By E. San Juan, Jr.
Let us not forget that in the Negro people, there sleep and are now awakening passions of a violence exceeding, perhaps,…anything among the tremendous forces that capitalism has created. Anyone who knows them, who knows their history, is able to talk to them intimately,…must recognize that although their social force may not be able to compare with the social force of a corresponding number of organized workers, the hatred of bourgeois society and the readiness to destroy it when the opportunity should present itself, rests among them to a degree greater than in any other section of the population in the United States.
–C.L.R. JAMES, “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the USA” (1948; 1992)
As a slave, the social phenomenon that engages my whole consciousness is, of course, revolution. The slave—and revolution.
–GEORGE JACKSON, Blood in My Eye (1972)
The end of the twentieth century witnessed a universal recognition of the horror of genocide and the reciprocal need to compensate the survivors of such catastrophes. One such expression is the ongoing reparations movement for the victims of slavery and colonization in the United States the groundwork of which was laid by the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Slave trade, slavery, apartheid, and colonialism were judged as “crimes against humanity.” As Fidel Castro put it: “What is undeniable is that tens of millions of Africans were captured, sold like commodity and sent beyond the Atlantic to work in slavery while 70 million indigenous people in that hemisphere perished as a result of the European conquest and colonization” (2001, 24). Historians such as Walter Rodney (1982), Eric Williams (1944), and others have cogently documented this unprecedented holocaust.
We need to face the outrage of this commodity system that continue to wreak havoc today. Since any vision of a caring and nurturant future can only be extrapolated from the persistence of the past in the present, a critical analysis of conjunctures is imperative. How can restitution be made for past wrongs so as to undo what has been done to an entire people? What is problematic is the paradox of the solution: justice conceptualized as a fair exchange of values, the compensation for labor-power expropriated from the slave, follows of course from a liberal understanding of value as a product of free labor. However, it reveals in its fold the real inequality of the parties involved: the slave’s labor was coerced, her/his freedom alienated from her/him. As everyone admits, this inequality (impervious to market calculation) includes not only the deep psychological trauma of free persons being enslaved but also the disastrous social and political structures that have damaged the lives of the survivors—something “non-reparable or “incompensational “ (Martin and Yaquinto 2004, 22). Can deprivation of freedom be repaired or rectified by an attempt at “equal” exchange? Can disparity of life chances be remedied by equality before the law of the market?
In this essay I want to explore briefly this disjuncture between the form and substance of the reparations dilemma, and its feasible resolution, by using as touchstones certain heuristic observations by Du Bois, George Jackson, and Mumia Abu-jamal concerning the passage of the African American people from slavery to bourgeois democracy.
History discloses the instructive duplicity of the emancipation narrative. In his classic testimony The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois evokes the melancholy time of the destruction of the South’s plantation empire and the transformation of the slave into that “the most piteous thing,” the black freedman. Using his uncanny feel for dialectical twists and turns, Du Bois describes the irony of the “mockery of freedom” in the wake of the Reconstruction :
Not a cent of money, not an inch of land, not a mouthful of victuals,–not even ownership of the rags on his back. Free! On Saturday, once or twice a month, the old master, before the war, used to dole out bacon and meal to his Negroes. And after the first flush of freedom wore off, and his true helplessness dawned on the freedman, he came back and picked up his hoe, and old master still doled out his bacon and meal. The legal form of service was theoretically far different; in practice, task-work or “cropping” was substituted for daily toil in gangs; and the slave gradually became a metayer, or tenant on shares, in name, but a laborer with indeterminate wages in fact. (1965, 308-09).
The transition was not linear but disingenuously warped. While the Union’s victory abolished the trappings of chattel slavery, it introduced an illusory form of liberation, the serf-like class of share-croppers. The change was a sleight-of-hand conversion of status and objective identity in the web of social relations. The Reconstruction promise of “forty acres and a mule” brought the former slave from the auction block to the ballot box; but it clearly did not bring economic independence via land ownership. It was an intermediary stage between the slave’s total lack of ownership of his body and its capacities and the worker’s right to sell “freely” his labor-power in the capitalist market. The ex-slaves were “free,” not legally owned; but they were unable to participate fully in decision-making processes concerning their collective fates.
