I love October. Not only is it Black History Month in Britain; it is my birth month also. My personal history is that in September 1968 I arrived in England from Jamaica as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 15-year-old, and 48 years later, on 24 October this year, I will have reached the grand old age of 64! Just where did those years go? No wonder the Psalmist says to God, ‘You have made my days a mere handbreadth.’ Unless I live to a record-breaking age, most of my lifetime is now behind me. So, as I approach my twilight years – a slightly older friend once described this phase of life as ‘sitting in the departure lounge’ – my attention turns to the question of how I can bequeath a good future to my children, grandchildren and the society I will inevitably leave behind. No, I am not trying to sound morbid, just facing the reality of my mortality.
The majority of my life so far has seen me domiciled in Britain, a country that, in spite of all its supposed values of democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance, has seen people who look like me suffer racial discrimination and disadvantage on a massive scale. From outright in-your-face personal to structural and institutional racism. From overrepresentation in poor education outcomes to overrepresentation in the criminal justice system – there are proportionately more Black people in British prisons than in American ones. From disproportionally poor health outcomes to disproportionally absent from the boardrooms, councils, parliament and wherever social, economic and political power is wielded.
Neither is disproportionality a new phenomenon. This can be traced back to several points of departure. The one I choose is the forced capture, displacement, chattel enslavement, slave trade abuse and usury of my African ancestors over hundreds of years. The disadvantage perpetuated when, in 1834, forced to bring slavery to an end in British occupied territories, Britain with Rothschild money paid slave owners £20 million, and not only compensated the enslaved nothing, but made them work a further four years of unpaid apprenticeship for their slave masters and slave mistresses. Slave owners got richer, the enslaved got poorer, if that were possible. And, when Britain and Europe tried to reconcile themselves to their loss of enslaved human resources, they carved up Africa between themselves to the further detriment of African people and place.
And, as if to rub salt into open wounds, Professor Beckles in his book, Britain’s Black Debt – Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide, describes how in 2001, at the UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, Britain and other European-complicit allies argued successfully that, although slavery and slave trading should have been a crime when it was practised by them, it wasn’t and therefore they are not liable for settling reparative justice for the descendants of those they enslaved and traded. What a travesty! The result of course is to widen the gulf between the descendants of slave owners and the enslaved.
Such is the chasm that recently, when I was in Jamaica on a sabbatical, I realised that my birth-island in trying to keep pace in post-independence has had to be paying up to 70% of its annual income in debt repayment. Former Prime Minister, the late Michael Manley, described the scenario as Jamaica trying to get to the second floor of international economic development on a down escalator! Such is the impossible task of playing catch-up, when the powers have stolen your wealth and then lent it back to you at rates that mean you can never keep pace with their economic, scientific, infrastructural and other advancement. I learned that while some Jamaicans do very well indeed, almost half my birth island’s young population (almost 50% under 25 years of age) live below the UN’s definition of the poverty line, and almost half its young people are unemployed; health services are limited, and that’s despite there being in Jamaica some of the smartest people on the planet. Disadvantage is entrenched nationally and internationally.
Indeed, entrenched disadvantage is not just a British and Caribbean problem. We see similar challenges wherever in the world people have been enslaved, colonised and inferiorised. To add insult to injury, African peoples have been pressganged and coaxed into fighting each other for the colonial masters in two World Wars, losing thousands if not millions of lives; and that is quite apart from tearing themselves asunder, having been thrust together across ethnic, language and cultural divides that had existed for thousands of years before being ‘discovered’ by Europeans.
The cheapening of Black humanity in the mind and eyes of the European has had a strange effect upon many people of African descent. Many dislike self – history, colour, culture – and have fallen in love with the other, needing their acceptance even greater the more the rejection. Some of us in theology have done what Victor Anderson, in his book Beyond Ontological Blackness, calls ‘embracing the Blackness Whiteness created’. One defined by opposition to White privilege and White racism; Blackness defined by oppression, suffering and survival; what Anderson calls ‘ontological Blackness’. Anderson insists going beyond ontological Blackness.
