Frederick Douglass was quite hopeful about the Black person’s place in the post-emancipation United States and was vocally opposed to the campaign to relocate people of African descent to the African continent.
Ironically, in the same year, 1852, that Douglass famously asked, What To The American Slave Is Your Fourth of July? , he also said:
“…while there is personal liberty in the Northern States for the colored people, while they have the privilege to educate their children, to speak and write out their sentiments, to petition, and in some instances, and with some qualifications, to exercise the right of suffrage, the time has not come for them to emigrate from these States to any other country, and last of all, to the wilds of Africa.”
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In 1870, he was even surer of the lost connection with Africa, declaring, “Our future is here” in the United States. Historian Daniel Kilbride argues quite convincingly that Douglass had no qualms with Africa but rather, the famous abolitionist believed descendants of enslaved Africans had become irredeemably part of Anglo-American civilization.
Much later than the 19th century, the sentiments that would coalesce into a whole political faction within Black America trace their philosophy to the thoughts of one of the most astute Black men in American history.
The American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) is a movement that calls for the prioritization of the concerns of Black American people whose American heritage was compelled by slavery. ADOS make a sort of moral argument that the labors of their forefathers which actualized America’s potential puts ADOS first in line to receive any sort of corrective giveback that seeks to recompense the past.
ADOS insist on their right not to be lumped together with other minorities of African origin and may be quick to point out who is not one of them. The nomination of California senator Kamala Harris as running mate to Democratic nominee Joe Biden has rekindled the activity of ADOS on social media.
Some ADOS do no even want to be called ‘African-American’ and still, a section of ADOS is opposed to lax immigration policies that may bring in a lot of Black people from Africa and the Caribbean.
We may ignore the extreme idiosyncrasies of some ADOS. But we cannot deny that the ADOS project is a response to the issue of reparation.
Reparation has now been mainstreamed in tandem with increasing recognition that Black women have been the most loyal supporters of the Democratic Party in the last few decades. All of the Democratic presidential hopefuls supported in one form or the other, reparation to America’s Black people.
But most in the ADOS movement believe reparative justice should begin and probably end with them. That is a tricky place from which to proceed when the term “Black community” is used loosely yet decidedly purposeful in daily discourse.
Even if it were not a political movement, we cannot deny the reality of those Martin Luther King Kr. called the “descendants of slavery”. It is also not prudent to argue that these descendants do not possess a unique place in the story of America.
But ADOS is also a very divisive agenda, even if well-intended. And it has sown discord that will only benefit those who seek to avoid the issue of reparations altogether.
So how then do we recognize the uniqueness of descendants and still make reparations available to more varied sections of America’s “Black community”?
Here goes my case, inter alia, with faults.
Slavery was bigger than those who made it to the Americas
Among Black Americans who are not enthused about being referred to as “African-Americans”, there exists a pernicious myth that the Africans who were sold into slavery were sold off by a kinfolk who knew exactly where the slave ships were going.
It is understandable to feel betrayed by learning that Europeans bought some of your African descendants from other free Africans. It is another thing to place at equal moral degrees the African participation in the Transatlantic slave trade and that of the Europeans.
The argument of moral equation should even be more difficult to make judging from the evidence of post-slavery oppression in the Americas and colonization in Africa. The Europeans certainly did not need African help in either Jim Crow or colonization and colonizers were not any kinder to Africans on the continent.
Meeting the Europeans has left a sour taste in the mouths of Black people both on the mother continent and in the diaspora, half a millennium later. We, today, speak of “Black people” as a recognizable community who share verifiable history in relation to Europeans.
Author Hortense Spillers writes of the Middle Passage severing the ties that bind; from that point, we spoke of Africans in dispersion as if they were no longer Africans. This fracture is what Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, as well as W.E.B DuBois worked on, to create a philosophy of community.
An easy example of the result of the work these men put in can be measured by the African response to the recent unfortunate extrajudicial murder of George Floyd. From the slums of East Africa, the upper terraces in the south and on the coast of West Africa, Floyd, an American, was remembered as one of Africa’s.
There is as much to be said about what Africa lost as there is to be said about what Africans gave to the United States of America. And one does not trounce the other.
When some decide to exploit the tensions between Black Americans and Black immigrants, it is white supremacy, in all its forms, that wins. Racialized capitalism can afford to keep out a house divided for as long as necessary.
Luckily, a different proposition than ADOS’ already exists. Black intellectual history in the US alone offers various arguments for an internationalist construction of Black Identity.
They were dismissed by some Black people as hardliners, perhaps to calm the fears of white powerbrokers but the likes of Kwame Ture and Malcolm X provided grounds for the answers we seek today.
Malcolm said in Accra, Ghana in 1964:
“I don’t feel that I am a visitor in Ghana or in any part of Africa. I feel that I am at home. I’ve been away for four hundred years, but not of my own volition, not of my own will. Our people didn’t go to America on the Queen Mary, we didn’t go by Pan American, and we didn’t go to America on the Mayflower. We went in slave ships, we went in chains. We weren’t immigrants to America, we were cargo for purposes of a system that was bent upon making a profit.”
It may sound simplistic to argue that Black immigrants to the States who may receive reparations are only plucking from the tree that their kinfolk sowed. It is a simplistic argument but it is not nonsense.