There may have been justice of the liberal sort implemented after 1865, but how about substantive life and efficacious liberty for the black nation? Du Bois focuses on this transitional stage as a microcosmic scene in which the obsolescence of slavery registers itself in two ways: the dependence of the former slave on the “old master” has become detached, the organic ties between lord and “his Negroes” dissolved, while the “freedman” subsists on “indeterminate wages,” now dependent on a force that imposes an illusion of liberty which proves more ruthless than the paternalistic reign of the dispenser of “bacon and meal.”
What Du Bois tried to dramatize in that quoted passage from his allegorical narrative is the irony of emancipation within the racial polity of the United States. He sought to trace the dialectical movement of the totality: the negation of one part coexists with the sublation of another into a different level of significance. The destruction of chattel slavery in the South precipitated a dynamic social mutation that both released the African slave from ownership only to imprison him in the deceptive thrall of another condition: wage-slavery. This is a learning process registered by the protagonists of this particular historical conjuncture. Du Bois sums up the lesson: the appearance of change disguises but also reveals a reality with an ethical demand: capitalism needs to be exposed as complicit in the persistence of subordination and permanence of racialized hierarchy. The change in form has to be recognized, but the lack of change in substance also admitted.
The reparations movement for America’s “holocaust” enunciated by the Black Manifesto captures the hidden double movement of meanings unveiled by Du Bois. The major premise stems from “the historical fact that the United States was constitutionally founded on slavery and that the persistence of racial inequality and injustice in American society is derived from slavery” (Martin and Yaquinto 2004, 3) Given the damage wrought by slavery and its consequences, justice can be rendered only if indemnification is made through the juridical intercession of the state. Such compensation—a demand for a just share–is based on the contribution of the entire African American nation to the economic wealth of the country. Such a claim requires a disruption of the mirage of political change (from servitude to parity), and a grasp of the real motion transpiring in consciousness and in the praxis of collectivities engaged in social production. This encapsulates the succinct answer to the objection that reparation is futile because past crimes cannot be undone, the dead parties—the guilty perpetrator and the victims–cannot be brought back to life, and history must start anew.
Du Bois has precisely pointed out that the crime is continuing in its effects: segregation, dependency. Despite surface alterations, the unequal position of the parties remain unaffected (even though the specific members of the group occupying the positions may have changed). What is implied in Du Bois’ account is that the social contract can become operative again if contingent rules and norms are put on trial when the principle of justice is made answerable to the substantive universal values of life and freedom, as embodied in the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The resonance of those values are reaffirmed and elaborated in the United Nations Charter and its foundational principles.
A crime has been committed, to be sure, but where is the “body,” as it were, the encountered evidence? While the ideals of justice and equality are definitely the two motive-forces that underpin the demand for reparations, I think the movement is far more significant in its educational and practical implications. First of all, it has revived an interest in the understanding of historical causality and the critique of accountability. What made possible the condition of humans being treated as a privately owned commodities? What perpetuates this denial of their control over their labor and their fruits, and over the quality of their own reproduction? Why can the slaveowner grant manumission in acient Rome, for example, without affecting the system of slavery, unlike that of the ante-bellum South? A slave’s life is generally equated to involuntary labor, with non-economic compulsion enabling its reproduction. Who is accountable for it? Who can be held responsible for its long-term effects, its impact on psyches and the communal memory? Is just retribution—say, the return of stolen property–an end in itself or only a means to the discovery (if not invention) of a more all-encompassing ethico-political concept of justice? These are some of the questions provoked by the resurgence of this campaign for indemnification of the victims of a system that has been abolished and yet survives as an unhealable wound of the body politic.
