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RasTafari and reparation time

RasTafari reject the clear-cut distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ slavery put forward by ‘white abolitionism’, as this only gives absolution to formally slave-trading European publics where there should be none. They demand reparations because justice has not yet been served.

People march to demand reparations in 2014. Photo by author.

Last March, Al Jazeera aired a debate on the case for reparations currently being pursued against European governments by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), an inter-governmental organisation and economic union of 15 Caribbean states. Kevin Bales, one of the most influential intellectuals of the ‘new slavery’ thesis, confirmed the numerous legacies of the “old slavery” on the programme, including contemporary racism, and supported the case put forward by the regional organisation. He did, though, state one proviso: “my only concerns are of course about the people who are in slavery today... if we have a smaller pie I want to make sure that we first serve those people who are in modern forms of slavery. [Those] who are needing both liberation, reintegration and often restitution to make new lives, as opposed to focusing on the past.”

Five months later, on 1 August 2014, five to six thousand people of predominantly African descent marched from Windrush Square, Brixton to Downing Street, London to demand reparations, delivering a petition of over 65,000 signatures that stated:

The lack of accountability by those responsible confirms the ongoing racism which creates disproportionate detriment to the offspring of the millions of individuals that were stolen from Afrika ... Today the offspring of the stolen Afrikans encounter direct and indirect racial discrimination daily. This results in poverty, lack of education, unemployment, imprisonment and ill health.

RasTafari Movement UK organised the march, along with active support from a number of other Pan-African organisations, and its members featured heavily in the demonstration. Most who took part in the reparations march would probably disagree with Bales’ prioritisation of “new” slavery, and especially the peculiar time limit he gave to the moral weight of restitution for past wrongs.

The reparations march deliberately coincided with the 180th anniversary of the emancipation of the British Caribbean, which took place on 1 August 1834. Even though the Jamaican government discontinued Emancipation Day commemorations after it gained independence from Great Britain in 1962, the RasTafari movement and others continued to commemorate 1 August. Their logic was this: who in their right mind would celebrate their political independence if they had yet to be fully emancipated? The march on parliament last summer was guided by the same reasoning.

To understand this logic, it is important to highlight a distinction between the sense of time that emanates from a moral philosophy that I would term ‘white abolitionism’ and the temporal sensibilities that are fundamental to RasTafari philosophy (as well as much Black liberation thought in general). White abolitionism sees time as linear, delineating between the legal end of the ‘old’ stage of slavery and the beginning of the ‘new’ stage of freedom. In this new beginning, ‘old’ slaveholding constituents become magically transformed into ‘new’ humanitarians, who disavow moral accountability for the fate of the once enslaved but now formally ‘free’. In doing so, they turn their moral compass to new horizons of oppression and injustice wherein they can claim status as innocent interveners.

RasTafari philosophy sees time differently. Rather than a succession of linear stages, time is redemptive and comprised fundamentally of a struggle between the forces of Babylon and Africa-Zion. The Babylonian system destroys natural forces, pollutes and enslaves the body, mind and spirit, and reproduces inequality in the pursuit of profiting at the expense of others. But unlike the linear time of white abolitionism, for RasTafari Babylon manifests time and time again—in the Atlantic slave system, in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy (and the Papacy), and in the present ‘shit-stem’ of global capitalism. Hence for RasTafari the past of slavery is not behind us. It is with us. The struggles of the ancestors must be redeemed because their suffering manifests in the conditions presently experienced by their descendants.

In “chanting down Babylon,” RasTafari know that fickle Western humanitarianism will not save them; they must save themselves. The self-repair of a community brought together by a shared fate spans social, psychological, spiritual and economic factors far exceeding the strictly juridical cornerstone of White abolitionism. This is why the cornerstone of reparations for RasTafari is their demand for repatriation to the African continent.

For some observers such a desire for African redemption is romantic and politically naive. However, in terms of moral philosophy RasTafari consider it natural justice, as it undertakes a full repair of the breach to humanity caused by the trafficking of humans across the oceans as super-exploitable chattel. Moreover, there are also plenty of socially and politically astute RasTafari organisations that work at local and global levels to develop repatriation projects. Afrika Hall, for example, enjoys UN consultative status and is presently involved in scoping out the Akuapem eco-village project in Ghana. It should be noted that political projects undertaken by RasTafari from the continent, especially in South Africa, are increasingly interfacing and interacting with the Diasporic reparations movement. 

The moral compass of repatriation was calibrated with an Afri-centric interpretation of the Bible narrative, revealing a redemptive prophecy that is best expressed in Psalms 68:31: “Princes shall come out of Egypt [the lands of enslavement], Ethiopia [enslaved Africans] shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God.” For RasTafari, this prophesy was given political urgency by Marcus Garvey’s early twentieth century call for African redemption. It became manifest with the coronation in 1930 of Ras Tafari as Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia. Twelve years later, in 1948, it was given a discrete set of geographical coordinates when Selassie I gifted 5 gashas of crown land at Shashemene to the African Diaspora, in recognition of their support for Ethiopia during the Italian occupation of 1935-1941.

In 1955, the administration of the Shashemene land grant was included within the Ethiopian World Federation (EWF), an organisation that began in Harlem in response to the Italian invasion. There remains today a strong RasTafari settlement in Shashemene. The local EWF chapter is presently lobbying the Ethiopian government to recognise once again the legality of the land grant, which was decimated by the communist Dergue regime’s (1974-1987) land nationalisation programme. The land question is heavily implicated in demands for Ethiopian citizenship, as many RasTafari inhabitants of Shashemene (including children) are effectively stateless, holding no passport, with very limited access to rights and justice.

RasTafari organized and marched on 1 August 2014 because the system that produced the ‘old’ slavery still exists. It continues to exert a detrimental effect on descendants of enslaved Africans, as well as their relatives on the continent. For RasTafari it makes no sense to talk of old or new slavery. The Babylon system iterates and mutates and must be chanted down in all its forms. Kevin Bales needs to change his moral philosophy. There is no time limit to the moral injunction on reparations. In comparison to the un-accountability of white abolitionism, the RasTafari movement argues that there is an on-going spiritual and physical war between Babylon and Africa-Zion. Thus, reparation time is now. This is the sentiment of the chant we sounded out on the lawns in front of parliament: 

400 years in a Babylon, 400 years.

400 years in a Babylon, 400 years.

And I and I never yet cease the fire till Babylon walls burn down.

About the author

Robbie Shilliam is a Reader in International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. He maintains a personal blog and contributes to thedisorderofthings.com. Robbie is also the author of the forthcoming book The Black Pacific: Anticolonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections, due out this year from Bloomsbury Academic Press. Follow him on Twitter @RobbieShilliam.


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