit to repairing damage,” Beckles said during a conference in Grenada last summer.

Reparations made more sense when Beckles tied  the present European power structure to the profiteers of the slave trade and slavery. Barclays Bank, Beckles charged, grew out of wealth generated by the slave trade. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s ancestors were compensated £3million for 202 slaves in Jamaica. After emancipation in the British Empire in 1833, parliament compensated slave owners for losing their property to the tune of £20 million. Despite the generosity of the offer, some slave owners thought freedom was too high a price and took their slaves to Cuba. That meant another 53 years of legal bondage. Slavery in Cuba ended as late as 1886.

The Caribbean economies never developed self-sustaining agricultural economies because the best land was long reserved for cash crops — sugar cane for sugar and molasses, cotton and tobacco. To the argument that too much time has passed, Beckles points to the legacy of slavery. “Black people in the Caribbean are the unhealthiest people on the planet. Sixty percent of people over 60 suffer from chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure.”

The present remains in bondage to the past. Reparations won’t right past wrongs but an honest debate is an important start.

Andrew J. Skerritt is author of Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South. He lives in Tallahassee. Follow him on Twitter @andrewjskerritt. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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