The existence of slave society in the New World (in the U.S. as well as in the Caribbean and Brazil) was a historical anomaly. In 1857 Marx observed: “The fact that we now not only call the plantation owners in America capitalists, but that they are capitalists, is based on their existence as anomalies within a world market based on free labour” (1973, 513). As Eugene Genovese (1969) has shown, this anomaly is captured in the slaveholders’ belief in their unlimited patriarchal authority even as implacable world-market forces and ascendant bourgeois hegemony eroded the moribund paternalistic ethos, unleashing the racist violence immanent in the system.
The apparent incongruity of the “unfree” (slave) inhabiting the terrain of the “free” (laissez-faire market) disappears if we apply the two analytic concepts of social formation and mode of production. While the U.S. then may be defined as chiefly an emergent capitalist social formation from the time of its independence to the Civil War, one can discern in it two discordant modes of production: the slave mode in the South and the mercantile-industrial one in the North. The triumph of the juridical framework of capitalism (based on Lockean principles of alienable labor, etc.) and its state machinery led to the legal abolition of slavery in 1865. This is a clear sign that New World slavery was not similar to that in Graeco-Roman societies where slavery was not abolished by a legal act but by a long period of evolution when it was eventually superseded by another kind of dependent labor (serfdom) which became dominant, even though chattel slaves continued to exist up the late Middle Ages. What is clear, however, is that the elite in the U.S. South was mainly parasitic on coerced labor for its wealth and reproduction (Finley 1983, 441). Reconstruction eliminated the practice of coercion, the aristocratic habitus (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992), only to replace it with that of the market legitimized by Constitutional amendments, and (after 1877) by wholesale fraud, Jim Crow laws, and vigilante violence.
In effect, slavery in the U.S. performed a dual function. It was part of the social relations of production and simultaneously of reproduction. The labor of the slave yielded surplus value (value realized over and above the cost of its reproduction, or profit) that accumulated as capital within the world market of alienable labor, as Marx remarked. This became the basis of the political power of the plantation regime and its successor in Jim Crow. At the same time, this productivity, enabled by non-economic force (violence synchronized with tradition, rituals and other pedagogical, disciplinary apparatuses), reinforced the juridical and ideological mutation of the system. What is reproduced is the racist legitimation of the entire social order based on private ownership of land and other vital means of production.
Now the ideology that rationalized the political exclusion of the black nation was racism in its various ramifications. In late-nineteent century culture, racism functioned as a theory that certain human types are superior morally and intellectually and therefore have the right to subordinate, dominate and exploit other types regarded as inferior on the basis of ascribed qualities and imputed characteristics. Such a theory, in the aftermath of the Nazi defeat in World War II, has been repudiated by the UNESCO Statements of 1950, 1964 and 1967 (Montagu 1972). But it is the persistence of this racist ideology in various disguises and its institutional machinery that distinguishes the U.S. racial polity from other societies where diverse forms of slavery continue to exist (as in India where a debtor can be treated as property, in Peru or Brazil where plantation workers are held in bondage), although the existence of domestic servants (illegal Indonesian immigrants) sold to wealthy Los Angeles homes (Cashmore 1984, 284) may be a symptom of the return of the phase of early capitalist primitive accumulation to a postmodern globalized economy.
At this juncture I would like to proceed to the topic of the repercussions of this modern historical phenomenon in the whole polity. How do we estimate the resonance and legacy of slavery, segregation, and colonization in the social fabric of U.S. modernity? The economist Glenn Loury (2000) has argued that instead of demanding a “money settlement” or any kind of indemnity to correct the racist past, we need to invoke “national fellowship and comity,” presumably a higher moral order, that would bring reconciliation between the conflicting parties similar to the aim of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This certainly repudiates mere formal exchange of commodified values, the norm and rule of a market-centered society. But lacking equality, which is not an independent universal value but a necessary condition for “the complete and unfailing actualization of the values of life and freedom” (Heller 1987, 122), these latter two being the authentic universal values, what is the point of “national fellowship and comity”? Indeed, before such a level of moral enlightenment can be attained, we need to go through the complex mediations of historical development to grasp the import of the axiomatic values of life and freedom. This is the route which George Jackson, the author of the highly influential collection of prison letters Soledad Brother (1972), took before he was killed in Quentin Prison on August 21, 1971, two days before the opening of his trial.
