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USA/Africa: From Wakanda to Reparations, Part 2

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USA/Africa: From Wakanda to Reparations, Part 2

AfricaFocus Bulletin

February 26, 2019 (190226)

(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

“Just as cotton, and with it slavery, became key to the U.S.economy, it also moved to the center of the world economy and itsmost consequential transformations: the creation of a globallyinterconnected economy, the Industrial Revolution, the rapidspread of capitalist social relations in many parts of the world,and the Great Divergence—the moment when a few parts of the worldbecame quite suddenly much richer than every other part.” - SvenBeckert

Part 1 of this AfricaFocus Bulletin series, available at, featured excerptsfrom several thought-provoking commentaries on the film BlackPanther. This second part features brief descriptions of links tolonger non-fiction articles and books exploring the historicalquestions raised in greater depth.

What you will find below is a select list, with briefdescriptions, of key readings on the US-African relationship inworld historical context, centering race and the impact of thelast 500 years of world history on the present. The list includesfour new paradigm-shifting histories, as well as four classicworks that have centered the same themes. It also includes severalrecent readings on slavery, the genocidal conquest of theAmericas, the slave trade, and the issues of reparations orredress for historical crimes.

Although reparations has long been a demand of activists (see for background), it isnow beginning to enter a much wider public debate. These readingswill help put this growing debate in context.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on the USA and Africa, visit

Recent articles on reparations in public debate include:

Washington Post, “Three 2020 Democrats say ‘yes’ to race-basedreparations — but remain vague on details,” Feb. 22, 2019

William J. Barber II, “How Ralph Northam and others can repent ofAmerica’s original sin,” Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2019

Text of the most recent version of H.R. 40 (Commission to Studyand Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act),introduced on January 3, 2019, by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and 23co-sponsors.

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Four New Histories

If you want well-written path-breaking overviews of US historyplacing it in the context of race and the last 500 years of worldhistory, these four recent books should be at the top of yourreading list.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples' History of the UnitedStates, 2015.

“This may well be the most important US history book you will readin your lifetime. If you are expecting yet another ‘new’ andimproved historical narrative or synthesis of Indians in NorthAmerica, think again. Instead Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz radicallyreframes U.S. history, destroying all foundation myths to reveal abrutal settler colonial structure and ideology designed to coverits bloody tracks. Here, rendered in honest, often poetic words,is the story of those tracks and the people who survived—bloodiedbut unbowed. Spoiler alert: the colonial era is still here, and soare the Indians.” —Robin D. G. Kelley


Paul Ortiz, An African American and Latinx History of the UnitedStates, 2018.

[From review by Catherine Lizette Gonzalez in Colorlines, Feb. 2,2018]

Dominant narratives about United States’ history will usually waxnostalgic for the patriots who fought for liberty andegalitarianism during the American Revolution. But, arguably,those liberal ideals were never really meant to serve anyone butWhite settlers. Even today, ideas of American exceptionalism—likePresident Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda—are largelyweaponized against communities of color.

In his new book, “An African American and Latinx History of theUnited States,” historian Paul Ortiz challenges these dominantnarratives by placing African Americans and Latinx people at thecenter of U.S. history.

Ortiz illuminates how Black and Brown people built multiracialmovements through the 1700s to the 21st Century to achieve civiland democratic rights. In the book, the author and professor ofhistory at the University of Florida, argues that African Americanand Latinx activists were inspired by what he’s coined as”emancipatory internationalism” or the longstanding rejection ofEurocentric philosophies of liberty in exchange for the freedomstruggles of the Global South.


Nikhil Pal Singh, Race and America´s Long War, 2017.

Nikhil Pal Singh argues that the United States’ pursuit of warsince the September 11 terrorist attacks has reanimated a longerhistory of imperial statecraft that segregated and eliminatedenemies both within and overseas. America’s territorial expansionand Indian removals, settler in-migration and nativistrestriction, and African slavery and its afterlives were formativesocial and political processes that drove the rise of the UnitedStates as a capitalist world power long before the onset ofglobalization.


Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr, 2019.

The author explains briefly in an Feb. 15 article in The Guardian (

What this map shows is the country’s full territorial extent: the“Greater United States”, as some at the turn of the 20th centurycalled it. In this view, the place normally referred to as the US– the logo map – forms only a part of the country. A large andprivileged part, to be sure, yet still only a part. Residents ofthe territories often call it the “mainland”.

On this to-scale map, Alaska isn’t shrunken down to fit into asmall inset, as it is on most maps. It is the right size – ie,huge. The Philippines, too, looms large, and the Hawaiian islandchain – the whole chain, not just the eight main islands shown onmost maps – if superimposed on the mainland would stretch almostfrom Florida to California.

Four Classic Works

These four books feature structural analysis and foregroundresistance as well as oppression, providing clear alternativeframeworks to understanding African, global, and U.S. History.All of these are still in print, and available in Kindle as wellas paperback editions. If your public or school library does nothave copies, encourage it to make sure they get these fundamentalworks.

C. L. R. James, A History of Pan-African Revolt, 1938/1969.

Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, 1944.

W. E. B. Du Bois, The World and Africa, 1946.

Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 1972.

Slavery in the United States

The catchphrase of slavery as "America's original sin" iscommonplace. The role of slavery in shaping the contours ofAmerican society and the global economy, now commonly recognizedby scholars, is much less widely acknowledged. But the effects ofslavery are definitely not only in the past, as noted by theSouthern Poverty Law Center in the report quoted below.

The remaining links here provide entry points to the work of SvenBeckert, Edward E. Baptist, and Daine Ramey Berry, three leadingscholars whose recent publications are shaping the currentunderstanding of how slavery led not only to the poverty of thosewho were enslaved but also built the wealth now disproportionatelyheld by a small minority. As Beckert in particular stresses, thesystemwas not only national but global.

Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Teaching the Hard History ofAmerican Slavery, January 2018.

It is often said that slavery was our country’s original sin, butit is much more than that. Slavery is our country’s origin. It wasresponsible for the growth of the American colonies, transformingthem from far-flung, forgotten outposts of the British Empire toglimmering jewels in the crown of England. And slavery was adriving power behind the new nation’s territorial expansion andindustrial maturation, making the United States a powerful forcein the Americas and beyond.

Slavery was also our country’s Achilles' heel, responsible for itsnear undoing. When the southern states seceded, they did soexpressly to preserve slavery. So wholly dependent were whiteSoutherners on the institution that they took up arms againsttheir own to keep African Americans in bondage. They simply couldnot allow a world in which they did not have absolute authority tocontrol black labor—and to regulate black behavior.

The central role that slavery played in the development of theUnited States is beyond dispute. And yet, we the people do notlike to talk about slavery, or even think about it, much lessteach it or learn it. The implications of doing so unnerve us.


Understanding American slavery is vital to understanding racialinequality today. The formal and informal barriers to equal rightserected after emancipation, which defined the parameters of thecolor line for more than a century, were built on a foundationconstructed during slavery. Our narrow understanding of theinstitution, however, prevents us from seeing this long legacy andleads policymakers to try to fix people instead of addressing thehistorically rooted causes of their problems.

Sven Beckert, "Slavery and Capitalism," Chronicle of HigherEducation, December 12, 2014.

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History, 2014.

For too long, many historians saw no problem in the oppositionbetween capitalism and slavery. They depicted the history ofAmerican capitalism without slavery, and slavery asquintessentially noncapitalist. Instead of analyzing it as themodern institution that it was, they described it as premodern:cruel, but marginal to the larger history of capitalist modernity,an unproductive system that retarded economic growth, an artifactof an earlier world. Slavery was a Southern pathology, invested inmastery for mastery’s sake, supported by fanatics, and finallyremoved from the world stage by a costly and bloody war.