Let me be clear. I love all people, because I believe all are created in the image and likeness of the Creator God. None, therefore, is superior to me. And, what’s more, where historic or contemporary wrongs have been committed that have blighted the life chances of God’s children, reparations are called for. Restitution is needed where you have taken someone else’s ‘property’ and continue to benefit from it. We can’t walk together on the road of unity, justice and peace, while I am naked and you wear my clothes; your belly is full, while I suffer from malnutrition; you have house, land and all the creature comforts, while I walk the stony road barefooted. Justice and peace will kiss each other when peace is sought and made through restitution, reparations. Some have responded in recent times by launching reparation initiatives of various sorts, with the intention of taking Britain and others to the United Nations Court.
Some see the disproportionate use of firearms by the police to kill Black people in America as a sign of the insignificance some others attach to Black people’s lives. Here in Britain there is a growing phenomenon of disproportionate Black deaths in police custody. Little wonder, then, that there have been the more than occasional riot and the recent importation from America of the Black Lives Matter campaign. What is not clear to me is at whom the proponents of Black Lives Matter are aiming their campaign. The same people and systems to whom Black lives have not mattered for the past hundreds of years? Why should Black lives matter to racist individuals and systems now? Because you chain yourselves to concrete, block traffic and inconvenience some people? I doubt that very much. The attention from the press may be intoxicating, but the effects of Black Lives Matter are likely to be limited. As someone has pointed out, Black lives hardly matter to Black people. Some of us have believed the lie that Black lives don’t matter, and we may need to convince ourselves first before we try to convince an unbelieving world. Why is it, for example, that some Black people won’t, can’t date – let alone marry – anyone who looks like themselves? Self-hate?
In a recent speech, Nation of Islam Minister, Louis Farrakhan, said the reason Britain and other European countries were able to tell those making a case in Durban in 2001 for reparations for slavery, the slave trade and genocide in the Caribbean and the Americas to ‘go to hell’ was because the descendants of enslaved Africans pose little or no threat to their powerful interests. Power recognises power. Power does not recognise and react to weakness, except to exploit it.
So during this October Black History Month, as I look forward, I am looking forward in the spirit of Jesus’ teaching that kingdoms are taken by force; by Marcus Garvey’s teaching that the only determination that earns respect is self-determination, and by the truism that power among humans is never given, it is only ever taken. I want my children and grandchildren to know that God helps those who help themselves. That liberation takes place first in the mind, before it can be externalised. That Bob Marley and Garvey tell us to ‘emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds’. Having said all this, my Black to the Future message is quite simple: We must now make our own history. We must stop begging others to respect us. Stop it. Stop telling others that Black lives matter, and make Black lives matter. When Black lives matter, it will matter not just to Black people but to others. When Black lives matter, others will listen to what Black people have to say because they will know that if they don’t, they will be harming their own interests that are in Black hands. This already exists in miniature, but must become metapraxis.
I am totally committed to reparations as repair and compensation, but not as something to beg for. To get your stuff from the guy who stole it you’ve got to be strong. So, to my children and grandchildren, I say become strong in four key areas if you want your stuff back. First, become strong socially, especially in academic, cultural and vocational education. Second, become strong economically, especially in business, spend less than you earn, save and invest. Third, become strong politically, especially in civic and electoral offices in local and national government. Fourthly, become strong spiritually, especially by throwing off the forms of religiosity that discourage thinking – and this does not mean rejecting Christianity, because Christianity was in Africa long before some others that claim the opposite. When Black people, African-descended people, become strong socially, economically, politically and spiritually, we will attain reparations through strength not by begging for pity or love. God has already placed all humanity at the table of divine love and favour; Black people must sit and play our part. Let’s build a future on strength, in community with others, always making Black presence felt within police forces, for example, and everywhere else. God’s multicultural future for humanity includes a strong Black presence. Let’s take Black to the future!
Bishop Dr Joe Aldred
Broadcaster, Ecumenist, Speaker, Writer
Author of several books and articles, including ‘From Top Mountain – An Autobiography’, published by Hansib