Let’s talk about reparations… yep in the UK too.

MONDAY JuLY 13th 2020

The case for reparations is something that you’ve most likely heard about before. Probably most recently in the context of America. 40 acres and a mule sound familiar? 


"According to Cambridge dictionary Reparations is defined as payment for harm or damage.” There’s been a few cases of reparations during history, most notably when the German government paid millions to Israel and the World Jew Federation to compensate for the Holocaust. This atonement was not limited to money. Germany also officially apologised to Israel on the world stage in 1952. Then in 2000, reparations were given to individuals too through the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future foundation. And, most recently Germany has paid around $1 billion towards the care of elderly Holocaust survivors. The key takeaway here is that Germany did not try to erase this dark part of their history but sought to move forward, take accountability and offered an open admission of guilt. In turn, this advanced German/Jewish relations and now Germany is home to Europe's fourth largest Jewish community. 


So back to America. In recent years conversations have turned to African Americans being compensated for slavery. For 250 years, African descents were taken from their homes and brought into a life of slavery and following that when they were emancipated, they were emancipated into a country that’s laws were never written for them. You know things like, redlining, the 13th amendment, segregation, Jim Crow laws, police brutality...the list goes on. 


So where did 40 acres and a mule come from? Well let’s refer to this Teen Vogue article - yes I said Teen Vogue…


“On January 12, 1865, Union General William T. Sherman and Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, met with a group of black leaders in Savannah, Georgia, to discuss what they wanted for their people. Reverend Garrison Frazier spoke on behalf of the group when he said that black people wanted to be free from ownership of white men, to be educated, and to own land.

Four days later, on January 16, 1865, Sherman called for the redistribution of land that had been confiscated from southern slave owners to newly freed slaves with his issue of Field Order No. 15. According to this order, 400,000 acres of land — from Charleston, South Carolina to Florida’s St. John’s River — was to be divided into forty-acre plots for the freed slaves. (Although it wasn’t in the order, he later authorized the army to loan mules to the new landowners). This is where the famous phrase “forty acres and a mule” comes from.

However, after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Andrew Johnson signed a proclamation that took the land back from the black people it was promised to, and gave it to the slaveholders who had owned it before. So the promise of forty acres was never delivered upon, leaving black people with nothing to start their newly liberated lives.”


So, effectively although free, Black Americans started their new life on the back foot and let’s be honest, trying to catch up with their White counterparts was more than difficult. Systemic racism is at every corner of the American tapestry, and whilst the nation appears to be potentially awaking from its 400 year slumber, the case for reparations should be one of the top things on its list to discuss. 


However, my UK friends and family. We have a duty to Black British people to discuss reparations here too and before you throw your toys out of the pram, let me just start with this fun fact. 


The government pledged in 1833 £20 million in order to reimburse the owners of slaves when slavery was abolished in Britain. The sum, while big now, was monstrous in 1833, and it took the British taxpayer 182 years to pay off.


This my darling Brits, means this debt was not paid off in full until 2015 and that money was coming from our taxes. 


So, what does that mean? Let’s take the Windrush generation and their descendants for example. They moved over here in 1948 onwards and worked and paid taxes. The taxes they were paying were going towards a loan that paid off the very people, who enslaved their ancestors. Messed up much? And it’s the same for those of the African Diaspora, whose ancestors were forced into the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the first place.


And that is just the start. Black British journalist Afua Hirsch, once asked a British Cabinet Minister why the UK has never publicly apologised for the Slave Trade. He explained to her that the UK cannot apologise, because the case against it – watertight in moral and ethical terms – might then become legal too. In short, Britain won’t use the language of apology, out of fear this might pave the way for reparations.


But you know, they’ve got Windrush Day right? And it’s not fair to hold this generation accountable for something our ancestors did, surely? Well then, why was it ok for Black British people to pay the compensation of “hard done by” British slave owners.


The fact is our world is geared to penalise Black people, through messed up laws to bias and racial profiling. How can we expect an entire race to build themselves back up after hundreds of years of unfair treatment, if we don’t give them the proper support to do it? Yes a lot of this starts with education, but it’s also going to have to start with a complete economic mindset shift. 


To learn more about the case for reparations in the US watch this video of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking to Congress


And to learn about the case for reparations in the UK watch this video Ssuuna Golooba-Mutebi debating at Oxford Union