Reparations are compensatory mechanisms devised by victims of crimes against humanity; paid by nations, corporations, and/or individuals committing those crimes; and given to victims and/or their descendants to begin the process of reparatory justice. Currently many are pressing claims for reparations for the slave trade, slavery in the Americas, and its aftermath. These crimes began in 1441, the first year that witnessed the theft of Africans from Africa. They continued beyond the “outlawing” of enslavement, persisted during colonialism, accelerated during state-enforced apartheid, and remain to the present day. Reparations are the only global political narrative uniting Africans regardless of location. The term reparations, first used in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, reflected the debt that the Allies imposed on Germany for instigating World War I. Following World War II, Germany and Japan paid reparations for war crimes perpetrated against a variety of groups. The newly created nation of Israel received reparations from Germany because of the Holocaust and its “crimes against humanity” stipulated at Nuremburg. Though not then called reparations, the claims for compensation for slavery have existed for centuries, being at least 250 years old with the first documented case for reparations in the newly formed United States being Belinda Royall in 1783. “The Petition of Belinda” is considered a milestone in the history of African redress for enslavement. In this document she describes her capture in Africa, the infamous voyage across the Atlantic known as the “Middle Passage,” her enslavement by Isaac Royall in both Antigua and Massachusetts, and, most notably, how her enslavement enriched her enslaver. Her petition to the Massachusetts State Legislature, concluded by saying, “Fifty years her faithful hands have been compelled to ignoble servitude for the benefit of an Isaac Royall, until, as if nations must be agitated, and the world convulsed, for the preservation of that freedom, which the Almighty Father intended for all the human race, the present war commenced . . . she prays that such allowance may be made her, out of the estate of colonel Royall, as will prevent her, and her more infirm daughter, from misery in the greatest extreme.” (see p. 22, Belinda’s Petition: A Concise History of Reparations for the Transatlantic Slave Trade, New York: XLibris, 2009). Though the first recorded instance of African redress for enslavement, it would by no means be the last and not only in the United States. Others would follow in Belinda’s footsteps, notably David Walker in the 1820s, Callie House after the Civil War, and James Forman in the 1960s. It is important to note that reparations are not a “recently emerging” protest within the African diaspora since such thinking minimizes the historical pursuit of justice by Africans for the transatlantic slave trade. “They owe us!” “Forty acres and a mule!” and “Reparations, NOW!” are more than contemporary slogans chanted by Africans pressing for compensatory justice. In fact, they reflect a centuries-old struggle beginning with chattel slavery and with diasporic Africans attempting to repair the damage of displacement from their original homelands, being compelled relocate to foreign countries, and enduring centuries of brutality in the form of enslavement, colonization, and apartheid.
The historical context of reparations is important for understanding their significance among African people. Coates 2014 presents the overall economic impact of enslavement on American Africans, while Martin and Yaquinto 2007 reviews movements and critical documents linked to the history of reparations. Berry 2006 focuses on Callie House, who mobilized more than 500,000 ex-enslaved African Americans to secure pensions for their unpaid labor. The essays in Robinson 2000 elaborate on the current economic and psychological impact of slavery on American Africans. Winbush 2003 and Winbush 2009 present contributions from scholars who are both for and against reparations and why, while Wittmann 2013 is more polemical in considering the legal arguments involved in reparatory justice. Yamamoto 1999 provides a general overview of how to obtain redress of injustice in the post–civil rights era through reparations.
Berry, Mary F. My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-slave Reparations. New York: Vintage, 2006.
This biography of Callie House, one of the most important figures in the reparations movement, personalizes the struggle by giving a detailed history of one of the largest yet unknown movements in American history, the quest for “pensions” by ex-enslaved Africans in America immediately following the Civil War. House’s indefatigable efforts at mobilizing ex-enslaved Africans is remarkable and the federal government’s attempt to thwart her efforts is extraordinary.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. The Case for Reparations. The Atlantic (June 2014).
Coates’s 16,000-word essay ignited a global dialogue on reparations for the TransAtlantic Slave Trade (TEAP). The usual approach in arguing the case for African redress is to begin in the past and move forward. Coates does the opposite; he begins with the scheme of depriving American Africans in Chicago of their property and moves backward in connecting the historical dots that link this illegal practice to American enslavement.
Martin, Michael, and Marilyn Yaquinto. Redress for Historical Injustices in the United States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.
This book of readings gives a lengthy overview of the reparations movement, including the primary groups responsible for advancing the struggle. It also provides an excellent list of laws passed at the local, state, and federal levels directly related to redress for the TEAP.
Robinson, Randall. The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. New York: Dutton, 2000.
Ta-Nehisi’s widely read article on reparations was preceded by Robinson’s book that argued for an American self-examination on how the present conditions of American Africans find their roots in its 200-year slavocracy, Jim Crow, and the American apartheid system, which effectively choked opportunity, stifled individual initiative, and thwarted educational opportunities for American Africans.
Winbush, Raymond. Should America Pay? Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations. New York: Amistad, 2003.
Often referred to as the “Bible of the reparations movement,” Should America Pay? is a collection of essays on every aspect of the reparations struggle for the TEAP, including their history, laws surrounding them, opposition, the major organizations, how they would benefit the lives of African people, and the major historical and international documents associated with the movement.
Winbush, Raymond. Belinda’s Petition: A Concise History of Reparations for the Transatlantic Slave Trade. New York: XLibris, 2009.
Using Belinda Royall’s Petition as the prototypical struggle for reparations, the author cites historical events that shaped the international reparations movement.
Wittmann, Nora. Slavery Reparations Time Is Now. Vienna: Power of Trinity, 2013.
For some, it is impossible to discuss reparations with a dispassionate view since the horrors of the enslavement of African people by Europeans continue to resonate around the globe. Wittmann’s book, though highly opinionated, is well documented and focuses on why the struggle for African redress is anchored firmly in international law and is an effort that will begin the long-awaited journey toward racial reconciliation between Africans and Europeans.
Yamamoto, Eric. Interracial Justice: Conflict and Reconciliation in Post–Civil Rights America. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
Yamamato’s work on the landmark 1944 case Korematsu v. United States, in which reparations were given to the victims and descendants of interred Japanese Americans, is seminal in considering how redress can be made after governments commit crimes against humanity. While discussing the legal questions surrounding reconciliation, redress, and reparations, Yamamoto makes the discussion easy for the reader to understand.
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