This piece was originally published at LEFT OUT Magazine.
The struggle for reparations is a movement that can be traced back to the days of reconstruction when Black Union soldiers sought compensation after their service during the Civil War. The movement has developed and evolved throughout the last century and a half, but the central demand remains: Black people are entitled to substantial compensation for centuries of oppression. However, a new formation within the reparations movement has adopted a problematic strategy to reach their political goals. Founded by political commentator Yvette Carnell and criminal defense attorney Antonio Moore, American Descendants of Slaves (ADOS) is a reformist movement whose primary goal is to close the racial wealth gap by obtaining reparations for African-Americans. Although the demand for reparations is justified, their tactics to achieve their goal are flawed. According to the ADOS website, the qualifications to receive reparations are: “An individual would have to provide reasonable documentation of at least one ancestor enslaved in the United States, and They would need to demonstrate they have identified as black, African American, Colored, or Negro on established legal documents for at least ten years before the onset of the program” Carnell and Moore’s argument for this is that African-Americans experience higher levels of poverty that results in a unique social and political oppression that other oppressed communities, including Black immigrants, do not face.
To a certain extent, it is understandable why Black folks in the ADOS movement want something that caters specifically to African-Americans’ material conditions. However, to exclude non-American Africans from the fight for reparations is not only counter-productive but ahistorical. Africans in the diaspora have struggled alongside African-Americans for liberation for generations. Prominent Black American thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois and Kwame Ture moved to Ghana because they understood the heart of our struggle was in Africa. The Black Panther Party of Self-Defense had an embassy in Algeria. When Denmark Vessey planned his rebellion, he claimed to have the support of newly liberated Haiti. More recently, there were protests in the US in support of the Nigerian struggle against SARS. Black people across the diaspora have always shown solidarity; to alienate our diasporic kin for more crumbs from the imperialist pie would be a disservice to them and our ancestors. The entire diaspora deserves reparations, not just African-Americans, we are all victims of colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism, and we all deserve to see these systems dismantled.
The tendency to prioritize African-American struggles for the right to reparations and intentionally exclude other Africans from the diaspora raises several critical questions about the ADOS movement’s political aims. What exactly does ADOS expect to gain from excluding other Africans? Does the ADOS movement not believe other diasporic Africans’ struggles qualify as a “Black issue?” Is the ADOS movement evidence that African-Americans are not immune to the vestiges of American exceptionalism? This essay will provide reasons for why the exclusion of the diaspora weakens the ADOS movement’s claim for reparations. With the understanding that reparations are an apology, the most pressing question that we must answer when it comes to this topic is: What will it take for the Black folks to forgive the United States? As stated earlier, there is an extensive history of prominent Black leaders and movements that adopted Pan-African principles. The ADOS movement seems to view reparations as pragmatic economic concessions to provide Black folks assistance to participate in inherently anti-Black political, economic, and social institutions. With Robin D.G. Kelley’s chronicling of the reparations movement in Freedom Dreams as a starting point, I would like to push current conversations regarding reparations further to the left. Movements like the New Afrikan Independence Movement (NAIM) laid the groundwork for what a radical demand for reparations can be. This essay will be grounded by those radical demands while analyzing the ADOS movement’s demands. Ultimately, this essay is advocating for contemporary formations within the movement to adopt a Black Internationalist framework when demanding reparations.
In Freedom Dreams, Kelley asserts the struggle for reparations “exposes the history of white privilege and helps us all understand how wealth and poverty are made under capitalism― particularly a capitalism shaped immeasurably by slavery and racism” (Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, 2002, pp. 110-134, 131). However, one could argue that the history of the reparations movement and the obstacles it has faced exposes the history of white power. The ability to deny reparations, shirk accountability for centuries of the exploitation and oppression of Black folks, and deny the right to determine our destiny indicates an immense amount of power white folks possess in the United States. Kelley traces the reparations movement back to the Civil War. Newly emancipated Black folks sought recompense for a lifetime’s worth of unpaid wages. Kelley recounts a story of a slave master asking a Black family he held captive to return. In the letter he sent them he promised: “freedom, good treatment, and fair wages” (Kelley, pp. 110-134, 111).In his response, the newly emancipated slave, Jourdan, requested back pay totaling over eleven thousand dollars plus interest to “test his sincerity” (Kelley, pp. 110-134, 111). In their eyes, this was not a handout but something they were entitled to after decades of unpaid labor. Not only did their slave masters become immensely wealthy off their stolen labor, but Black freedmen fought valiantly in defense of the Union against seditious rebels. The Special Field Order 15 of January 1865, issued by Union General William T. Sherman, was intended to mitigate some of the damage done by slavery while simultaneously compensating Black Union soldiers for their service (Kelley, pp. 110-134. 115). Coupled with the Confiscation Act of 1861, the field order was supposed to redistribute the land of former plantation owners to emancipated slaves so they can cripple the planter class and make Black folks self-sufficient. However, President Andrew Johnson stonewalled the legislation and returned the land to the treasonous Confederate plantation owners (Kelley, pp. 110-134. 115).
According to Kelley’s account of the reparations movement, demands for reparations have always been about more than a “paycheck and apology” (Kelley, pp. 110-134, 128). One could argue that money isn’t even the primary goal of reparations: “The demand for reparations was about social justice, reconciliation, reconstructing the internal life of Black America, and eliminating institutional racism”(Kelley, pp. 110-134, 114). From this perspective, reparations are not the end goal, but instead, a means to an end: self-determination and liberation. According to radical activist James Forman, “Reparations did not represent any kind of long-range goal on our minds but an intermediate step on the path to liberation”( Kelley, pp. 110-134, 123). This statement shows a sharp divergence from the contemporary ADOS movement, which views reparations as a vehicle to assimilation into the imperial core. For ADOS, reparations represent the opportunity to build individual wealth. According to “Queen Mother” Audley Moore, “a thoroughly democratic structure needed to be in place so that ordinary people could decide what to do with the money”(Kelley, pp. 110-134,119). The resources gained from reparations were never meant to be controlled by a select few. Reparations are to be “both substantial and community-controlled” (Kelley, pp. 110-134,119) to build industry and develop Black communities.
Free the Land: The Republic of New Afrika and the Pursuit of a Black Nation-State by Edward Onaci provides a history of the Republic of New Africa, an organization that focused on the goal of Black independence through the acquisition and development of land as a form of reparations. After the Black Power Movement of the twentieth century, the New Afrikan Independence Movement (NAIM) rose to prominence in the reparations movement. In Free the Land, Onaci investigates how participation in an organization like the RNA and a movement like NAIM influences individual lifestyle choices and shapes one’s political ideology. What distinguishes the RNA from other organizations in general and the ADOS, in particular, is the RNA’s emphasis on cultivating a New Afrikan identity and citizenship that was deeply rooted in a Pan-African global kinship.
The Republic of New Afrika had an audacious plan to secure a sovereign Black nation-state. The establishment of the RNA was a product of the Black Government Convention, organized by Gaidi and Imari Obadele in March 1968 (Onaci, Free the Land: the Republic of New Afrika and the Pursuit of o Black Nation-State, 2020). Prominent organizers like “Queen Mother” Audley Moore, Amiri Baraka, and Betty Shabazz were in attendance. During the event and along with the other attendees, they concluded that the only solution to the oppression Black folks in America face is to form an independent Black nation-state (Onaci, 2020). Embracing a new New Afrikan identity was a political proclamation to the world. They renounced American citizenship and declared their right to determine their destiny by establishing a Black Nation-State. The New Afrikan identity took on different meanings for the several individuals and formations within the NAIM. In “Why We Use New Afrikan,” the author declares New Afrikan “reflects our purpose as we desire freedom, self-determination, and independence.” According to Chokwe Lumumba in his article, “Reparations for New Afrikans in America,” New Afrika refers to “not only descendants of ex-slaves, but all Blacks living here now.” In addition to having a political definition, to be New Afrikan also had cultural connotations. According to The New Afrikan People’s Organization it often meant intentionally unlearning western social norms and cultivating a new culture that garnered “industriousness, responsibility, scholarship, and service.”
