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V.I. Panelists Disagree on What Reparations Mean

May 25, 2005 – It was a discussion charged with emotion and differing opinions, but all panelists agreed that the discussion – "Reparations: Where do we go from here?" – was necessary.
In observance of African Liberation Day, representatives from various community organizations, legislators and residents came together at the Earle B. Legislative Hall Wednesday evening to discuss the idea of a V.I. Reparations Movement.
African Liberation Day is celebrated May 25 each year. The holiday was first observed in 1963 when 32 heads of African countries founded the Organization of African Unity and proclaimed May 25 African Liberation Day. In the Virgin Islands, the celebration was first observed by the Student's Coalition for Better Government in 1981 on St. Croix. The territory is one of the few U.S. jurisdictions that have adopted the observation of African Liberation Day.
According to K. Leba Ola-Niyi – a Pan-Africanist – in a written insert for Wednesday's program, the purpose of African Liberation Day is to raise consciousness about the struggle for Pan-Africanism and to encourage Africans and their descendants to engage in activities that will bring about the liberation and unification of Africa from foreign domination and exploitation.
"This day that we are celebrating today is not something new to anyone," Malik Sekou, moderator for the event, said in his opening remarks.
Sekou said Senate President Lorraine L. Berry sponsored legislation in 1989 proclaiming the third week in May as Virgin Islands African Heritage Week. In June of 1991, a bill, sponsored by former Sen. Stephen "Smokey" Frett, designating May 25 as African Liberation Day was enacted. The following year, the holiday was observed.
Berry called Wednesday's event historic. She said the discussion on reparations was fitting for the observance of African Liberation Day. Many of the speakers and panelists that participated in the program agreed.
"Reparations is a positive activity," Berry said, adding it meant restoration and making amends for wrongs done in the past.
She called for a joint task force to help build relationships between the Danes and Virgin Islanders.
Terrence A. Todman, former U.S. ambassador to Denmark, spoke via teleconference to those in the audience. Todman said when he served as ambassador from 1983 to 1989, he was "struck by the love of the Danes for the Virgin Islands."
Todman said while in Denmark, people expressed concerns about the status of the territory.
"This is why I know the spirit of the Danes in wanting to help repair the damage that was done to the Virgin Islands," Todman said.
He pledged to assist the territory in its efforts and urged Virgin Islanders to come up with "very specific projects" that the Danes could assist with whether it is in education, reconstruction of historic buildings or agriculture.
Todman said it was not a time of "dwelling on the past," but a time for planning and shaping the future.
"The Virgin Islands will become a beacon to others who are seeking redress for wrongs done along time ago," Todman said.
Khalil Osiris, executive director of the Circle of Courage on St. John and member of the National Alliance for Radical Prison Reform, gave an overview of the history of black consciousness.
Osiris said the corporate media has defined black consciousness as the way blacks as a people dress or the way they wear their hair. But, he said, it is more than that.
"When we speak of black consciousness, we're fundamentally talking about land, language and culture," Osiris said. "As we think about African consciousness, ideally we're thinking about liberation of our ideas."
UVI Professor Gene Emanuel spoke on the topic "Pan-Africanism in the Virgin Islands." Emanuel said the goal of the Pan-Africanist movement is "total liberation of African people wherever they are."
Fifteen Caribbean countries, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Suriname, have come together to form the Pan-Africanist Union of the Caribbean, Emanuel said. He said the movement has grown throughout the years.
"What you see today is a result of decades of work," Emanuel said.
Emanuel said for any discussions on reparations to take place, it must be seen in the context of total liberation of African people.
"This is our goal," Emanuel said. "This is our objective, and we will not turn back."
Panelist Shelley Moorhead, president of the African-Caribbean Reparations and Resettlement Alliance, said it was profound that in 2005, after how many years had passed since the enslavement of the territory's ancestors, their descendants would come together to give thought to a V.I. reparations movement.
"This is not an initiative that is disconnected from the Virgin Islands' struggle," Moorhead said, adding that the reparations movement was not disconnected from the Rastafarian or Pan-Africanist movements. "This, in fact, is the greatest social movement, the most significant social movement, since the emancipation of 1848."
But Moorhead cautioned that slavery was not the source of our problems. He said in seeking reparations African descendants must go further back and answer the question of how the resistance of a nation was so lowered, that it became enslaved for more than 200 years.
"Unless we can address these issues the reparations will be for naught," Moorhead said. "The discussion on reparations must first be spiritual before it can become political, economical or anything else, because slavery is spiritual."
Moorhead said reparations works in two ways – healing for the wronged and healing for the wrongdoer.
"Reparations is not just about money," Moorhead said. "It is about self-made repairs, social repairs, mental repairs. The most important part of reparations is our self-repair."
He added, "We cannot hope to change the world without first changing ourselves. Reparations, like charity, must begin with ourselves; must begin at home."
Ras Ko-Nya, member of the Rastafari Improvement Association, said the community has to be fully educated for a successful reparation movement to occur. He said reparations is a part of the "ongoing struggle" for freedom, "but we are confident; we must prevail."
David Muhammad, minister with the Nation of Islam, said evidence of the effects of slavery is all around and reparations are needed for the damage that was done to minds.
"Each of us has to accept the responsibility of the damage that was passed on," Muhammad said, quoting from Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan. "The act of reparation is absolutely necessary."
Muhammad said for reparations to take place assessments must first be made of the damage that was done. He suggested that a commission be put in place to assess that damage.
"Whatever we do, it needs to promote and support our life," Chenzira Davis-Kahina, co-organizer of Per Ankh Inc., a non-profit spiritual healing center on St. Croix, said.
Davis-Kahina agreed that assessments were needed in order to repair damages.
"We can have a commission," Kahina-Davis said. "But if it's going to be like one of these V.I. commissions that meet, sit and do nothing, we might as well save the money and give it to some organization that will work."
Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson said the talks of reparations are good but cannot be apart from a discussion on status and "who we are as a people."
He said he feels the appropriate status for the territory is a free association. That way the territory would be associated with the United States and would be free to associate with other nations, Nelson said.
Nelson said the Danes are willing to get involved in restoration of the
historic buildings, but can't do so freely because of the Virgin Islands' status as an unincorporated territory of the United States.
"The nature of the battle we're waging is not to be American," Osiris said.
Osiris said he is not an American and neither are the people of the Virgin Islands because they cannot vote for the president of the United States of America. He said America's purchase of the territory from Denmark had nothing to do with the land and the trees but of the sale of a group of people for $25 million in gold.
"This was not about your freedom, and it certainly wasn't a transfer," Osiris said. "It was enslavement."
Solomon Kabuka, president of the African Association of St. Thomas-St. John, asked Osiris if he was going to now take off the "U.S." in front of Virgin Islands.
"You carry an American passport," Kabuka said. "That's you're citizenship."
Kabuka said he has not been in the territory long, and his way of thinking may not reflect the majority of the panelists. But he cautioned, "When you don't know your identity, you're in trouble."
In giving his remarks, Kabuka made arguments for and against reparations.
"Just as in the days of slavery, human perspectives still differ today on the matter of what is morally wrong and repugnant to the conscience of human beings in our interactions as a people," Kabuka said. "Today, the line is widely drawn between those who view reparations as a human imperative, and those who view it as irrelevant, misguided and out of time.
According to Kabuka, the arguments of those who support reparations include:
– The effects of slavery are still present today, and they are a significant factor in the problems African-Americans – including descendants of slavery in the Danish West Indies – face in many aspects of their lives.
– One reason for the reparations is unpaid labor, because slaves were forced to work without pay.
– Another reason is arrested development because slaves, kept in bondage, were deprived of opportunities to learn and become more competitive in many areas of society.
– Reparation could have an ameliorating effect upon race relations.
Kabuka said the arguments against reparations include:
– Slavery was something of the past, and people who were wrong and those who were wronged are dead and generations removed from today.
– Reparations should only be paid to those who are living, by those who did the wrong directly.
– Since the last slave ship arrived in the United States in 1808, descendants of blacks who arrived in this part of the world after 1808 should be excluded from receiving reparations.
– Less than 10 percent of the white U.S. population owned slaves, therefore white descendants or non-slave holders should be excluded from financing any reparations.
– Reparations are a separatist idea that sets African-Americans against the nation that gave them freedom.
Kabuka said restoration and not reparations was needed and more dialogue and public discourse should be conducted on the subject of "How to Improve Human Relationships," especially among diverse populations.
"Going back to agonize over the wrongs of the past does not appear to be a meaningful option," Kabuka said. "Moving forward to address what's at the core of human shortcomings in personal relationships seems to be the best way to go."
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