Tuesday, January 13, 2009
COMMEMORATION, JUSTICE AND RECONCILIATION: A FEW WORDS ABOUT RIGHTING HISTORICAL WRONGS
(Speech given at the Slavery, Anti-Slavery and the Road to Freedom Conference in Halifax Nova Scotia, June 25-30, 2007, by Ray Winbush)
I always feel uneasy about commemorations. They force one to look at an historical event and then, like Rubik’s Cube, attempt to twist and turn them in such ways that others will see it with all of the events in order and in one way. There is a desire on the part of the “commemorators” if you please, to give everyone a shared vision or a “co-memory” of an event that allows people to have a homogenzed understanding of the event.
In 2006, we witnessed the attempt by the current administration to create a “co-memory” of the events of September 11, 2001 by having a commemoration ceremony, characterized by a jingoistic fervor for things American and ignoring a bankrupt American foreign policy in the so-called “Middle East” that may have triggered this horrific event in the first place. Creating a “co-memory” between George W. Bush and let’s say Muqtada al-Sadr for 9/11 is impossible since commemoration at the government level is, in fact, what politicians want their citizens to remember and forget about the past.
And so, on March 25, 1807, the once mighty British Empire where the sun never set, through the efforts of William Wilberforce abolished the most heinous and longest lasting crime of the 2nd millennium, the TransAtlantic Slave Trade. Commemorations of this event have abounded throughout the former colonial holdings of the UK including the United States and I am at once struck at the white supremacist nature of them. William Wilberforce is being venerated by commemorators during this period to the extent that my African colleagues in the UK have dubbed this fawning over him “Wilberfest”.
I reluctantly went to see the new film about Wilberforce entitled Amazing Grace, since I knew audiences would be asking me about it. It should have been titled “Amazing RACEism”, since there were only three speaking roles for Africans in the entire film and was more about white men running around in waist coats and powdered wigs valiantly saving Africans from the horrors of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade.
What Amazing Grace represents is how commemoration is totally a subjective process and is an act left up to the conquerors as to how it will be done. The US does not commemorate the dropping of bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the Japanese do. The descendants of this settler nation don’t talk much about the Trail of Tears in my former state of Tennessee in but the Cherokee do. I have no doubt that one day, the atrocities of Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq will be commemorated by Iraqis --- both Shiites and Sunnis --- but I doubt that such a day will be recorded on any calendar made in the United States.
At the UK’s March 25th commemoration of the abolition of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade, Toyin Agbetu, a human rights campaigner, ran in front of the altar at London's Westminster Abbey -- packed with dignitaries -- shouting "you should be ashamed," "you're a disgrace," and "this is an insult to us." Needless to say, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II were apopleptic as Brother Toyin yelled to his fellow Africans in attendance, "We should not be here, this is an insult to us. I want all the Christians who are Africans to walk out."
I like Brothers like Toyin; they speak truth to power in ways that are pure and simple. Nothing he said was untruthful and his one-man protest represents the best in civil disobedience and illustrates the schizophrenic nature of commemoration since he, rather than joining the orgiastic praise for William Wilberforce, chose to commemorate his Ancestors’ agency in their struggle for freedom which began in the rain forests of Africa and continue in the diaspora today. Toyin, like me, believes that although the institution of slavery was symbolically abolished 200 years and 17 days ago by the English, the mentality of the slaveowner and the slave mentality still exist in the world today. It is reflected in Don Imus calling my African sisters “nappy-headed hos”, or Clarence Thomas sycophantic relationship with Antonin Scalia which tells Old Massa that he is still a good slave. It is reflected in the mentality of Condoleezza Rice propping up her Marse President and also in comedian Michael Richards rant that included what would have happened to Black men just 50 years ago.
I doubt if any African will have the shared experience that white commemorators want us to have especially when it comes to enslavement. My reflections on enslavement include the heroism of Nat, the courage of Paul Bogle, Bussa and Harriet. My reflections also pause when I ask the question how a people can capture a human being, shackle them, transport them, castrate them, rape them, work them for 300 years and then rationalize the behavior as being divinely ordained and scientifically justified.
What we can do is to seek racial reconciliation by linking forgiveness with atonement. I repeat: what we can do is to seek racial reconciliation by linking forgiveness with atonement. It is not enough to say that I am sorry without restitution. Put another way, apologies without atonement is a deserted road to racial reconciliation. Reparations are the only way to move from hollow apologies or “deep regrets” as Tony Blair puts it, to a true understanding of the greatest crime against humanity of the past millennium.