Some scholars have always disagree with such accounts. In the1930s and 1940s, C.L.R. James and Eric Williams argued for thecentrality of slavery to capitalism, though their findings werelargely ignored. Nearly half a century later, two Americaneconomists, Stanley L. Engerman and Robert William Fogel, observedin their controversial book Time on the Cross (Little, Brown,1974) the modernity and profitability of slavery in the UnitedStates. Now a flurry of books and conferences are building onthose often unacknowledged foundations. They emphasize the dynamicnature of New World slavery, its modernity, profitability,expansiveness, and centrality to capitalism in general and to theeconomic development of the United States in particular.

Just as cotton, and with it slavery, became key to the U.S.economy, it also moved to the center of the world economy and itsmost consequential transformations: the creation of a globallyinterconnected economy, the Industrial Revolution, the rapidspread of capitalist social relations in many parts of the world,and the Great Divergence—the moment when a few parts of the worldbecame quite suddenly much richer than every other part. Thehumble fiber, transformed into yarn and cloth, stood at the centerof the emergence of the industrial capitalism that is so familiarto us today. Our modern world originates in the cotton factories,cotton ports, and cotton plantations of the 18th and 19thcenturies. The United States was just one nexus in a much largerstory that connected artisans in India, European manufacturers,and, in the Americas, African slaves and land-grabbing settlers.It was those connections, over often vast distances, that createdan empire of cotton—and with it modern capitalism.

Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and theMaking of American Capitalism, 2014.

Baptist argues that our understanding — or misunderstanding — ofslavery has policy implications for the present. (In that way, thebook is complementary reading to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ much talked aboutCase For Reparations). “If slavery was outside of UShistory, for instance — if indeed it was a drag and not a rocketbooster to American economic growth — then slavery was notimplicated in US growth, success, power and wealth,” Baptistwrites. “Therefore none of the massive quantities of wealth andtreasure piled by that economic growth is owed to AfricanAmericans.” Anyone who believes that, his book aims to show,really hasn’t heard the half of it. Braden Boyette, HuffingtonPost, Oct. 23, 2014, “A Short Guide To ‘The Half Has Never BeenTold’" -

Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Valueof the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation,2017.

n life and in death, slaves were commodities, their monetary valueassigned based on their age, gender, health, and the demands ofthe market. The Price for Their Pound of Flesh is the first bookto explore the economic value of enslaved people through everyphase of their lives—including preconception, infancy, childhood,adolescence, adulthood, the senior years, and death—in the earlyAmerican domestic slave trade. Covering the full “life cycle,”historian Daina Ramey Berry shows the lengths to which enslaverswould go to maximize profits and protect their investments.Illuminating “ghost values” or the prices placed on dead enslavedpeople, Berry explores the little-known domestic cadaver trade andtraces the illicit sales of dead bodies to medical schools.

This book is the culmination of more than ten years of Berry’sexhaustive research on enslaved values, drawing on data unearthedfrom sources such as slave-trading records, insurance policies,cemetery records, and life insurance policies. Writing withsensitivity and depth, she resurrects the voices of the enslavedand provides a rare window into enslaved peoples’ experiences andthoughts, revealing how enslaved people recalled and responded tobeing appraised, bartered, and sold throughout the course of theirlives. Reaching out from these pages, they compel the reader tobear witness to their stories, to see them as human beings, notmerely commodities.

Conquest of the Americas

“European colonization of Americas killed so many it cooledEarth's climate,” Guardian, Jan. 31, 2019

Settlers killed off huge numbers of people in conflicts and alsoby spreading disease, which reduced the indigenous population by90% in the century following Christopher Columbus’s initialjourney to the Americas and Caribbean in 1492.

This “large-scale depopulation” resulted in vast tracts ofagricultural land being left untended, researchers say, allowingthe land to become overgrown with trees and other new vegetation.

The regrowth soaked up enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphereto actually cool the planet, with the average temperature droppingby 0.15C in the late 1500s and early 1600s, the study byscientists at University College London found.

