What you want, you a house, you a car?
40 acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar?
Anything, see my name is Lucy, I’m your dog
Motherfu**er, you can live at the mall –– Kendrick Lamar “Alright”
People of color calling for reparations isn’t a new idea. One could dig through a few history books, or a quick Google search, and unearth stories about radical Republicans (after the Civil War of course), passing laws that required Confederates to pay ex-slaves 40 acres and a mule. This is actually true despite mean-spirited President Andrew Johnson killing hopes of any payback to blacks when he vetoed the bill. However, the Freedmen’s Bureau Acts of 1865 and 1866 were passed. This bill was responsible for providing food, shelter, clothing, medical services, as well as HBCU’s to newly freed African Americans after the Civil War.
Professor Ana Lucia Araujo, a cultural and social historian at Howard University, looks at the history of people of color fighting for reparations her new book, Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade (Bloomsbury). Araujo, whose research interests include slavery and memory, credits her upbringing in Brazil as an inspiration to study slavery.
“I decided to become a historian because research about the past helps us understanding the present and perhaps improving the future. My research interests were inspired by the fact that I was born and raised in Brazil, the country that imported the largest number of enslaved Africans in the era of the Atlantic slave trade,” Araujo says. “Despite the crucial role of Africa and Africans in building Brazil, this dimension has been constantly erased from Brazilian history books, school curricula, and also from Brazil’s public space. My research interests were then motivated for the quest for truth, and also for the quest of social justice.”
In recent months, slavery has been a hot topic in academic circles as well as in broad spaces. Universities such as Columbia, Georgetown, Princeton, Brown, among others, have unearthed their ties to slavery, resulting in more open conversations about slavery. For instance, in an effort to keep Georgetown University afloat, university officials negotiated the sale of 272 slaves in 1838, worth about $3.3 million in today’s dollars. This sale uprooted slaves in Maryland and sent them down south to Louisiana, and a portion of the profits was used to pay off the debt.
Princeton also decided to join the conversation on slavery with its ‘Princeton & Slavery Project.’ Along with its early presidents being slave owners, Princeton students regularly encountered slaves “delivering wood to their rooms, working in town, or laboring in the fields of the privately owned farm adjacent to the campus,” according to the ‘Princeton & Slavery Project’ website.
While it has yet to been seen what the former means on the overall conversation about slavery, Araujo, who is also the author of Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade, says that it does change the argument that people of color have been making for reparations.
“The fact that most U.S. elite universities benefited from slavery helps bring to light the issue of symbolic and financial reparations. Many of these universities are renaming buildings, establishing memorials, unveiling plaques honoring the slaves who labored to build these institutions, measures that can be conceived as symbolic reparations,” she says. “Still, none of these universities established any program to provide financial reparations to the descendants of slaves who contributed to the wealth of these institutions. One recent very small step was taken by the University of Oxford (United Kingdom) whose All Souls College is launching a program of scholarships to fund Caribbean students and will also provide a five-year grant to a college in Barbados. These measures are intended to redress the enormous financial benefits obtained by All Souls through former fellow Christopher Codrington, a great slave owner and sugar planter, who bequeathed part of his fortune for the college to create the college’s library that bears his name.”
While African Americans have yet to see any victories, other than the Freedmen’s Bureau Acts of 1865 and 1866, Jewish people, as well as Sioux Indians have received reparations – the latter was awarded $122 million for the theft of lands in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Also, Japanese Americans were able to submit financial claims under the Evacuation Claims Act.
“The government and other organizations very often did not even respond to these requests [from African Americans concerning reparations]. In several occasions, governments claimed that slavery was legal,” says Araujo. “In other cases, they responded that they owed nothing to former slaves and their descendants. In other contexts, official or unofficial answers stated that there were no resources to pay for reparations. All over the Americas, governments made the conscious decision to compensate former slave owners. In other words, allegedly there were no resources to pay reparations to former slaves but there were resources to provide compensations to former slaves owners.”
When asked what made Jews, Indians and Japanese Americans’ fight for reparations different from African Americans, Araujo considered two elements.
“First, these groups had a greater ability to lobby for reparations immediately after the atrocities occurred,” she says. “Second, the atrocities committed to Japanese Americans and the Jewish victims of the Holocaust are circumscribed to a shorter period of time and very well localized, unlike slavery and the slave trade that occurred through a much longer period and encompassed three continents.”
The fight over reparations was not limited to the U.S., either. Caribbean nations have sought reparations from Europe. However, it’s unclear whether or not this affected U.S.’s decision to not pay reparations to African Americans.
“It could certainly impact the United States,” Araujo says. “ [In 2013] when CARICOM made demands to several European countries to pay reparations for slavery to Caribbean countries there was an immediate impact in the news all over the world and in the United States, contributing to relaunch the debate on reparations.”
As the common narrative goes, men, in many cases, are credited with leading the fight against social issues, but Araujo points to prominent women who made their voices heard in the fight for reparations.
“Individually, women such as Belinda Sutton in the late eighteenth century in Massachusetts and Andrea Quesada, in the late nineteenth century in Cuba, voiced demands of reparations,” she mentions. “Black women also made collective demands. Callie House led a movement for reparations (pensions to former slaves) between the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century in the United States. More recently in Brazil, Claudete Alves, a black activist and teacher from São Paulo, presented a public civil action to the Public Prosecutor’s Office against the Brazilian state requesting compensation for the damages caused to all descendants of enslaved Africans living in Brazil and residing in the city of São Paulo.”
Today, fearless activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, organizers of Black Lives Matter have also included reparations into the organization’s agenda, notes Prof. Araujo.
“I truly believe that it is up to the organizations demanding reparations to identify the best forms of making these claims, because the contexts can vary a lot, depending on the period, depending of the country,” she says. “Black Lives Matter became visible all over the world. They certainly know how to be visible and to occupy the public space and public sphere. We historians can only learn from them on their capacity of mobilization.”
In the past year, prominent scholars have published brilliantly researched books about slavery such as Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century by Prof. Tera Hunter; Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar; The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation by Daina Berry, among others. But there’s still other areas of slavery that have yet to be examined.
“There is still a lot of research to be done on the history of slavery all over the Americas. I would like to see much more works comparing slavery and the Atlantic slave trade in various societies in the Americas, and not only on the United States,” Prof. Araujo says.
“[Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade] is important because the study of demands of reparations for slavery and the slave trade helps us also understand the main feature of slave societies and the living and working conditions of former slaves and their descendants after emancipation” Prof. Araujo adds. “It helps us to see that the present-day demands of reparations for slavery have a long history, and to know that slaves and former slaves already in the late eighteenth century and nineteenth century were aware that they were victims of a great injustice and wanted redress.”
Below is a brief list of essential books on slavery suggested by Prof. Araujo, and be sure to purchase Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade at Amazon.com.
1: The Slave Ship: A Human History by Marcus Rediker
2: The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation And Human Rights by Robin Blackburn
3: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist
4: Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Wilder
5: Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution by Ada Ferrer
6: Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert
7: Fractional Freedoms: Legal Activism and Ecclesiastical Courts in Colonial Lima, 1593-1700 by Michelle McKinley
8: The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition by Manisha Sinha
9: Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen by Linda M. Heywood