Reparations for Slavery: From Theory to Praxis

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Literature Languages & Culture


Reparations for Slavery: From Theory to Praxis will connect scholars and activists and address the negative impact of the history of slavery on Afro-descendent communities living today. It is linked to the core objectives of the 'UN International Decade for People of African Descent', notably its desire 'to combat racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia' (here through reparations).
Reparation (or repairing for harm done) is an ancient concept that has recently resurfaced in public debates. In 2014, the Caribbean Community issued a call upon Europe's former colonial powers to commit to their ten-point justice programme, which is seeking reparations for indigenous and African communities descended from slavery. Historically, these claims are linked to the failure of the former slave-trading nations and plantation owners to provide restitution to those they had enslaved. Instead, abolition resulted in the former slave-owning classes being richly compensated for the loss of their 'workforce', while slavery was replaced with new systems of colonial exploitation that continued to benefit plantation owners to the detriment of colonized peoples. The long-reaching and devastating consequences of this history can still be discerned in the acute socio-economic imbalances that exist in former slave-based societies, and in the multiple forms of racial discrimination and human rights violations that descendants of enslaved Africans continue to experience. Legal steps taken at national and international levels to recognise slavery and the slave trades as 'crimes against humanity' have lent judicial support to the efforts of local, national and transnational groups seeking redress. Despite this, reparations remain politically taboo, with governments having typically ignored or rejected demands, and refused to issue formal apologies beyond more nuanced statements of regret.
This refusal at political, societal and (until recently) academic levels to understand the meaning and potential of reparations provides the underlying rationale for this network. In collaboration with our institutional partners in the UK, France and Benin, we will set up a series of workshops that will connect academics and grassroots activists based in Europe, the Caribbean, the US and West Africa. Building from existing scholarship in politics and law, we will explore multiple approaches to reparations from artistic, cultural, historical, philosophical, psychological, social and spiritual perspectives. These workshops will pave the way for an international conference in Benin (a primary site for the transatlantic slave trade) that will bring Africa-based activists and international scholars together to identify a clear agenda for engaging more actively and effectively with the legacies of slavery.
Our aims include the need to: advance research on reparations by connecting scholars and activists on an international scale; address the lack of arts and humanities research and connect it to existing work in the social sciences; valorise the long history of reparation movements across the world; support the work of activists by providing global legitimacy and visibility to the reparation debate; and impact positively upon public and political (mis)conceptions about reparations. The network will result in the publication of a co-edited academic volume, as well as the creation of an online archive of reparation movements and a series of public reports for use by activists, NGOs, academics, government-linked groups and other national/international bodies. These outputs will not only provide a valuable contribution to academic knowledge, but will also support activists in their social and educational work and political campaigning. By connecting research and activism, this network will therefore find practical strategies for moving beyond theoretical discussions of reparations and towards real action of direct benefit to the descendants of enslaved Africans.

Planned Impact

Reparations for Slavery: From Theory to Praxis sets out to advance the reparations agenda by creating the first international network of activists and academics dedicated to addressing the ongoing effects of slavery and the slave trade upon the descendants of enslaved Africans. While the subject of reparations is of intrinsic interest to a wide community of academics and non-academics, the two major groups to benefit directly from this project will be activist organisations and government-linked committees concerned with advancing the reparations agenda. Activist movements are located in countries with links to the European- and US-slave trades. The network includes 19 members from activist and cultural organisations, many of whom are operating on a voluntary basis with limited or no access to institutional or state resources. Government-linked committees include groups such as the National Committee for the Memory and History of Slavery (CNMHE, France) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Reparations Commission (CRC). Key representatives from these groups have committed to the network, including Myriam Cottias (president of the CNMHE) and Sir Hilary Beckles (president of the CRC). These groups will provide access to higher-level state and transnational bodies that are capable of influencing social change through political lobbying and policy making.
Based on extensive discussion with these groups, we will contribute to their work by creating a website with an online curatorial project and a publicly accessible report. The website has a number of purposes. It will act as an online centre for our highly international network and will include useful tools, such as a fully searchable interactive map providing up-to-date information about academics and activist movements in operation today. It will enable us to store documents and presentations relating to our discussions and exchanges, and will provide access to those who were unable to attend the workshops in London, Birmingham and Paris, and the conference in Benin. It will make full use of video links and images to engage public interest and disseminate the project's findings to interested parties beyond the network members. Importantly, it will also include an online curatorial project that will document the history of reparation movements in different countries and will foreground the wealth of transitional forms of justice, from political and legal to artistic and cultural approaches. Funding for the workshops and the conference, in addition to the provision of this website, will therefore provide a much-needed physical and virtual space in which to bring multinational movements together with research-based communities, while the website will act as a useful educational tool for use by activists and academics to inform public opinion about the reparations debate.
In addition, we will create an academically rigorous report reflecting exchanges between activists and academics that will set out a shared reparations agenda across disciplinary and national boundaries. The report will be created in collaboration with activists and will identify practical strategies for moving beyond theoretical discussions of reparations and towards their practical implementation. It will be designed to support the social and educational work and political campaigning of activists and government-linked groups operating in local, national and transnational contexts. By working alongside activists, NGOs and government-linked groups located in the UK, France, the Caribbean, the US and West Africa, this network will therefore produce innovative cross-disciplinary research for academics, and will be of direct benefit to the non-academic communities with which it is involved.


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