Back to Africa Update

Vol. XXVII. Issue 2. (Spring 2020) The 17th Annual Lecture on the AMISTAD

By Professor Biko Agozino, Professor of Sociology, Virginia Tech.



Dr. