By NICOLE BURROWS
I was having an interesting conversation with one of my mentors a few weeks back. Our discussions have always been immensely thought-provoking, stretching my thinking way beyond the normal considerations.
He told me about the historic racial issues in his home country in South America, a place I didn’t know had two ethnic populations that once despised each other so much. When you think of racism, you always assume it must be some ethnic group being discriminated against or despised by white people. Not quite true, my mentor explained.
And we continued talking about the fact that the world social order had been firmly established long ago ... that some things about race relations, even though they change with education and positive experience and open-mindedness, they change ever so slowly and pretty much remain the same over larger expanses of time. The bottom line of our conversation amounted to white people at the top of the totem pole in America, North America, the West, in general, and that’s pretty much the way it’s going to stay for generations to come.
That sounds disturbingly final. But look at how that becomes the conclusion.
Whoever holds the money, holds the power, or the things that are needed to get the power. Because many predominantly white countries got wealthy off the backs of African slaves, they were able to spend their time accumulating vast wealth over hundreds of years, while, even though slavery no longer exists, at least not the old version of it, the descendants of slaves are perpetually and greatly disadvantaged as compared to their white counterparts, having been put in last place from the very start.
As our conversation continued, my mentor said something very strange to me. He said that sometimes he wonders if it doesn’t make sense to be grateful that black people of African descent, as he is, were once enslaved.
Crazy, right? Same thing I thought. I wasn’t sold.
But he’s a pretty smart guy and he’s realistic about life and he’s had decades to form his social opinion about all these things, so I ask him to indulge me and explain what that meant. Because how do you get any kind of silver lining out of slavery?
He said, well, think about it. If Westerners/white people didn’t colonise West Africa, if they didn’t – with the help of other Africans like the Ashanti who are said to have traded their people for European guns – transplant people of West Africa into the so-called New World, what would our lives be like today? Would we have been so well-educated? So modern? Would we have been as financially prosperous as we are living in the First World? Would we be spewing religious extremist lingo and stealing teenage girls and fighting a radical war funded by oil? Would we be a part of a Boko Haram cell in Nigeria (note, a West African country, the point to be made forthcoming)? Would we have felt better to have had our people killed by our own people for nothing, than by white people for something? What is worse?
And I know that’s playing some real Devil’s advocate there, but how do you answer that? Of course, there is a chance something wonderful would have happened instead, but what if it didn’t and we ended up as Africans in Africa today with the same nightmare of a reality that exists today ... in the midst of it in the motherland and not removed from it in our surrogate western homes?
Along with the ‘white-on-black’ violence of recent months, the issue of ‘black-on-black’ violence is right now being presented in the wake of the BlackLivesMatter movement that ‘began as a hashtag’. How does it make us feel, as black people (don’t be mad because I’m mixed and can identify with more than one ethnicity), that more black people are killed by black people than by white people, a question some black leaders of this movement skim elegantly around when asked this in debate?
No one should be killing anyone on purpose, other than proven self-defence, but why is it so much worse when someone white is the perpetrator and the black person is the victim? Why do you think that is? Is it because the wounds of slavery have never healed? If this is true, can those wounds ever heal?
I think they can, but not to the point where this whole thing becomes a forgotten non-issue. It can and should never be forgotten, but it hurts us more every time it is painfully remembered.
There’s a half-black man in the White House, but young black men are still being shot in the streets, not by random people, but by people who are meant to uphold the law and protect the public.
I’ve been on the edge of reason before; people have pushed my buttons before and it’s made me think of lashing out. I’m willing to bet everyone has experienced that in life. But, particularly as a protector of the people, would I empty an albeit legal weapon on someone who wasn’t causing me immediate bodily harm? What makes someone do that? Is it fear? Is it poor judgment? Extreme anger? Loss of sanity? Hate?
I can’t imagine it. I hope I never have to.
I know, though, that no matter how angry that makes me feel, I can’t change history by getting angrier. I can only seek to improve the future by making something useful of that anger.
And that’s why I think seeking reparations, restitution, payment, whatever you want to call it, for all of slavery, is a waste of time ... except, maybe, if there is a clear cut circumstance where riches were explicitly stolen, and it is recorded specifically in history and quantifiable enough to have it returned at present day value.