Jackson symbolizes, in Manning Marable’s (1983) assessment, “the plight of the Black domestic periphery” that has suffered severe underdevelopment, the result of integration into the predatory world-market economy after slavery and segregation. For stealing $70, Jackson languished for more than ten years in inhumane jails—a crime against property usually merits one to five years in prison for a black person. Assassinated in prison at the age of 31, Jackson’s life epitomized the demand for freedom and meaningful life, not just equity alone: “Underdevelopment and the imprisonment of the Black masses will not die a natural death until the real criminals within America’s powerful ruling class taste something of the bitter anguish that distorts and cripples the Black majority” (1983, 130).
For Jackson, emancipation of the slave ushered a period of internal colonialism, the “free” subject willing or consenting to be ruled. In a letter to his lawyer, Jackson comments on how blacks embrace capitalism as “the most outstanding example of man against himself that history can offer.” In the process he emphasizes the continuity and disruption in the lives of African Americans after the Civil War. We return to Du Bois’ perception of duplicity which needs to be clarified in this way:
After the Civil War, the form of slavery changed from chattel to economic slavery, and we were thrown onto the labor market to compete at a disadvantage with poor whites. Ever since that time, our principal enemy must be isolated and identified as capitalism. The slaver was and is the factory owner, the businessman of capitalist Amerika, the man responsible for employment, wages, prices, control of the nation’s institutitions and culture. It was the capitalist infrastructure of Europe and the U.S. which was responsible for the rape of Africa and Asia…. Imperialism took up where the slave trade left off. It wasn’t until after the slave trade ended that Amerika, England, France, and the Netherlands invaded and settled in on Afro-Asian soil in earnest. As the European industrial revolution took hold, new economic attractions replaced the older ones; chattel slavery was replaced by neo-slavery. Capitalism, “free” enterprise, private ownership of public property armed and launched the ships and fed the troops; it should be clear that it was the profit motive that kept them there (1972, 176).
Several points need to be underlined here. First, the shift to wage-slavery entailed the new mask of the property-owner as the businessman who runs the factories and also administers the entire cultural/ideological order—the split between economic structure and ideological “superstructure” disappears. The producers reproduce their own condition of domination. Second, it was this logic of accumulation that underpinned imperial conquest and trade in slavery—colonial conquest led to the capture of dark-skinned natives, the plunder of their habitats, and their subsequent transport to distant lands where they were sold and forced to work. Capitalism as the infrastructure of “neo-slavery,” Jackson contends, is the necessity that compelled the ruling classes of Europe and the United States to invade and possess colonies, this time driven by a new contradiction: “private ownership of public property,” the usurpation of social wealth for private gain. We have finally reached the stage of imperialism when formal liberal rights serve to disguise its twin half, the alternative face of fascist authoritarian domination, as lived by millions of African Americans in prison or its counterpart, the ghettos and inner cities..
The historical plot of causation charted by Jackson seems to impose a surface logic of linear duration and inevitability to the whole enterprise of slavery and its metamorphosis. This is not exactly a valid inference. Grounded on his commitment to radical political change, the central preoccupation of Jackson’s thought concerns the subject-position of the former slave—how is her/his bodily movement determined, how is collective agency and its libidinal expressions circumscribed by the new configuration of space/time in post-bellum America? This exceeds the functional analysis of racism or race prejudice as the rationale for exploitation since Jackson poses the question why those “freed” could not grasp and outgrow the character of their subjugation. Notwithstanding the relative autonomy of the ideological sphere from the economic determinant, racism is not simply a reflex attitude completely divorced from the material conditions that sustain and enable it. As Barbara Fields succinctly formulates the materialist hypothesis: “If the slaveholders had produced white supremacy without producing cotton, their class would have perished in short order” (1990, 112). The same holds for the proprietors/owners of transnational corporations and their political representatives in the epoch of Homeland Security and the pre-emptive imperialist war against terrorism.
