Ida Hakim: Reparations as Viewed From the River of Time

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The course of human events has often been likened to a river. Whether thundering or placid, the river demonstrates an axiom: the only constant in life is change. The movement for justice for the African men, women and children who suffered enslavement in America has been in continuous flow for centuries. As a movement, it has been ever evolving, ever buoyant and ever increasing in strength. The flow is now approaching a rapid pace, and I believe we can do our best for posterity if we strive to capture it for a moment, look into the heart of it, and then let it go to capture it again at a future time. Through a series of snapshots like these, our children and their children will be able to see the reparations movement in its true glory.

In this writing I will attempt to briefly describe what is happening at present from two viewpoints: the United Nations, and white America. As a human rights advocate who has come up from the grassroots, my qualifications in taking up these subjects are humble, yet valid. I am one of the officers of an international UN non-governmental organization (NGO) in consultative status, and as such I am familiar with reparations efforts and responses from within the human rights bodies for the past twelve years. I am also the founder of the first organization of white Americans devoted entirely to reparations advocacy.

Before beginning, I would like to make two offerings of a spiritual nature. I give honor to all of the Black men, women and youth who have taken up leadership of the reparations movement, for their courage is tremendous. The United States is the mightiest government in the earth today, and who but the most courageous will stand as David to Goliath, demanding justice from an unjust and increasingly dangerous tyrant. Secondly on behalf of myself, and all white people who advocate full and complete reparations, I express profound remorse and offer sincere apologies to the descendants of enslaved Africans for the suffering their ancestors endured, and the suffering they endure today due to the actions of white people and the evil of white supremacy.

Beginning now with the United Nations view, the picture has to include four elements, as there are at least four ways, within recent history, in which Black leaders have attempted to impress a prayer upon the UN and receive a response. By recent history I mean from around the mid-1980s forward. Prior to the existence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as early as 1946, Black leaders began to approach the UN with petitions for reparations and assistance.i History tells us of a number of approaches before the time came when the UN began to intervene in the domestic affairs of Member States. Recent approaches to the UN, since the late 1980s, will be covered in this writing, as only recently has the UN heard and directly responded to a reparations argument.

One argument that has been pressed upon the UN asserts that the descendants of enslaved Africans in the U.S. are undergoing forced assimilation and have the right to seek self-determination under international law.ii Another has asserted that the descendants in the U.S. are undergoing colonization and they have a right to seek independence.iii A third attaches itself to reparations for Africa and African descendants in the Americas Region and Diaspora making use of the World Conference Against Racism.vv A fourth includes the Americas Region and Slavery Diaspora, and has focused upon establishing descendants of enslaved Africans as a family of man suffering destruction of human rights and undergoing ethnogenesis.v

I realize that this sounds like a complex snapshot, and it is complex and dynamic. By the time another picture is taken, in two or three years, some parts of the international movement will likely have faded while others will have expanded. My UN experience has been with All For Reparations and Emancipation (AFRE), a non-governmental organization that works under the guidance of a Black leader from the U.S.ii AFRE was organized specifically for the purpose of taking the reparations movement to the United Nations. With that said, I will begin by examining the concept of ethnogenesis.

Ethnogenesis is a word coined by a UN Expert who sits on both the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and the Working Group on Minorities.iii He coined the word to describe the process of coming to life again or coming into existence again of a people who were thought to have been absorbed into another people’s culture and way of life. For the purpose of clarity, an alternative word for “ethnogenesis” could be the word “resurrection.” By coining the word and creating the concept in UN terminology, the Expert laid the ground for Afro Descendants (descendants of enslaved Africans) to apply international law to their situation. The existing law that can be applied, which the U.S. has ratified, is one that protects groups of people who are living as minorities: either being the numerical minority and/or having the minority of wealth and power within countries.

What this Expert heard that caused him to respond with such recognition and impressive help was an argument that pointed out the mental/spiritual death of the enslaved Africans: a death that occurred when their original identity was utterly destroyed and the identity of the slave-master was forced upon them along with forced mixed breeding. The argument states that the descendants now no longer exist collectively in the eyes of the world, and yet they have shown in many ways that they want to exist. Absent UN assistance the descendants will be left with no internationally recognized foundation upon which to build a future identity for their children and develop themselves as a political force.

The argument charges the U.S. Government with violation of international law, saying that since the 'mother tongue' is forever gone, and forced mixed breeding has occurred, no return of original identity is possible and reparations are due. In addition to reparations, UN assistance was requested in bringing about international political restoration so that those who were lost in slavery can exist as a recognized people. A second UN Expert also heard and responded to the argument. He stepped forward to give a hand, by giving the crime a name: Civil Death.iiii I’ll tell you how far this and other arguments have progressed later on in this writing, but for now, I want you to see that a prayer was offered and heard by the UN and a clear response of help and guidance was given.

Next I will describe the part of the picture that has to do with efforts made by Member States of the United Nations. This part of the UN response came to an apex at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. Black leaders from the entire Americas Region were involved throughout the process of the World Conference, and they played an important role, bolstering the courage of the African Member States, and Latin American Member States as well as other Member States that supported reparations language in the final documents.