“The great dying of the indigenous peoples of the Americasresulted in a human-driven global impact on the Earth system inthe two centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution,” wrote theUCL team of Alexander Koch, Chris Brierley, Mark Maslin and SimonLewis.

The UCL researchers found that the European colonization of theAmericas indirectly contributed to this colder period by causingthe deaths of about 56 million people by 1600 [leaving only about1 in 10 of the pre-colonization population]. The study attributesthe deaths to factors including introduced disease, such assmallpox and measles, as well as warfare and societal collapse.

Full study available at

The Atlantic Slave Trade

The transcontinental scope of slavery is most clearly visible inthe Atlantic slave trade, which over centuries brought over 10million enslaved Africans to the Americas. Strikingly, the vastmajority were brought not to the United States but to Brazil andthe Caribbean, as illustrated in the map below and related links.

The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two MinutesAnimated map: 315 years. 20,528 voyages. Millions of lives.

Slave Voyages: Introductory Maps

Among the host of books on the slave trade, The Atlantic SlaveTrade (2010, by Herbert Klein provides anaccessible summary of current scholarship. Joseph Miller's Way ofDeath: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730-1830(1988, is a dense read, but an unequalledaccount of how the intertwined economies reaching from Angola toBrazil, Portugal, and England extracted profits from the lives anddeaths of those enslaved.


Reparations for slavery and the slave trade is often debated insimplistic terms, as if it were only a question of the feasibilityof payments to individuals and as if it only applied to the UnitedStates. And while reparations is most frequently and legitimatelyused to refer specifically to slavery and the slave trade, given the magnitudeof those centuries-long crimes, the concept is also a moregeneral one in human rights discourse, applicable to more recentcrimes perpetrated on specific living individuals and communities.

The following five readings are useful to expand the discussion.Two focus on the United States, while two expand the discussionbeyond the borders of the United States. And a fifth, on redressfor historical crimes against Native American communities,stresses that monetary compensation is much too limited a conceptto cover the actions needed.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, "The Case for Reparations," The Atlantic, June2014.

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I meanthe full acceptance of our collective biography and itsconsequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illnessfor the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunkenlie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubrisand see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.

Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are alreadydivided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feelbut cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten andselective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing offamily secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is ahealing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for pastinjustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or areluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoningthat would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean theend of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying thefacts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling“patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations wouldmean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling ofour self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of ourhistory.


Flint Taylor "How Activists Won Reparations for the Survivors ofChicago Police Department Torture," In These Times, June 26, 2015.

The 20-year reign of police torture that was orchestrated byCommander Jon Burge—and implicated former Mayor Richard M. Daleyand a myriad of high ranking police and prosecutorialofficials—has haunted Chicago for decades. … Finally, on May 6,2015, in response to a movement that has spanned a generation, theChicago City Council formally recognized this sordid history bypassing historic legislation that provides reparations to thesurvivors of police torture in Chicago.…

Over the course of the struggle, the movement had once againlooked internationally both for support and for examples—Chile,Argentina and South Africa, to name three. The examples here inthe U.S. were precious few: Japanese-Americans who were internedduring World War II, the descendants of the African-Americanvictims of the deadly 1923 race riot in Rosewood, Florida and thevictims of the mass sterilizations in North Carolina. The movementwas also inspired by the continuing struggle for reparations forenslaved African Americans, the movement to fully document andmemorialize lynchings in the South, by Black People Against PoliceTorture and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, and, mostimportantly, by the survivors of Chicago police torture and theirfamilies.

While full compensation for the pain suffered at the hands of thetorturers was not (and could not be) obtained—a reality that waspointed out in a Sun-Times editorial that otherwise commended thehistoric accomplishment—the reparations package is bothsymbolically and in fact substantial and unique, particularlygiven that the survivors had no legal recourse.


