Repairing the Past, Imagining the Future: Reparations and Beyond

By: Nick Draper

Kristy Warren and Kate Donington (for two days) and Nick Draper (for one day) attended the Repairing the Past, Imagining the Future: Reparations and Beyond conference, organised by University of Edinburgh in collaboration with Wheelock College (Boston, US) in Edinburgh 5th and 6th November.  The conference was ambitious, combining academics and activists from the Caribbean, North America, South Africa, and Europe, and addressing not only the British Atlantic but the francophone and Dutch worlds. Historians were in a distinct minority. The number of proposals submitted in response to the Call for Papers led the organisers to organise parallel sessions around a handful of set-piece plenaries: this allowed a wide range of issues to be covered but inevitably forced the audience to choose among attractive conflicting alternatives.  Verene Shepherd of UWI Mona and Chair of the Jamaica National Committee opened the conference with a powerful keynote address re-stating and amplifying CARICOM’s arguments and evidence, which among other responses drew an intense exchange with representatives of pan-African reparations activists based in Britain; Verene later came back to the issue to stress the importance to CARICOM and the National Committees of grass-roots movements.  Her keynote was followed by a strong plenary panel on the state of play in the US among African American campaigners.

On Thursday afternoon, Nick attended panels on ‘Reparative Histories’ (at which Anita Rupprecht and Cathy Bergin with characteristic subtlety explored linkages between slavery and the imagining of the current refugee crisis and US memorialisation respectively) and on ‘International Law’, as well as giving a paper on LBS’s work in the economic history panel alongside Nuala Zahedieh.  The Law panel, which was noticeably well-attended, featured an innovative approach to jurisdiction-[s]hopping by Jean Allain of Queen’s Belfast, and what appeared to be a very important contribution by Kate Bracegirdle of  University of Sheffield on ‘unjust enrichment’ as a legal basis of claim over slavery: this appears to offer a solution to some of the difficulties of locus standi that have to date undermined in the courts reparations claims based on damage to the descendants of enslaved Africans.

On Friday, Kristy and Kate presented on the importance of teaching reparative histories using the Local Roots / Global Routes project as an example of how that might work in practice. They shared the ‘Educational Impacts’ panel with Warren C. Hope, who presented on need to imagine a new educational paradigm in order to address the academic achievement gap experienced by African Americans. While Amos N. Jones assessed the case for reparations using segregated education as an example.

Kristy attended the panel on the ‘Legacies of Slavery in the Francophone World’ which featured presentations from Fabienne Viala concerning the impact of white French supremacy on the ways and extent to which slavery is remembered; Kate Hodgson gave an historical overview of Haitian responses to reparations from the nineteenth century to the present day; and Magali Bessone explored the limits of tort law in the attempt to achieve reparations for slavery.  The day wrapped up with a public lecture by Hilary Beckles outlining the case against Britain for reparations for Caribbean slavery and its legacies.

The fact that a conference of this scale and reach could be mounted in Britain indicates that the question of reparations – for which grassroots campaigners have been working for years both in the Caribbean and Britain – is now for the first time entering academic discourse here.

Footage from the conference is available on Ustream