The cultivation of the complex New Afrikan identity distinguished the NAIM and RNA for several reasons. Championing for a sovereign Black nation-state as the only practical solution for reparations was a sharp divergence from prior movements’ goals and the rest of the Black Power Movement. In the RNA, to be New Afrikan meant more than a cultural identity, but it signified an entitlement to citizenship within the RNA. Conceptions of citizenship were also integral to demands for an independent nation-state. They argued that the white supremacist violence inflicted on Black folks coupled with the fact the 14th amendment naturalized newly emancipated slaves without their consent brought New Afrikans’ citizenship into question. Because of the compulsory citizenship into a country seemingly hellbent on the eradication of African-Americans, the RNA argued Black folks were entitled to the opportunity to determine where they hold citizenship.
The RNA’s conceptions of citizenship and Blackness differ drastically from the ADOS movement. While ADOS has a relatively arbitrary system in place to determine who is worthy of reparations, leaders of the RNA recognized the importance of an inclusive and global movement for reparations. The ADOS movement has several demands for reparations that include sizable tax credits, stronger affirmative action legislation, and a nebulous demand for prison reform. Although their proposed demands touch on several issues that plague the Black community, their website’s language is broad with no clear and concise plan. Instead of liberation, ADOS seeks assimilation to the same institutions that benefit from the exploitation and oppression of Black folks. They believe that making the distinction between ADOS and other African descendant people, and implementing strict parameters for biracial people, somehow makes their movement for reparations stronger. Instead of showing solidarity with the third world, ADOS makes it clear that they want their share of the spoils of imperialism. “Without reforms through transformative government, we will be left to continue living a third world life in a first world country.”
The narrow conceptions of Blackness and citizenship at the foundation of the ADOS movement’s demands for reparations hamper their ability to achieve their political goals. History has shown that the most impactful movements have had an explicitly internationalist political ideology. The RNA had an “Anti-Depression Program” that sought to economically develop Black communities outside of their proposed nation-state and did not discriminate based on where someone was born or if they have a non-Black parent. According to Kelley, the program was “deeply internationalist and humanist in that they call for the overthrow of all forms of oppression around the globe…” (Kelley, pp. 110-134, 126) ADOS does not have any programs or demands that resemble the RNA’s program. Their reasoning for alienating the rest of the African diaspora for the hopes of these meager economic concessions is deeply rooted in American exceptionalism and what Cathy Cohen calls “cross-cutting” in “The Boundaries of Black Politics.” The political aims of prior Black political organizations have been replaced due to “hidden differences, cleavages or fault lines in marginal communities” (Cohen, The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics, 2006, pp. 1-32, 9).
According to the ADOS website, because Africans were not migrating en masse before 1965, they did not have to endure the same levels of racism that African-Americans did. When one studies history, they would understand that racist legislation like the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 restricted non-European immigrants’ ability to enter the country, and the US’s extensive efforts to sow discord and destabilize newly liberated African countries created the conditions for African migration. Outside of this context, their argument makes sense, but that is not reality. The lack of historical analysis and understanding of the political economy in their political aims makes their movement futile.
The framing of reparations as the end goal creates space for reactionary and narrow formations. As stated earlier, reparations do not represent liberation but the vehicle to get there. In A History of Pan-African Revolt, C.L.R. James offers an account of newly emancipated African-Americans making demands for reparations centered around the land with achieving self-determination in mind. “The Negroes themselves knew what they wanted ― the land…” (James, A History of Pan-African Revolt, 2012, 60). Newly emancipated slaves made these demands with the understanding that land ownership was necessary to become self-sufficient and gave them the power to determine their destinies. Throughout the history of the struggle for reparations, the primary objective has always been self-determination, not assimilation. The desire to determine one’s destiny as an individual, community, or nation is the motivating force behind building movements towards reparations and Black Liberation globally.
