Last month, representatives from member states of CARICOM (the Caribbean Community and Common Market) and half a dozen other nations gathered in tiny St. Vincent and the Grenadines to discuss an idea regarded by some in the United States as radical, fringe, even nuts: reparations for "native genocide and slavery."
Such a high-level, official conclave could happen in the Caribbean for one obvious reason: People of African descent are in the majority.
Of the 12.5 million captive Africans shipped to the New World during the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, most wound up laboring in the Caribbean and South America, not the United States. Although nearly 500,000 Africans were off-loaded in the British colonies of North America (later the U.S.), more than a million enslaved people were shipped to the island of Jamaica alone, and more than 600,000 to Barbados.
"The legacy of slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean has severely impaired our development options," said Dorbrene O'Marde in his address to the First Regional Reparations Conference, held in St. Vincent and the Grenadines' capital city of Kingstown. O'Marde is chairman of the Antigua and Barbuda Reparations Support Commission. "These nations that have been the major producers of wealth for the European slave-owning economies entered independence with dependency straddling their economic, cultural, social and even political lives."
CARICOM's September conference wasn't a one-off. It's part of a formal, multinational program both to raise the issue of reparations in international forums and to seek redress from European nations -- England, the Netherlands and France -- for the Atlantic slave trade and its enduring effects.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves invited United Kingdom law firm Leigh Day to advise his government and then to present at the conference. The firm has a history of taking on cases rooted in history. In June, Leigh Day won a $30.8 million settlement on behalf of elderly Kenyans tortured by officers of the British colonial government in the 1950s and '60s -- along with an expression of regret from Foreign Minister William Hague.
"Our advice to the Caribbean states is to bring a claim related to the impact of slavery on the Caribbean today," Leigh Day partner Martyn Day said via email. "That fits within the framework of the International Convention [on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination] and is likely to resonate far better than a historic claim relating to the treatment of the slaves."
Day says that cases would be brought against individual governments. If no settlement can be reached through that method, then the matter would move to the U.N.'s International Court of Justice. "There is a strong feeling of injustice that still rankles in the Caribbean. It is an issue that will not go away until it is addressed," Day wrote. "Being addressed means a combination of a proper formal apology and compensation."
All of this activity by CARICOM doesn't mean that there's universal support across the Caribbean for reparations. There are plenty of voices against the idea. Before, during and after the conference, they were heating up the letters and comments sections of major news outlets like Jamaica's Gleaner. Some regard the call for reparations as a straight-up shakedown of Europeans and a canny way to divert attention from Caribbean politicians' own poor leadership. But the pro-reparations folks, led by actual heads of state, clearly run the show. (Jamaica's prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller, called for "an international discussion in a nonconfrontational manner on the question of reparations" at the United Nations General Assembly.)
Things are a bit different here in the U.S. Over the years, there have been sporadic, reasoned and publicized debates among scholars, and even in Congress. Prominent African-American opponents such as Roger Clegg and Armstrong Williams from the right, and Paul Gilroy (an Afro-Brit who taught at Yale for a time) from the left, have weighed in. But the debate always stops at a certain level of officialdom before it can become part of the national agenda.
Since 1989 Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., has been trying to move House Resolution 40, a bill that proposes a seven-member commission to study reparations. This is not a cabal of bureaucrats preparing to toss taxpayer dollars at every black person they can find, but a half-dozen-plus-one people sitting around a table with only the power to talk and write reports. H.R. 40 dies in committee every time, even with backing from the likes of the American Bar Association and the Episcopal Church.
Folks like Iowa's Republican Rep. Steve King deploy arguments popular among people who wish to undermine any broader, governmental examination of government redress for slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. At a 2007 hearing of a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, King (no relation to Martin Luther King Jr.!) equated the sacrifice of his Yankee relatives in the Civil War with that of the enslaved -- people who endured centuries of legal, state-sanctioned bondage -- and their descendants, who lived under American apartheid for another century and a half because of their skin color.
I asked Verene Shepherd, keynote speaker at the Kingstown reparations conference, a crude but obvious question: How much of this is about money, and how much of it is symbolism? Her reply was succinct: "Reparation is about repairing the damage done because of a crime committed." Shepherd, who is director of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, chairs Jamaica's National Commission on Reparations. "People will always argue about financial versus symbolic settlements. We will see."
We in the States should keep an eye on the reparations movement in the Caribbean, whether we are in favor or opposed. There may be no resolution soon -- or ever -- but if CARICOM and its legal partners launch serious litigation, buried information about the slave trade will come to light. That benefits all of us.
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Palmer is a journalist and documentary filmmaker currently teaching at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University.