I've been lucky enough to secure an advance copy of Hilary Beckles' Britain's Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide, which will be published at the end of next month by the University of West Indies Press. As I've been saying for a while now, though the case for reparations has been largely defeated in courts (though we should take notice of Polley v. Ratcliff, which Atiba Ellis writes about here) -- and largely, though not completely, rejected by legislatures -- scholars and activists continue to press the case. There is much to talk about and address in the chasm between African American and non-Hispanic white wealth in our country. And reparations talk is one way that people are continuing to circle back around to discussion of our nation's history and what its legacy for today and what we should do about it.
Beckles' book is a work of what I guess we might call applied history. It combines a history of slavery in the Caribbean with the case for doing something now about the legacy of slavery. The second part draws on Beckles' discussion of the brutality of slavery and its centrality to the British empire to make the case for reparations today. It never ceases to surprise me how brutal slavery was. The book's epigraph begins "'Barbarity Time' was the term used by enslaved Africans in the British Caribbean to describe the period of their enslavement." (Shades of Bernard Bailyn's The Barbarous Years.) And about a third of the book retells that story -- about sexual enslavement and all sorts of other brutality. Then the book tells about the profits made off of slave labor and the money paid to slave-owners when slaves were freed in 1838.
It is a haunting story of brutality and a legacy of lost opportunity and harm that continues to the present. But what interests me the most is the part that deals with what to make of that legacy. The UN's 2001 Durban conference looms large in this story. Beckles also focuses a lot on international law -- there seems to be a sense here that this transoceanic, multigenerational tragedy can be solved in some ways by appeals to law. While law may offer a way of framing the issues, I wonder whether this is too big to be solved by law. Do we need more focus on the great moral issues -- how much should the current generation pay for the sins of past generations? Especially when there are continuing benefits of the generations of slavery. There is a lot of hard political work that needs to take place to move reparations from the realm of discussion to that of economic reality.
This is the most important book on reparations published in recent memory; these issues aren't going away just yet. And I'll have a lot more to say about this book and the relationship of the historical part to the reparations part in an essay review that will be coming out in Slavery and Abolition's February 2014 issue, which is now up on Slavery and Abolition's website.