In “Reparations for New Afrikans,” Chokwe Lumumba builds a legal case for reparations for Black folks. Lumumba was born in Detroit, Michigan; as Edwin Finley Taliaferro and came of age at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and became socially conscious at a young age as a result (Nangwaya, Jackson Rising: the Struggle for Economic Recovery and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi, 2017, pg 12). Lumumba followed the RNA to Jackson, MS, after the organization moved its headquarters there. After RNA members were involved in a gunfight with law enforcement, which resulted in two officers’ death and one wounded, Lumumba moved back to Detroit to finish his law degree. Although Lumumba was forced to move back home, he never renounced his involvement with the RNA or Black self-determination demands. As a lawyer, Lumumba provided legal assistance to political prisoners like Geronimo Pratt and Assata Shakur, and his politics remained rooted in the revolutionary vision of the RNA.
Due to his political leanings, Lumumba was also heavily involved in securing reparations in the courthouse. As previously stated, Lumumba clarified that New Afrikans include the descendants of slaves and all Black folks living in America. The political aims of securing reparations were also made clear, which is self-determination. Through a critical analysis of the fourteenth amendment, Lumumba argued the very amendment that legally “makes” Black folks full-citizens strips us of our ability to determine our destinies. The verbiage is important because Lumumba asserts:
By doing so, the fourteenth amendment “makes” New Afrikans Citizens of the United States. Sister Collins appears to assume that “making” New Afrikans citizens of the United States is both desirable and consistent with reparations and human rights principles. Both assumptions are wrong. “Making” free people citizens without their informed consent is, in fact, a limitation on their freedoms.
Before ADOS, radical movements rooted the reparations movement in Pan-African principles. It was Pan-Africanism that informed the RNA’s cultivation of a New Afrikan identity and global citizenship.
The ADOS’s demands for reparations are also centered around uplifting the individual, with more business loans and tax credits. For people who have entrepreneurial aspirations, this may be appealing, however, these would only serve as band-aids instead of solutions to the problem of the underdevelopment of Black communities. The RNA practiced the economic principle of ujamaa. For New Afrikans, ujamaa roughly translates to “cooperative economics” or “family-hood” (Onaci, pp.60). The implementation of this new economic system was intended to be the “antithesis of US society” by shifting from a consumerist, profit-driven, individualistic society to a “productive and cooperative” (Onaci, pp.60). Leaders in the RNA concluded that this communal economic development method was the only practical road to lifting Black folks out of poverty.
In “From Pan-Africanism to Black Internationalism,” Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly and Dr. Gerald Horne define Pan Africanism as: “ideas, modes of organizing, and movements preeminently concerned with the commonality of purpose among, and the social, political, and economic emancipation of African peoples on the Continent and in the Diaspora” (Rabaka et al. From Pan-Africanism to Black Internationalism, 2020, pp. 69-86, 70). The concern with the entire diaspora is a sharp contrast from the ADOS movement, which essentially strips Black folks in America of their African heritage and identity to integrate further into a society that historically rejects us. Suppose one understands that reparations are a means to the end, which is self-determination. In that case, the only practical conclusion should be to reach out to our diasporic kin to build a stronger reparations movement. By alienating the rest of the diaspora, the ADOS movement works in favor of the same oppressive institutions that created the conditions that make reparations necessary. Adopting Black internationalism, a subset of Pan-Africanism could help the ADOS movement become effective. Black internationalism emphasizes “Black proletarian agency, worker’s struggles, labor militancy, and immediate independence” and is “informed by and engaged with real-world struggles”(Rabaka et al. pp. 69-86, 70). There is no question that Black folks in the United States are entitled to reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and centuries of racist violence. There is also no question that the United States has caused insurmountable harm to Africans outside of the US. To deny that is to deny history and reality. Understanding that the demand for reparations is an attempt to hold America accountable for harm done to Black folks, excluding Black folks from the conversation contradicts what ADOS claims to be trying to achieve. Besides the impracticality of trying to distinguish between people who are deemed ADOS and other diasporic Africans and biracial Black folks, Africans are socialized and racialized the same as Black folks born in the US. This contradiction is the primary reason it would serve ADOS leaders to adopt Black internationalist principles, so they can build a movement “informed by and engaged with real-world struggles” (Rabaka et al. pp. 69-86, 70). The material reality of being Black in the United States makes the ADOS movement’s claim for reparations dead in the water. Only with an inclusive reparations movement can we begin to answer the question: What will it take for the Black folks to forgive the United States?