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Black Reparations: Reckoning with the Legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade.



In the heart of darkness that was the Middle Passage during the Atlantic Slave Trade, it pains me to imagine the terror that gripped the souls of those Africans, torn from their homes, thrust into the merciless clutches of a systematically-enforced slave trade. In his groundbreaking article, “Slavery, Reparations, and the Mythic March of Freedom,” political scientist and humanitarian, Walter Johnson, argues that the Western world’s hegemonic power enabled states like the U.S., European countries, and several others to capitalize the endless capacities of their own violence, as well as the vulnerability of African peoples. To enslaved Africans, this harrowing odyssey was not merely a journey—it was a plunge into the unfathomable depths of despair. 


Stephanie Smallwood, a scholar of history, reveals that for many enslaved people, the Middle Passage was never a midpoint–the harrowing journey was but an endless expanse of timelessness (qtd. Johnson). The creaking timbers of slave ships echoed with the agonized moans of the damned, the fetid stench of death hung heavy in the air. In this netherworld, there were no no milestones to mark the passage of time. Instead, each moment became an eternity, measured not in days or weeks but in the slow erosion of flesh and spirit. African peoples clung desperately to shreds of their humanity, their very identities and cultural histories slipping through their fingers like grains of sand. The institution of slavery in the United States forced African people to act as vessels of torment, labor, and utility for the behest of white slave masters—a living testament to the grotesque cruelty of the United States government, who, to the very present, has yet to acknowledge faithfully, systematically, or meaningfully, the extent and profitability of their own brutality, or contribute or any meaningful resolutions to the political debate surround reparations for African Americans.


When discussing the idea of reparations as a political concept in the United States, it’s important to note that American law was not, nor is, equally applied to all citizens. Ironically enough, this democracy resembles something closer to an oligarchic-like republic. In the United States, wealthy politicians take advantage of the systemic power imbalances that are incurred within our government specifically because the United States does not function as a proper, true, or perfect democracy–nor has it ever. Historically, the United States has not applied the law equally to all citizens, and a particularly frustrating instance of this lies in the inequivalent distribution of reparations from the state, during the Reconstruction Era.

The historical injustices that occurred throughout, and to maintain, the African Slave Trade resulted in deeply intertwined economies (imperialism and colonialism), intergenerational trauma, According to humanitarian advocate and political scientist Walter Johnson, African Americans are long overdue reparations for the intense brutality of The Middle Passage. Johnson underscores the brutal reality of the transatlantic slave trade, emphasizing the vast scale of suffering endured over four centuries by twelve million enslaved individuals.

Moreover, by describing the triangular trade that linked European merchants, African slaves, and American planters, the passage highlights the economic foundations of slavery. It suggests that the wealth accumulated through the exploitation of enslaved labor contributed significantly to the development of European and American economies. Reparations can be framed as a means to acknowledge and rectify the economic disparities perpetuated by centuries of slavery and exploitation.




Further, the institution of chattel slavery established that the social class and categorization of “slave,”--here, interchangeable with the idea of property–would be passed down from parent to child, ensuring to entrap African people in an eternal state of servitude. For many, the Middle Passage represented a journey into a void devoid of any narrative markers or sense of time. This highlights the intergenerational trauma passed down to descendants of enslaved Africans, who continue to grapple with the legacy of slavery in their communities. Reparations can be seen as a way to address this ongoing trauma and provide resources for healing and reconciliation.


By emphasizing the enduring impact of the transatlantic slave trade, Johnson argues that the consequences of this historical injustice extend far beyond the abolition of slavery. It suggests that the descendants of enslaved Africans continue to face systemic barriers and inequalities rooted in centuries of exploitation and oppression. Reparations can be framed as a means to address these entrenched inequalities and promote racial justice and equality.

