Black History Month: We must resist attempts to undermine the fight for truth, justice and reparations
The recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II has raised more conversations about the monarchy’s role in slavery, colonialism, and how the past continues to shape the present.
This was the theme during a recent CNN interview that went viral for all the wrong reasons.
The exchange between the US anchor Don Lemon and British Royal commentator Hilary Fordwich, was illuminating both because of what they said, and the way that people responded to it online.
During the discussion, Lemon raised the question about the Royal Family paying reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans, given the institution’s historical role. Fordwich subsequently went on to spin reality on its head.
''In reality, there is a cognitive dissonance and wilful amnesia among millions when it comes to understanding Britain’s role in the slave trade and the extent to which the Royal Family benefited from it. This includes the fact that Queen Elizabeth I signed off on Britain’s early slave trading expeditions which were led by one of England’s first slave traders, John Hawkins.''
The commentator responded by effectively suggesting that black people are to blame for their own enslavement. She mentioned Africans who sold other Africans into slavery, highlighting the “supply chain,” as she describes it.
First of all, supply without demand is redundant, and European demand for slavery facilitated the trade. Secondly, to follow Fordwich’s logic, would presumably also mean that Jews are to blame for the Holocaust, because a few Jews collaborated with Nazis in selling their own people out – such reasoning is preposterous.
Fordwich went on to suggest that Britain ought to be given credit for being the first nation to abolish slavery. Not only is this not true – Haiti became the first nation to outlaw slavery entirely by 1804 – but in reality, Britain became the leading slave trading nation, with the Royal African Company alone forcing greatest number of Africans into slavery.
Britain gets no credit for eventually doing the right thing, which in any case was not inspired from moral conviction but from the understanding that slaves could no longer be controlled. This was evidenced by the rebellions in Haiti, Jamaica, and elsewhere. There was certainly no liberal epiphany. In fact, some abolitionists had even invested in the slave trade, including John Locke who was known as the “father of liberalism” and was an investor in the Royal African Company.
In the words of Malcolm X, “you don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.”
It also doesn’t end there.
Fordwich lands her plane by suggesting that reparations should be considered for the descendants of Royal Navy seamen who died at sea as they “tried to stop the slavery”, as she puts it.
One has to wonder whether in her call for reparations to first be sought from Africans – those she considers to be the starting point of the slavery “supply chain”- also means they are expected to pay the decedents of European navel men?
Her entire argument is an incredible trivialisation of the slave trade and chattel slavery. It also completely derailed from the main question Lemon posed: the legitimate concern people have about accountability regarding crimes against humanity when it comes to the British monarchy.
Sadly, Fordwich’s perspective is not a unique one. Her Interview has been reposted all over the internet, usually with titles along the lines of “Don Lemon Owned”, or “Destroyed”, despite the fact that Fordwich’s argument was full of holes.
It feels like as long as people keep challenging whitewashed history – which the Black Lives Matter movement has shaped in recent years – people like Fordwich will be given space to repeat falsehoods for “balance” . And, as long as that’s the case, those falsehoods must be publicly challenged.
In reality, there is a cognitive dissonance and wilful amnesia among millions when it comes to understanding Britain’s role in the slave trade and the extent to which the Royal Family benefited from it. This includes the fact that Queen Elizabeth I signed off on Britain’s early slave trading expeditions which were led by one of England’s first slave traders, John Hawkins.
We don’t know exactly how much wealth was accumulated from the Royal African Company through slavery, but historians agree it was significant. Hundreds of thousands of human beings were transported to Britain’s colonies, tens of thousands died on the journey, and countless more perished due to back breaking forced labour and murder.
As we mark the start of Black History Month in the UK, it’s vital to ensure it is those who speak truth to power who are heard, supported and even celebrated.
There needs to be an acknowledgment of past crimes, and even if Britain seems far from reaching this point, the fight for historical justice must continue.
We have to be clear that a real acknowledgment for the impacts of hundreds of years of slavery and colonialism, and their ongoing effects today, must include reparations as well as a formal apology. Don Lemon was right to raise the matter.
There’s no way to move forward until the past is addressed and a fair, honest discussion about reparations takes place. Make no mistake, people among the diaspora whose ancestors were enslaved, are not looking for a handout. They want what belongs to them: justice.
Richard Sudan is a journalist and writer specialising in anti-racism and has reported on various human rights issues from around the world. His writing has been published by The Guardian, Independent, The Voice and many others.
Follow him on Twitter: Follow him on Twitter: @richardsudan
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.