For some time the African States have been talking about reparations to Africa. They have been making the argument that slavery and colonization wreaked havoc on Africa, and the European States involved must recognize that fact and offer reparations. The reparations most often mentioned are forgiveness of debt and investment in development. African States have both sympathized with and seen the political advantage of supporting reparations for the African descendants living in the Americas Region and the Diaspora. Within this context the reparations most often mentioned for the Americas and the Diaspora are affirmative action and programs for poverty relief, education and development.

African States, in alliance with Latin American States, have given the greater portion of their support for slavery reparations to the descendants in Latin America, citing exclusion, poverty and underdevelopment of those communities. At present the reparations demands of Blacks in the United States and Canada seem to be supported with less vigor as Blacks in the U.S. and Canada are often viewed as being included in government, and having wealth and if not wealth, certainly not the level of poverty or underdevelopment that Blacks in Africa and Latin America suffer. Another element of this section of the UN snapshot is that African immigrants in Europe and elsewhere are included in the reparations plan under a broad umbrella that covers racism as well as slavery and colonization. To my knowledge the African States have not officially recognized that ethnogenesis is occurring among the descendants of the Africans lost in slavery, even though the descendants’ yearning to be themselves and know themselves is apparent in their love of Africa and their desire to connect in some way with their beloved continent of origin.

Earlier I mentioned two other attempts to impact the UN with arguments that would lead to reparations. One argument says that Blacks in the U.S. are undergoing forced assimilation, they have the right to self-determination under international law, and that right should be claimed with the use of an election of leaders and a declaration to the U.S. Government. To my knowledge this argument has not received an official response that has shown up in UN documents. I am not privy to any spoken communications that may have gone back and forth. The final attempt to impact the UN was with an argument placed before the Decolonization Committee, which, to my understanding, was rejected as the Committee felt it did not have authority to hear arguments in this situation. As you can see, these two efforts, just by their existence, also serve to validate the reality of ethnogenesis as they show the desire of the descendants to live again as themselves, and not as clones of their slavemaster’s children.

Before moving on let’s take a moment to clarify what I see as the two major positions on damages and violation of law. One position states that the greatest damage that remains as a legacy of slavery is the destruction of the people’s essence, their memory of themselves, their connection to who they are through the river of time, coupled with forcing another people’s identity upon them until even the awareness that they have lost the original is gone. This position takes advantage of an existing covenant, Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR),xx that has been widely ratified including ratification by the U.S. The covenant states: “…minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.” Denying and depriving the enslaved Africans of these things caused an ongoing and present day loss: the total destruction of the essence of a people. Thus the descendants have no collective human rights, and damage is established under UN law.

The other position holds that the primary damage that remains as a legacy of slavery is the theft and exploitation of labor and resources, discrimination and exclusion creating the conditions of suffering and poverty and the ever oppressive burden of debt. This position takes advantage of the political clout of African States, Latin American States and other supportive Member States to bring pressure upon the UN. These Member States have fought hard against the European Union to get "slavery and the slave trade as a crime against humanity" language into UN documents that will be strong enough to provide assistance to reparations arguments under the existing crimes against humanity covenant.x

Let's now see how far both of these efforts have come. Pushing forward with the concept of ethnogenesis, the UN organized three seminars for Experts and Black leaders from the Americas Region to meet and discuss issues. At the third seminar, leaders from 19 countries were in attendance. One result of the seminar was that the leaders took the first step toward choosing the name Afro Descendants as the name by which they wish to be collectively known at the UN. Today, the UN has begun to use the term, thereby showing that the choice is recognized. The report of the 8th Session of the Working Group on Minoritiesii mentions Afro Descendant Minorities frequently, and among the resolutions of the 54th Session of the Sub-Commissioniii there is mention of Afro Descendants. Afro Descendant Minorities is now becoming an umbrella under which the diverse descendants of enslaved Africans can stand and be recognized by the UN and the world. This category allows the descendants to fit their arguments under the aforementioned Article 27 of the ICCPR, thereby establishing a legal foundation for reparations and restoration.

Under the African States/World Conference efforts for reparations, the UN has followed the directive of the Declaration and Plan of Action of the World Conference,iiii and voted to fund a Working Group to examine the problems of racism and racial discrimination against persons of African descent in the Americas and Diaspora. Five experts from various regions of the earth will conduct the Working Group and recommend possible solutions. The Working Group will meet for two one-week sessions. Since reparations was a major issue of the World Conference Against Racism, it will likely be a major issue of leaders attending the Working Group. Additionally the World Conference Against Racism provided the impetus for many African descendants from around the world to come together for the first time. These individuals and organizations will likely continue to meet, work and plan together. And finally, the language that came out of the World Conference regarding slavery and the slave trade as a crime against humanity is being tested as to whether it will bolster reparations arguments in U.S. courts.

