“By breaking the silence that has covered this bleak period of history, and by honoring the victims, the memorial will also serve as a call to action to ensure that this tragedy is never repeated,” Ban said. “And by teaching future generations to remember, we work to address the lingering consequences of slavery.”
Gonsalves and other leaders say they welcome the memorial and the U.N.’s efforts, but maintain that more action is needed to address the “native genocide and African slavery.”
“I saw the president of South Africa, the president of Ghana, the prime minister of Ethiopia, and they are all on board,” Gonsalves said. “We’re going to build the links. We have to build it inside of Europe, too, with ordinary Europeans.”
But even if ordinary Europeans are willing to listen, their governments might not be so inclined.
Earlier this year, French President François Hollande continued to resist demands on his nation to pay reparations for its role in Haiti’s independence and the slave trade.
His refusal was consistent with that of former French President Jacques Chirac who, on the eve of Haiti’s Jan. 1, 2004, bicentennial, quickly rejected a demand by then-Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide that France pay restitution to Haiti for the amount it was forced to pay for its freedom in 1804.
Aristide, who was forced into exile months later, had sent Paris a bill for the amount — down to the last penny: $21,685,135,571.48.
And despite former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s assertion in 2007 that slavery was “a crime against humanity,” Britain still has not apologized, activists say.
Meanwhile, blacks in America have had no more success than their counterparts. Attempts to have the courts force the United States to pay reparations or to cash in on the 40 acres and a mule promised to former slaves after the Civil War ended in 1865 have gone nowhere.
Still, Heather Russell, a professor of Caribbean and African-American literature at Florida International University, says she is “cautiously hopeful” by the Caribbean Community’s latest efforts.
“You have 15 heads of government who have signed on for this proposition,” said Russell, a native of Jamaica. “You have to make the moral stakes really high and so you do that through raising awareness. This issue has never been squarely put on the table.”
Dr. Verene Shepherd, a historian and longtime militant in the fight for reparations, said that unlike 20 years ago there is today “a heightened consciousness” on the impact of slavery and a widening movement to address its legacy and the ways colonizers can provide reparations beyond a dollar amount. Also, the circle of activists has grown beyond academics and the Rastafarians in Jamaica.
“We have more support now on the ground and in all sectors to carry the struggle,” she said.
That support was demonstrated earlier this month as the conference in St. Vincent opened, with Shepherd giving one of the key speeches.
As she looked out at the 4,000 faces, she said, she was “amazed.”
“People were attentive,” said Shepherd, chair of Jamaica’s National Commission on Reparation and director of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies in Kingston.
“The cause is just. And whatever the outcome is going to be, we are going to press on,” she added. “Remember, slavery lasted 300 to 400 years. In the scheme of things, we have not been fighting a long time.”