Making the Case for Reparations – A Conversation with Earl Lovelace

Earl Lovelace is an acclaimed, award-winning Trinidad and Tobago novelist, playwright and author. His novels include hile Gods Are Falling, The Schoolmaster, The Dragon Can’t Dance and Wine of Astonishment.

The Dragon Can’t Dance has been translated into five languages and is one of the most widely recognised Caribbean novels of all time. This was followed by a collection of plays, Jestina’s Calypso, published in 1984, and a short story collection, A Brief Conversation & Other Stories, published in 1988.

Lovelace’s latest novel Is Just a Movie, published in 2011, was the winner of the Grand Prize for Caribbean Literature by the Regional Council of Guadeloupe and the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature

But it is his novel Salt, which won him the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, which establishes his unique argument in favour of reparations for the genocide of indigenous populations of the Caribbean and for the long period of enslavement of Africans in the region.

In this exclusive interview with Insight’s Wesley Gibbings, Lovelace states his case for reparations.

Gibbings: Why should Caribbean people see the reparations issue as something that they should prioritise?

Lovelace: From the point of view of justice, of fairness, of independence of selfhood, and I am talking about all the Caribbean people, should participate in something that they believe is just. That brings us to the awareness of our humanness. That we are not just allowing might to conquer right. And that we are concerned about getting a new start.

I think that reparations suggest a new start. Because we have never had a new starting point in this region. Emancipation was setting Africans at liberty without any recompense and any notion that there was any concrete expression of this freedom that they were to get. Freedom is not just another abstract idea. Freedom is emphasised in land and ownership. If you have a people who you have set free, so to speak, and if you set them at liberty without anything. It’s really a terrible situation.

Gibbings: We are talking about almost 200 years. A lot has happened. You’ve had a lot of mixing – many members of our societies who have come after. How do you assign to them a sense of victimhood, if they came along 50 years, 100 years ago and helped to populate the region? They are of the Caribbean, but they do not have a history of slavery and indentureship. They weren’t real victims.

Lovelace: I don’t know that one would have to be a victim to claim justice. We have been presenting the African in the Caribbean as somebody who was just the slave out in the field working. But remember these places that the Amerindians were largely killed. Imagine what kind of situation the Africans met. The Africans are the ones who developed these countries. Not only in terms of labour. In terms of architecture. In terms of building roads. Building buildings. All these buildings we see around the place, Africans built them. The roads. The whole society has been built by these people’s labour. The thing is that to talk about them as being victims. Yes, they’ve been victimised, but they haven’t taken the role as victims.

We have to be participant in this. All of us – mixed, unmixed. All of us.

Gibbings: Including the former colonials?

Lovelace: Yes, everybody. This is what is going to free us. This is what is going to link us for another beginning.

Gibbings: You are suggesting that the entire society should be a part of this because we have all been a part of this oppression and dehumanisation. That all of us, including remnants of the slave-owners and others who were around back in those days too?

Lovelace: All of us need to participate in the discussion and the understanding of this and helping to determine what you’re going to get and where you’re going to put it. I’m not suggesting that everybody who has lived in the society is due for reparation, you know. That is not what I am saying.

One of the problems we have here is that we recognise that these societies comprised different groups of people who were treated unequally. That’s historical. We know that Africans, for example, never got anything in that society. Never got land. Never got just deserves as opposed to Indians who might have gotten for different reasons. Europeans might have got for other reasons.

Emblems of freedom for them to start to do whatever they had to do. We can’t equate everybody in the same way. But we can all join and participate in the discussion about it. Everybody needs to join and see it as a good thing.

Gibbings: But what would the algebra look like, so that you can work out a formula to compute and to settle this issue? You are talking about something tangible. This is not just an apology.

Lovelace: What is important, firstly, must be the acknowledgement that is due to you. And when you accept that, if somebody says – “Yes, you have been wronged. We’ve made this amount of money over the years. Your labour is worth this …” They have computers. We can compute this over the years. It can be done. We have to talk further. I don’t think it is just a mathematical thing where you work things out and you make out a pay cheque.

This requires, from my perspective, a lot of conversation. That this is the way for us to begin to become a society. Right now we are asking for reparation from Europe. I am surprised we have not asked for reparation from Trinidad. We have taken over from Europe. There is a point at which Europe will have to come in and we will have to involve Europe. But we must not assume that the governments in the region have been acting on behalf of black people or have advanced our interests.

I don’t think our interests have been advanced by them. We have all fallen for the propaganda of black ineptitude of black criminality. When you tell me that CARICOM and the CARICOM governments are taking up this thing. They are taking it to whom?

They have to do more talking and they have to involve more people.



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