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The Scholars Behind the Quest for Reparations

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, reparations



Hilary Beckles wants his scholarship to sting. His audience: students and scholars who have assembled here at the University of the West Indies this morning to listen to the historian/administrator/diplomat lecture at a symposium on reparations for slavery. If his talk succeeds, they’ll leave this gilded ballroom outraged — and inspired to join his university’s fight.

Mr. Beckles has emerged as the chief spokesman of a global movement for racial justice. In 2013, heads of state from the 15-nation Caribbean Community, a regional group made up mostly of former British colonies, united to seek reparations for slavery and native genocide from Britain and other European powers. Their collective push — a mix of symbolic demands, like an apology, and financial ones, like debt forgiveness — placed the power of governments, not just the activism of individuals, behind the centuries-old struggle for reparations. To head the commission carrying out that work, the politicians appointed Mr. Beckles, a Barbados-born, British-educated historian of slavery who leads the University of the West Indies.

Mr. Beckles’s speech at the reparations symposium boils down to a basic argument: The British got rich by exploiting the Africans they imported to work as slaves on Caribbean sugar plantations. The descendants of those laborers are impoverished today because of structural inequalities inherited from slavery. And British politicians have consistently brushed aside calls to remedy this mess. Their anti-reparations policy began when the slaves were emancipated, in the 1830s, continued when the colonies emerged as independent nations, in the 1960s and ’70s, and endures to this day.

"The persistence of the arrogance and the hatred: And I want you to feel that those postures are embedded in an underlying philosophy that says, ‘Who are you? What are you? We do not apologize to lesser people,’ " Mr. Beckles says.

By analogy, he says, think about when you want to cook some curry goat, and you ask a butcher to kill your animal. "You don’t apologize to the goat," he says. "There is a perception, then, that we are the children of chattel. … We were property. We had no humanity. We were defined in the law for 400 years as real estate. So we are the descendants of property. You do not apologize to your property.”

Mr. Beckles’s response? Ratchet up the pressure….

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education


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