Commentary

We aren’t supposed to imply that the Founders (slaveholders) weren’t always paragons of virtue

May 26, 2023 5:58 am
sugar cane being ground in a 19th Century windmill

Grinding sugar cane in a windmill, 1823. Artist William Clark. Island of Antigua. Credit: British Library. Wikimedia Commons.

LONDON – In 2022, the Prince and Princess of Wales (you know them as William and Kate) toured the Commonwealth countries of the Caribbean, former slave colonies. They made a bit of a mess.

At one event the royal couple were supposed to meet a bunch of children, but found themselves separated from the kids by a chain-link fence, feebly touching little hands through the wire. Then they paraded down the street in Trench Town, riding in an open-topped Land Rover, dressed in white, William in the “No. 1 Tropical Dress uniform” of the Blues and Royals regiment and Kate in lace and an Edwardian-style hat.

It was so Old British Empire, you’d have thought it was 1910.

To be fair, William spoke of how slavery “forever stains our history” and expressed “profound sorrow” over his country’s role in kidnaping Africans to work on Jamaican plantations.

Yet it seemed feeble, coming from a prince whose family derived a lot of wealth from the slave trade.

The Royals might look to one of their own cousins, David Lascelles, 8th Earl of Harewood and godson of the late Queen Elizabeth II. West Indian sugar plantations made his family rich in the 17th century. The current earl puts on exhibitions related to slavery. He made a point of meeting with David Harewood–the British actor who played CIA honcho David Estes in Homeland –to talk about slavery reparations. Harewood, the child of Caribbean immigrants, is descended from slaves on the Lascelles family plantations.

Other families who benefitted from the slave economy are joining in the call for an official apology and some form of reparations.

The Trevelyans, landed gentry whose kinfolk include generals, artists, naturalists and members of Parliament, have decided to use a chunk of their wealth to endow scholarships for descendants of the more than 1,000 slaves that worked their plantations in Grenada. Laura Trevelyan, a distinguished journalist, quit her job with BBC America to work on restorative justice.

Charles and Camilla
Charles and Camilla in Jamaica, March 2008. He is now King Charles III. Credit: Wikipedia.

An organization of prominent descendants of slave owners she helped found now advocates for acknowledging this hateful past, taking responsibility, and raising money to help those damaged by 400 years of systemic racism.

The Heirs of Slavery have called on King Charles to apologize for slavery. The king’s response so far has been to welcome scholars to dig into the royal archives to uncover the connections between the royals and slave-generated wealth.  They’ve already discovered that Edward Colston, an English merchant and member of the Royal African Company–slave traders–gave £1000-worth of shares to King William III.

William, a Dutch prince who got to be called “King of England, Scotland and Ireland” by marrying Queen Mary II in 1677, arrived in London for his coronation with 200 slaves from the Dutch colony of Surinam.

King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands has commissioned an independent study, complete with academics and a human rights expert, on the Dutch royal family’s involvement in slavery and colonialism.

Kings, aristocrats with fortunes founded in slavery, and even The Guardian newspaper want to investigate their links with slavery. John Edward Taylor, who founded the paper in 1821, was a merchant trading in Sea Island cotton, grown on plantations from Amelia Island in Florida to a little north of Charleston.

Good for them. But what about us?

What about the people who have always claimed to champion freedom and equality?  For the Dutch and the British, plantation money rolled in, but the enslaved people who produced the profits were thousands of miles away, out of sight, rarely spoken of. Our country began its life as a plantation economy. Slavery was right in front of us; its continuing effects still shape our culture and politics. But we seem far less interested in confronting our Original Sin.

In 1989, the late U.S Rep. John Conyers first introduced a bill to establish a commission to study slavery and its impact on America. HR 40 wouldn’t mandate reparations. It would simply look into how slavery has warped this country for 400 years and how we might think about repairing the damage. HR 40 got out of its House committee two years ago, but has no hope in hell of getting a full vote. Almost all Republicans and many Democrats refuse to support it.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville
U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama. Credit: Senate website.

Some say the quiet part not merely out loud, but in a deafening squeal.

In October last year, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, always a favorite to win the title of stupidest man in Congress and last seen approving of white nationalists in our military, hollered that Democrats are not only “soft” on crime, “they want crime. They want crime because they want to take over what you got. They want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.”

In other words, Black people were slaves; now they’re criminals; and they can’t have reparations because they want to take white people’s stuff.

Somehow the thought of reparations to those wronged by American institutions infuriates many Americans. The hysterical reaction to the eloquent case made by writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2014 shows what happens when somebody pokes the tender belly of our racism.

Even mentioning past atrocities and their contemporary results hurts conservative feelings. Tourists at Jefferson’s Monticello plantation have complained that the tour talked too much about the slaves there.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis prefers we ignore these unpleasant subjects altogether. We aren’t supposed to teach our children the truth about slavery and racism as institutions. We aren’t supposed to imply that the Founders, many of whom were slaveholders, weren’t always paragons of virtue. Now DeSantis has signed a bill banning funding of all Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs at Florida’s state universities.

Apparently if you don’t acknowledge the existence of Black people or gay people, trans people or immigrants, the poor or the marginalized, they all magically disappear, leaving only the nice white people who’ll be happy to do as they’re told.

Despite DeSantis’ fancy Ivy League education, he is willfully ignorant and reflexively racist. Some less rage-driven Americans realize that slavery was a trauma inflicted on both the body and the psyche of Black folks. Racism and exclusion meant that they could not qualify for home loans or the GI Bill which might have set them up to get a good education and become upwardly mobile.

Ex-slaves never got the 40 acres and a mule they were promised. White capital preferred Blacks stayed poor, still working the land they’d picked cotton on when they were enslaved, still owning nothing: hungry workers who could, the logic went, be pushed around.

The rich stayed rich; the poor got even poorer.

In 2015, the British government finally paid off the loan it took out in 1833 to pay reparations when slavery in the empire officially ended. The money didn’t go to former slaves or their descendants, but to white former slaveholders.

There was nothing for the people who had been kidnaped, beaten, raped, tortured and forced to work on Caribbean plantations.

Let’s give the British credit for at least discussing this issue. The privileged Heirs of Slavery and others and hope the government can be persuaded to address reparations of some kind.

When will we get real about this and pony up the lost wealth of the Black Americans who built our country?

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Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts is a columnist for the Florida Phoenix. She has been writing for news outlets since 1983 and her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo.

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