What justifies this intervention to elucidate the links between chattel and wage slavery? Underlying the overarching historical pattern, the semblance of continuity, behind the varying shapes of quotidian phenomena, Jackson searches for what he regards as the governing principle of his analysis: the ideal of self-determination in both individual and collective senses. This synthesizes the universal values of freedom and life to which I alluded earlier. (One gleans from this theme of self-determination a long tradition of historical-materialist discourse from Fredrick Douglass and Du Bois to Harry Haywood, William Z. Foster, C.L.R. James, Amiri Baraka, Nelson Peery, and others.) This presupposes the rigor of scientific knowledge converted to the versatile tactics and stragegy of practical reason, sociopolitical praxis, dedicated to the fulfillment of the whole community’s radical needs, beyond what isolated individuals merit in return for services rendered:
Chattel slavery is an economic condition which manifests itself in the total loss of absence of self-determination…..The new slavery, the modern variety of chattel slavery updated to disguise itself, places the victim in a factory or in the case of most blacks in support roles inside and around the factory system (service trades) working for a wage. However, if work cannot be found in and around the factory complex, today’s neoslavery does not allow even for a modicum of food and shelter. You are free—to starve…. If you’re held in one spot on this earth because of your economic status, it is just the same as being held in one spot because you are the owner’s property….
Neoslavery is an economic condition, a small knot of men exercising the property rights of their established economic order, organizing and controlling the life style of the slave as if he were in fact property. Succinctly: an economic condition which manifests itself in the total loss or absence of self-determination. Only after this is understood and accepted can we go on to the dialectic that will help us in a remedy. (1972, 190-91).
It had to take this singular, untypical prisoner, most of the time confined to isolation in maximum security cells, to grasp the essence of self-determination as the ability to decide on one’s own where to go, how to position and maneuver one’s body, how to inhabit space and experience time in the process of performing and triangulating one’s destiny—in short, how to actualize life to its fullest. An ironic turn, this intellectual exercise, and also an eloquent parable of the predicament of the black nation.
The overriding importance of self-determination informs Jackson’s search for how the “crime against humanity” can be repaired. What Jackson attempted to do was to make critical reason realize a double task, something that Du Bois tried earlier. He had to reconstruct history as the confluence of contradictory trends, and from this deduce the ideal of radical freedom as a necessary future horizon based on the historicity of human needs. Critical reason is no longer confined to moral agency; it becomes a sociopolitical practice motivated not just by interests—for example, the idea of retribution—but primarily by the collective needs of the human species. Jackson is applying Marx’s method of historicizing the “species essence” of humanity alienated in history, a humanity whose needs cannot be satisfied by the existing order; hence, the bearer of social practice—the slaves/workers—needs to destroy the oppressive order in an act of revolutionary transformation.
We are still far from the stage of genuine liberation envisaged by Jackson, a moment of establishing the unity of the individual and the species-essence in a realm of self-determination, the autonomy of associated producers. We are still operating in the realm of necessity where market forces prevail, where authority/morality is still dictated by external forces (state, church, etc.), and where justice is still the formal application of reified norms and rules of the group to everyone regardless of manifold differences that make individuals and groups unique and incommensurable. In this context, the French philosopher Daniel Bensaid comments on the limits of formal justice (which underlies the call for reparations) as one “based on actual inequality and duress…, as limited and illusory as the contractual freedom of wage-laborers compelled to sell their labor-power to survive….” He points to exploitation as “the unity of the formal justice of the purchase of labor-power and the actual injustice of its exploitation as a commodity. This double-dealing accords with the general duplicity of the reign of the commodity. It prolongs and reproduces the split between use-value and exchange value, concrete labor and abstract labor, production and circulation” (2002, 128).
The reparations movement acquires its moral force precisely from the conviction that justice is needed so long as we remain in the realm of necessity. And one of the stark evidence of this is the character of the repressive and unjust racial polity we inhabit, the United States as a sociopolitical order of “white supremacy,” in which “whiteness is property, differential entitlement,” and racial exclusion is normative and central to the system (Mills 1999, 29).