Lord Anthony Gifford, "The Legal Basis of the Claim forReparations," Paper presented to Pan African Congress onReparations, Abuja, Nigeria, April 27-29, 1993.

See also the Abuja Declaration from that Congress at

[summary of points]

  1. The enslavement of Africans was a crime against humanity
  2. International law recognises that those who commit crimesagainst humanity must make reparation
  3. There is no legal, barrier to prevent those who still sufferthe consequences of crimes against humanity from claimingreparations, even though the crimes were committed against theirancestors
  4. The claim would be brought on behalf of all Africans, in Africaand in the Diaspora, who suffer the consequences of the crime,through the agency of an appropriate representative body
  5. The claim would be brought against the governments of thosecounties which promoted and were enriched by the African slavetrade and the institution of slavery
  6. The amount of the claim would be assessed by experts in eachaspect of life and in each region, affected by the institution ofslavery
  7. The claim, if not settled by agreement, would ultimately bedetermined by a special international tribunal recognised by allparties


Ana Lucia Araujo, Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade: ATransnational and Comparative History, 2017.

Slavery and the Atlantic slave trade are among the most heinouscrimes against humanity committed in the modern era. Yet, to thisday no former slave society in the Americas has paid reparationsto former slaves or their descendants. European countries havenever compensated their former colonies in the Americas, whosewealth relied on slave labor, to a greater or lesser extent.Likewise, no African nation ever obtained any form of reparationsfor the Atlantic slave trade.

Ana Lucia Araujo argues that these calls for reparations are notonly not dead, but have a long and persevering history. Shepersuasively demonstrates that since the 18th century, enslavedand freed individuals started conceptualizing the idea ofreparations in petitions, correspondences, pamphlets, publicspeeches, slave narratives, and judicial claims, written inEnglish, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. In different periods,despite the legality of slavery, slaves and freed people wereconscious of having been victims of a great injustice.

This is the first book to offer a transnational narrative historyof the financial, material, and symbolic reparations for slaveryand the Atlantic slave trade. Drawing from the voices of varioussocial actors who identified themselves as the victims of theAtlantic slave trade and slavery, Araujo illuminates the multipledimensions of the demands of reparations, including the period ofslavery, the emancipation era, the post-abolition period, and thepresent.

Bradford, William, "Beyond Reparations: An American Indian Theoryof Justice" (2004). Aboriginal Policy Research ConsortiumInternational (APRCi). 217.

A significant element in the slavery reparations claim is the lostvalue consequence of the unpaid labor extracted from slaveancestors, and thus it is logical that, with fewexceptions, proponents of slavery reparations equate the remedywith financial compensation. Although money cannot undo history,it can ameliorate the socioeonomic conditions of the descendantsof former slaves, and money is the lodestar of mostreparationists.

However, justice is not a one-size-fits-all commodity ...Slavery is not the sole, nor the first, nor even, arguably, themost egregious historical injustice for whichthe U.S. bears responsibility.

Although compensation may well be the proper form redress shouldassume in relation to the crime of African American slavery,reparations is ill-suited as a remedy around which to construct atheory of justice for Indians, not because of the socialresistance it would be likely to engender, but because moneysimply cannot reach, let alone repair, land theft, genocide,ethnocide, and, above all, the denial of the fundamental right toself-determination. Only a committed and holistic program of legalreformation as the capstone in a broader structure of remedies,including the restoration of Indian lands and the reconciliationbetween Indian and non-Indian peoples, can satisfy thepreconditions for justice for the original peoples of the U.S.

For a broader view of international developments on the rights ofindigenous people, including the roles of redress andcompensation, see The United Nations Declaration on the Rightsof Indigenous Peoples: A Manual for National Human RightsInstitutions. Asia Pacific Forum of National Human RightsInstitutions and the Office of the United NationsHigh Commissioner for Human Rights. 2013.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publicationproviding reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, witha particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocusBulletin is edited by William Minter.

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