But, generally, to the proponents of reparations for slavery, I say good luck to you. You will be running on the spot for a long time to come. Slavery is done - the old kind anyway. It is done. It is finished. It can never be undone. It can never be changed. No one, no matter how hard they try, will ever be able to pay for it. No one will ever pay for it ... not with money. No matter how many dollars are spent trying to pay back what was lost to time ... it can never be paid in full.
Realistically, if you believe monetary reparations make good on slavery, can you explain what satisfaction it really gives? What drives that satisfaction? Is that satisfaction sustainable? What tells you in your heart and soul that it is ever enough? When do you say, “it’s all right now.” Or “we’re even”? “Slate clean. Let’s begin again.” And who do you think will relinquish power to facilitate that?
We don’t get to reset history. We don’t get to take back any of the atrocities of history. We only get to create a new history.
It is unconscionable to think that uprooting all of history will fix it, or fix us. Alternatively, teach the truth. Don’t teach people to obliterate the things they learn the most important lessons from.
The good, the bad ... they have made us.
But beyond the established social order and reparations arguments, the issue of illegal and mass migration is another with ties to slavery. It’s almost as if the European countries’ present influx of migrants is some sort of karmic retribution for the historic decisions made in the Western World.
Is Europe getting its just rewards? When the reality of the magnitude of the migration of people from war-torn countries or failed democracies really sets in, what side will Europe, the historic mass conquerors, enslavers, colonisers come down on?
An American caller phoned into a Washngton DC talk show the other day, vehemently anti-immigrant, and asked the hosts why these people, these able-bodied men were leaving their countries? Why don’t they stay and fight? What about our own unfortunate people in our own backyards in America?
This week, I read a Nassau Guardian editorial that touched on some of the reasons Bahamians are migrating from their country, even though no one is really calling it that yet. They’re getting work experience after college; they just happen to never return and somewhere else in the world, most likely wherever they went to school, becomes home. “Violence, political persecution, and economic destitution lead to no other option but to flee and hope for a better life somewhere else,” it read.
We’ve got violence - check.
We’ve got political persecution - check.
And we’ve got economic destitution - check.
So who will consider now that The Bahamas is on the edge of a precipice, one foot into political uncertainty ... even instability ... and all that follows, and one foot on the ledge?
We are so distracted at home by the influx of migrants, and have been for some time, we can’t really see the outflow is well underway and is ramping up with every new cohort of Bahamian students graduating from an international college.
As The Nassau Guardian editorial iterated, “political repression, economic stagnation, and near criminal warfare” are “absolutely” reasons to stay abroad.
I endorse the writer’s further suggestion that The Bahamas should have “more flexibility for skilled people (immigrants) who wish to invest more than just money in the country.” I’m all for it. But not before The Bahamas figures out how to go about making things work for its own hundreds of thousands of citizens first, who:
- have lived in The Bahamas all their lives and worked hard to contribute to the positive development of their country, or so they believed, but get no real benefit for their blood, sweat, and tears, and
- have nowhere else to go, no education, no money, no opportunity, no equality, no motivation, and no hope for better things to come.
The Bahamas just cannot “open its mind for more diverse immigration policies” without getting its house in order, because almost nothing implemented by The Bahamas government works well or for long. And, of late, the government dances too closely with political instability.
The Ghana Centre for Democratic Development has an online publication called the Afrobarometer. It suggests that some things which serve as warning signs for increasing political risk and instability are a growing budget deficit, frequent power blackouts, slow or slowing economic growth, frequent corruption scandals involving government leaders, and growing dissatisfaction amongst the citizens with respect to the state of democracy in the country. Connect the dots. Can you see the picture slowly coming into view?
Interestingly, some of the same West African countries involved in the slave trade, from where many Bahamians are said to have descended, who have enjoyed some form of democracy in modern times, have been exhibiting ‘early warning signs’ of political instability.
It would be interesting to see a study done that examines more closely the correlations between slave/slavery origins and the success or failure of modern democracy in countries with (African) slave descendants.
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