Robert Staples has summed up the context in which we should evaluate the appropriateness of reparation: “However one defines racism in the 1990s, this country is more racially segregated and its institutions more race driven than any country outside South Africa.” After citing massive statistical indicators, Staples concludes: “The net effect of the color-blind theory” is to institutionalize and stabilize the status quo of race relations for the twenty-first century: white privilege and black deprivation” (1993, 230-31). This may serve as an antidote to the “amnesic principle” that has depoliticized social antagonisms and neutralized the “otherness” of black power into the reifying logic of bureaucratic rationality and pluralist hegemony (Reed 1999).
Of all the institutitions that have distilled with painful immediacy the cumulative resonance of slavery and segretation for African Americans, the prison, or criminal justice, system remains unsurpassable. Angela Davis has characterized the U.S. justice system as a “punishment industry.” Crime or criminalization of the poor, preponderantly blacks and latinos, becomes the masquerade behind which “race” with all its ideological ramifications “mobilizes old public fears and creates new ones….[so that] prison is the perfect site for the simultaneous production and concealment of racism” (1998, 271). I will not rehearse in detail here the known facts of the prison system. Suffice it to mention the following: of the two million people in prison, African Americans comprise 47 percent while representing less than 6 percent of the population. Close to a million young black men suffer the exploitative regime of the modern prison industrial complex, where their virtually unpaid labor is coerced and extracted for corporate profits (see Buck 1999; Davis 1998). This is not just a matter of ethnic stratification or status difference, as George Fredrickson (2000) and others would suggest. This is a situation that resurrects the biophysics of spatio-temporal reduction imposed by slavery and segregation, this time utilizing the sophisticated apparatus of bourgeois/liberal justice.
To convey the historic gravity of the prison system today as a proxy/surrogate for the old plantation regime, we might cite here the prisoners’ revolt at the Attica State Correction Facility in 1971 (54% of 1200 inmates were blacks) when they failed to get even minimal relief for their grievances. After its violent suppression, the government’s McKay Commission summed up the event in these words: “With the exception of Indian massacres in the late nineteenth century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War” (Hampton and Fayer 1991, 561).
This sense of “the return of the repressed,” of the duplicity of the passage from slavery to the narcotic freedom of the consumer-citizen, is captured most acutely in the writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal, journalist and activist. Charged for the murder of a police officer in 1981, Jamal has been languishing in death-row ever since. He has been widely acclaimed for his award-winning work with the Association of Black Journalists, National Black Network, and other radio stations. He has distinguished himself for his powerful exposure of racial violence in Philadelphia in the late seventies. Convicted and sentenced to death on July 3, 1982, Jamal was saved from execution by the huge rallies held around the world protesting the Court’s refusal to acknowledge the 22 separate violations of rights and procedures that occurred during his first trial. He remains incarcerated in the maximum security unit in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.
Jamal’s case has become something of a scandalous celebrity dangerous to the Establishment. Suffice it for this occasion to quote a passage from his unforgettable testimony, Live from Death Row, a cunning riposte to the generic slave narrative, in order to demonstrate the way in which the “middle passage” of the trans-Atlantic trade is re-enacted in late-modern United States. For refusing to cut his hair as a sign of loyalty to the teachings of John Africa, a charismatic religious teacher/leader, Jamal has been placed in disciplinary custody status. He reflects on the milieu of death row at the State Correctional Institute at Huntingdon, Pennsylvania:
Life here oscillates between the banal and the bizarre.
Unlike other prisoners, death row inmates are not “doing time.” Freedom does not shine at the end of the tunnel. Rather, the end of the tunnel brings extinction. Thus, for many here, there is no hope.
….All death rows share a central goal: “human storage” in an “austere world in which condemned prisoners are treated as bodies kept alive to be killed.” Pennsylvania’s death row regime is among America’s most restrictive, rivaling the infamous San Quentin death unit for the intensity and duration of restriction. A few states allow four, six, or even eight hours out of cell, prison employment, or even access to educational programs. Not so in the Keystone State.
