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Reparations: The Suffering of Us

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Message Dr. Lenore Daniels

This enormous influx of Africans laid the foundation for the concomitant growth of capitalism.

Gerald Horne, historian, The Counter-Revolution of 1776.

Most species of animals as well as humans want to be free. That is, for most, it's not pleasant to be caged in a pen or in a prison cell for life. As I write this article, I'm thinking back to some 16 years ago when I lived in Ethiopia and witnessed (because it's a witnessing of sorts) a few herdsmen directing bulls down Haile Selassie Avenue, I think. A stretch of the avenue was cleared for the herdsmen and their "property."

It took a moment for me to realize what I was seeing, that is, to realize that these bulls were not on display for Americans, other Visa workers or tourists to behold their magnificence. Sedate and docile, the bulls were on their way to be slaughtered. Killed. And as I tried to make eye contact, I wondered if these beautiful creatures were at all conscious of their destiny. Would they have rebelled? Did they once fight against their captivity?

I couldn't look in the direction of where they were headed. I want to just look on at them, remember the shoulders, the horns, remember how I could have reached out and touched a few. But I kept attentive to the slow march toward death, a witness to the bulls, in their last hours a living beings.

"We have the dubious distinction," writes historian Yuval Noah Harari, "of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology" ( Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind ). Humans, Sapiens, have eradicated so much of life in the First and Second Waves of Extinction, he argues. If only we human were aware of our destructiveness as we are now center stage in the middle of yet another (Third) extinction. "If we knew how many species we've already eradicated, we might be more motivated to protect those that still survive."

But, we've never been "tree-huggers," living in harmony (the key word here) with nature. Humans haven't been too harmony loving to other living species. That's not been the narrative Homo Sapiens have been committed to pursue. As Harari argues, humans have killed off our terrestrial counterparts and now, if things continue at pace, he writes, the large sea creatures, whales, sharks, tuna and dolphins, will go in the direction of the slaughter house tooin other words, another great extinction is inevitable.

But human learned, unfortunately, to think of their own existenceat the expense of the existence of other. Success made some of us think in terms of hierarchical structures, with those who are familiar to one self at the top. So to the top of the food chain marched humans. And from there, human began to categorize and devise methods, often brutal, cruel, to maintain top billing. No other living creatures are as significant as humansit says so in the great stories we tell about our chosen destiny (decisively NOT the slaughter house!) and our rise to the top, thanks to divine intervention. Right there in the "good" book, it says, humans shall reign over all other living creatures. Over all of nature!

It's interesting to read in Sapiens Harari's explanation for how humans gradually began to "carefully" select from among the animal kingdom those living beings that would be easily susceptible to certain techniques (evolving, still, as I write this article) to make of them docile and obedient creatures. Animals showing aggression, that is, willing to put up a fight for their freedom, were killed immediately. Those showing the "greatest resistance to human control" or showing any inkling of "curious" were slaughtered first. Only the more "submissive and less curious" were considered, ironically the best.

"In order for humans to turn bulls, horses, donkeys, and camels into obedient draught animals, their natural instincts and social ties had to be broken, their aggression and sexuality contained, and their freedom of movement curtailed." And no matter, adds Harari, if the shepherds and farmers took good care of their animals and even went to far as to express affection for them, the situation would be analogous to that of the slaveholder and his enslaved blacks, some years down the road. As Toni Morrison conveys in her novel, Beloved , who cares if the so-called "good" slaveholder, good by virtue of his not exercising his legal rights to brutalize enslaved blacks, if the humans enslaved were entrapped in a brutal system of enslavement and NOT free to follow their own minds and pursue their own desires and potential as human beings.

Returning to Sapiens, Harari asks that we consider the situation from the viewpoint of the bulls, like the ones I saw that day in Ethiopia. Life for those bulls had to be as terrible as it is for cattle and pigs today, engaged from birth to death in pens with no room for them to move about. Freedom is subjugated in the process, and, therefore, our "evolutionary 'success" is meaningless. Only suffering is what evolves to become the norm in the world. "A dramatic increase in the collective power and ostensible success of our species went hand-in-hand with much individual suffering."


Among the Charles L. Brockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University is a painting entitled, "Portrait of Boukman: Invoking Freedom," by Ulrick Jean-Pierre (1997). Boukman is in action, yielding his sword, ready for the revolution.

If you've not heard the story of Boukman Dutty, a Jamaican Vodoo priest and revolutionary, you haven't really considered the concept of "freedom" in the Americas. Boukman did. In fact, his words inspired Haitians to rise up, to envision freedom, to envision a revolution in Haiti.

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Activist, writer, American Modern Literature, Cultural Theory, PhD.

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