Now I'd like to leave the UN snapshot and begin to examine white America’s response to reparations. From around 1990 to 2000, the reparations movement in the U.S. went from a radical fringe idea to an idea supported by the Black mainstream. White Americans, with the exception of a few activists, were unaware of the reparations movement until news started to spread toward the end of the decade, and the book “The Debt” was published.vvv I clearly recall the morning when the author appeared on a network television show, invited by a Black host, and the idea of reparations was discussed at length, in a respectable manner. Later in the year the Ebony awards show again put a major media spotlight on reparations as a credible and respectable idea. These two things provided an important breakthrough in my view, as they told white America that the reparations movement is here to stay.

The first white people in recent history to advocate reparations did their work as a part of a larger program of support for a socialist political movement for African peoples.vv They broke the ground so that when the organization CURE (Caucasians United for Reparations and Emancipation)iii came into being in 1992, there was a white pro-reparations argument already in existence to read and study. The original CURE members were persons deeply immersed in Black communities, some with a Black family member or a Black spiritual leader. The members of that early CURE organization wrote a book on reparations, and gave radio and television interviews to very hostile white audiences. The reparations movement was so unheard of among white people that advocates were labeled as “crazy” and worthy of ridicule. Even so, white reparations supporters continued to exist and their numbers were given a great boost around 2000 and 2001 when well-known Black leaders made their support of reparations public.

What does the reparations snapshot of white America look like today? The vast majority of white Americans, upon getting a spoonful of reparations, raise up a mountain of arguments against the idea. The arguments are often angry and sometimes even threatening. Ever ready to demonstrate power, white America has found spokespersons to take up opposition of reparations, and these spokespersons, some of whom are Black, have begun to travel the country giving speeches and radio and television interviews. Numerous writers and reporters have also taken their cue and have begun presenting a picture of reparations as unjust to other Americans: at best a valid claim made far too late as the victims are dead, at worst an attempt by Blacks to extort money by throwing guilt about slavery in the face of whites.

CURE has responded to the attacks by intensifying its efforts to reach into the mind of white people and start an honest and truthful dialogue on reparations. As if knowing that the time for making a choice has come, whites have been stepping forward to declare themselves, not in large numbers, but in a significant flow. Writers, filmmakers and activists, churches, organizations with an Abolitionist history, new organizations, politicians, individuals poor and rich, persons coming from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim viewpoint, persons concerned with class and racism issues have declared their support for reparations. If one were to take a bolt of cloth that is all of white America, and tear off a remnant, that remnant would be made up of the white Americans who support reparations.

Noting the undertones of the opposition to reparations, whites have been asking the question, “If I oppose reparations will that label me as a racist?” Another similarly perceptive question is often asked by Blacks: “Why are white people so adamantly against Black reparations when they never raised objections to other reparations demands that have come forth and been met. Why such a problem with justice for us?” These questions point us toward an unfolding of truth. As I look at the snapshot of white America’s response to reparations, I see the masses of people in a tremendously fearful state. And truth be told, fear has been in the marrow of the white American bone for a long time.

At the bottom of our picture we see the Aryan Nation, the KKK and other white supremacist organizations that threaten not only to kill white reparations advocates, but promise to begin a horrendous race war if they are pressed into paying reparations. The reason for their threats appears to be that they feel their existence is threatened – that whites will no longer exist if the flow of life continues in the direction it is now going. Standing upon their backs are the masses of white people who, consciously or unconsciously, seek to preserve the many advantages of being white in a white ruled society. It is my personal view that whites are reacting so negatively to Black people’s demands for justice because of the sheer power of Black people. The reparations movement promises full equality to a people who have demonstrated their ability to become dominant when given equality.

Climbing up the white America picture to the top, we see a small number of people who don’t seem to fear racial extinction or losing a dominant position. What is it that moves them out of fear and into faith in the positive result of reparations? Some would say that they just feel it is right, some would say they want a more humane political system, some would say it is the will of God. All in all, deep within the human being there exists an obligation to life itself: the kind of life eloquently spoken about in the following statement.

During a meeting at the UN in 1999, I heard Mr. Silis Muhammad ask the question of which life has greater value. He said, “Is not our struggle for human dignity equally as important as that of groups at war for their human life? Ours is a war of the mind. The United Nations will send troops to protect physical life. Is not our war as great? Is not the mind as precious as the body? To be alive, with the knowledge that I am, as a man, dead, is worse than physical death. Death of the physical body sets you free. Death of the human spirit is a living hell.”iiii

Reparations is a movement of the human spirit. We approach an enormous battle as the human spirit crushed in slavery asserts its right to life. Imagine if the U.S. Government and all governments of the earth placed the highest value on human dignity and the life of the human spirit. Would there then be any question about reparations? Imagine if white people were to go deep inside and meditate on what slavery and racism has done to their own humanity. Would there then be any question about reparations?

Here at last we rest, looking at our present moment in time, looking at the past and the river that lies ahead. Surely we cannot erase the past nor should we want to. I pray for the continued strength of all Black leaders who fight for reparations, and I pray as well for the light of truth to be ignited in my own people. Deep within myself I know that the human spirit will prevail. My will has joined with the will of others, and we will hold our course until a greater way of being is the will of all humanity. Peace on earth.