Here one has little or no psychological life. Here many escape death’s omnipresent specter only by way of common diversions—television, radio, or sports. TVs are allowed, but not type-writers: one’s energies may be expended freely on entertainment, but a tool essential for one’s liberation through judicial process is deemed a security risk…. (1995, 6-8)
In 1994, he analyzes the effects of incarceration:
That prisons are hotbeds of violence is undeniable, but overt expressions of violence are rarely daily ones. The most profound horror of prisons lives in the day-to-day banal occurrences that turns days into months, and months into years, and years into decades. Prison is a second-by-second assault on the soul, a day-to-day degradation of the self, an oppressive steel and brick umbrella that transforms seconds into hours and hours into days. While a person is locked away in distant netherworlds, time seems to stand still; but it doesn’t, of course. Children left outside grow into adulthood, often having children of their own. Once loving relationships wither into yesterday’s dust. Relatives die, their loss mourned in silent loneliness. Times, temperaments, mores change, and the caged move to outdated rhythms.
Encased within a psychic cocoon of negativity, the bad get worse and feed on evil’s offal. Those who are harmed become further damaged, and the merely warped are twisted. Empty unproductive hours morph into years of nothingness. This is the furrowed face of “corrections” in this age, where none are corrected, where none emerge better than when they came in. This is the face of “correction,” which outlaws education among those who have an estimated 60 percent illiteracy rate.
The mind-numbing, soul-killing savage sameness that make each day an echo of the day before, with neither thought nor hope of growth, makes prison the abode of spirit death that it is for over a million men and women now held in U.S. hellholes. (1995, 64-65).
Unlike the traditional neoslave narratives, Jamal’s interrogates the individualist outlook and romantic sensibility found in conventional stories of the fugitive or runaway slave. He strives to articulate the intertwined fate of those condemned to solitary confinement, crossing the boundaries of race and ethnicity to concentrate on their common subjugation, converting abject minds and bodies into the solidarity of speaking subalterns. Jamal indicts a corrupt system that “eats hundreds of millions of dollars a year to torture, maim, and mutilate tens of thousands of men and women; a system that teaches bitterness and hones hatred.” What makes Jamal’s prison commentaries a powerful pedagogical instrument in mobilizing the masses to support the cause of reparation is its emphasis on causality and the instigation of agency. In his second volume, Death Blossoms, Jamal asserts: “When you don’t oppose [an unjust] system, your silence becomes approval, for it does nothing to interrupt the system…Do you see law and order? There is nothing but disorder, and instead of law there is only the illusion of security. It is an illusion because it is built on a long history of injustices: racism, criminality, and the enslavement and genocide of millions. Many people say it is insane to resist the system, but actually, it is insane not to” (1997, 11).
In their contrapuntal affinity, Jackson and Jamal have sharpened the demystificatory and critical program that Du Bois first launched at the end of the Reconstruction as he recharted the historical trajectory of the African American community. Their purpose is not just the production of useful knowedge, or the acquisition of truth, but also the preparation for ethico-political action. The call for repairing a collective wrong pursues the liberal quest for justice or fairness beyond the “stigmatization of racial bias” that Randall Kennedy (1997) celebrates in the annals of U.S. jurisprudence. But surely it goes beyond that in so far as it seeks to empower the majority of citizens to destroy the material practices, laws, habits, and institutions that reproduce the terror of racial, class, and gender injustice. In a period of war against “terrorists” defined by the neoimperialist state as “others” hostile to Western civilization, the demand for reparation returns us to a time when those “others” (slaves and colonized aborigines) enabled that civilization to survive and flourish. These “others” today are the victims held in Abu Ghraib prison, the Delta Camp in Guantanamo, Cuba, and other dungeons where suspects are tortured in order to confess their “crimes.” The violence of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, the Philippines, Haiti, and esewhere recapitulates in undisguised if self-righteous form the inaugural violence of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the barbaric genocidal aggression against American Indians, Mexicans, and other people of color around the world.