The African Slave Trade was systemically facilitated by the same brutal, cruel government we recognize as the United States. In his article, Johnson sheds light on the staggering amount of death that was experienced and mourned across the entire continent of Africa–all 54 countries. The death toll suffered by Africans was felt prior to arriving at death work camps; slaves endured utter “misery” and extreme dehumanization while held hostage on their forced journeys (Johnson 44). Because African women were forced primarily into the trans-Sahara and Indian Ocean Slave Trades, and because enslaved African men were  predominantly sold into the American Slave Trade, women in the trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean trades outnumbered men two to one; while, in the Americas, the ratio was reversed. A very intentional result of this comes about with an observed, complete absence of population growth on the entire continent of Africa, during the eighteenth century.

 This geographical, social, economic, political, governmental, and reality-changing upheaval, accompanied inherently by mass violence and murder, had profound and long-lasting consequences for African communities, including psychological trauma inflicted upon enslaved individuals. More modernly, the effects of enslavement contribute to issues in African American communities, relating to social disintegration and economic stagnation. Reparations can be seen as a means to address the devastating impact of the slave trade on African populations and support efforts towards community regeneration and resilience.


Today, as we navigate the complexities of a modern world still rife with the legacies of white supremacy and imperialism, we must confront the painful truth that the United States government has yet to fully reckon with the atrocities of its past or the ongoing injustices faced by African Americans. The institution of slavery, with its grotesque cruelty and dehumanization, laid the foundation for a society built to service white slave masters and imperialists, perpetuating systemic inequalities and intergenerational trauma. The implementation of slavery was a long, intentional, and calculated process; therefore, the national (and arguably, global,) unlearning of its normalization will include systemic policy that acknowledges the wrongdoings of the state, and offers a significant foundation upon which we the people can begin working at solutions to rectify the past crimes against humanity of the United States. 


In conclusion, the call for reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States is not simply a matter of historical acknowledgment; it is an urgent imperative for justice and reconciliation. The harrowing legacy of slavery, compounded by centuries of systematic disenfranchisement and oppression, continues to cast a long shadow over African American communities, shaping every aspect of their existence. As we reflect on the profound suffering endured by countless individuals during the transatlantic slave trade and the subsequent eras of legalized discrimination under Jim Crow, we cannot turn a blind eye to the ongoing injustices faced by African Americans today. The United States, a nation founded on principles of equality and justice, has failed to live up to these ideals, perpetuating systemic inequalities that continue to disproportionately affect Black communities.


Reparations are not a new concept in the United States, but their application has been inconsistent and any programming resembling something of the sort is frequently, painfully insufficient. Throughout the Reconstruction Era, the United States government ushered reparations into the pockets of already-exceedingly wealthy slave owners to account for the lost property. It is time for a paradigm shift—a recognition that the effects of slavery and institutionalized racism are deeply entrenched and require deliberate, targeted action to address. Reparations must be more than symbolic gestures; they must be meaningful, ongoing efforts to address the systemic inequalities that have persisted for generations. Moreover, reparations for African Americans can serve as a catalyst for broader social and economic justice. By investing in predominantly Black and underserved neighborhoods, we can begin to build communal wealth and create opportunities for generations to come. Furthermore, reparations have the potential to expand beyond national borders, acknowledging the interconnectedness of global systems of oppression and offering restitution to victims of imperialism and colonialism worldwide.


In calling for reparations, I urge you all to think about the significance of legacy–the wealth we leave for our children, the lessons we are taught by our forefathers. By examining and attempting to correct a legacy of violence, suffering, exploitation, and theft–of life, of time, of culture, and so many other aspects of life–the call for reparations is a call for justice, equity, and solidarity. It is a recognition of the shared humanity and interconnected struggles of oppressed peoples around the world. As we confront the legacies of our past, let us also envision a future where reparations pave the way for a more just and equitable society for all. 


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Sources Cited

Johnson, Walter. “Slavery, Reparations, and the Mythic March of ... - Scholars At ...” Www.Scholar.Harvard.Edu, scholar.harvard.edu/files/wjohnson/files/slavery_reparations_and_the_mythic_march_of_freedom_raritan_2007.pdf. Accessed 21 Feb. 2024.


Adams, Michael. "The Sable Venus on the Middle Passage: Images of the Transatlantic Slave Trade." http://www.jungnewyork.com/venus.shtml. Accessed 29 Feb 2024.

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