Meanwhile, the unconfessed “crimes” of the slave trade, colonial domination, segregation, and more subtle forms of subjugation have never been properly addressed in a world court or international tribunal. The millions who have suffered injury, loss, or wrong at the hands of white supremacist capital remain crippled by the experience, coopted and silenced, quarantined and repressed. The instrumentalities bequeathed by the past continue to inflict damage that requires redress and the enforcement of justice—the fair distribution of goods, not just amends or apology for a minor grievance. What is possible for citizens with rights in the liberal order is “restitution,” the act of returning to the rightful owner (the oppressed group) what has been taken illegally in violation of market rules. What is needed is indemnity, a reimbursement for loss or damage caused by a series of unjust acts. We are concerned here with social justice within a racial polity, a regime of unequal groups. But if a group categorized as a “race” or “minority” is not treated equally as the rest, then we face the problem that Du Bois, Jackson and Jamal faced, the problem of the racial polity that denies substantive freedom and purposeful life to the majority of citizens, not just to the African American constituency.
Thus far we have confined ourselves to justice as the attribute of actions, not of persons. This is because the cry for reparation concerns a situation or a state of affairs structured by a history of actions, not of psyches or personalities. We are not engaged in conflating justice with virtue, as Aristotle and classical ethics would insist. On the other hand, we are not utilitarians who focus only on consequences because, in the ultimate analysis, equality or the exchange of equal values as it occurs in the realm of necessity—in the arena of class-divided society–has to give way to the transcending primacy of human needs in a possible realm of freedom when classes have been abolished, work is no longer alienating but pleasurable, and material abundance obtains for all. To expedite that transition analyzed by Du Bois, the passage from various forms of unfreedom, we need to advance the struggle for the recognition of collective rights, here those of African Americans as a symbolic part of the totality. Any act to compensate, redress, or indemnify the African American community will only be a first step toward that transformation of the status quo which Jamal evokes in a 1996 interview in prison when he observed how African Americans moved out of de-facto segregation and slavery in response to Fredrick Douglass’ teaching that “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Within this frame of intelligibility and solidarity, we can appraise the demand for reparations as the initial catalyzing move of a long over-due popular-democratic challenge to the inhumanity of corporate Power.
In the 1960s, Malcolm X called on African Americans to invoke the issue of human rights in order to escape the repressive juridical boundaries of the U.S. state. Since the domain of civil rights was chiefly controlled by white supremacists, it was futile to appeal solely to the hegemonic institutions of the racial polity. Full substantive equality can not be guaranteed by the simple assumption of formal citizenship, Malcolm X implied (Asad 2003, 142). Rectifying the effects of slavery, together with the full restoration of inalienable human rights, requires adjudication by a court or judge other than the U.S. state which enforced slavery and, after its abolition, has continued to sanction or legitimize its dehumanizing consequences.
It is clear then that neither moral conciliation, electoral representation, or therapeutic integration can fully resolve a fundamental conflict embedded in the larger socio-historical context of power and social justice. Any resolution would require an agency, using legal persuasion and force, to carry out the terms of the settlement, the binding decision, of this historic dispute. To be sure, the enforcement of this mode of justice requires truth or reasonableness (Golding 1975, 122), objectivity, impartiality, rationality in procedures, weighing of evidence, etc. But the substantive question of equality and inequality—how to discriminate between them is, as Aristotle long ago pointed out (see Golding 1975, 121)–is basically a political question. Ultimately, the politics of reparations, as I have argued here, concerns what kind of good society we want to prevail—the “joinder of issue,” in legal parlance. Engaging the global problem of the “good society” embodying and universalizing the principles of justice and equality, the politics of reparation returns us once again to two heuristic insights: W.E.B. Du Bois’ conception of the “Negro problem” as “a local phase of a world problem” (Horne 2003, 79-80); and Malcolm X’s conviction that “colonialism or imperialism, the international power structure,” is primarily responsible for oppressing “the masses of dark-skinned peoples all over the world” (Collins 1992, 73). Indeed, the issue is joined in ways that connect the local and global, affording multilevel dialogue among diverse peoples, traditions, and cultures that neoliberal capitalist globalization today continues to prey upon, commodify, and enslave.
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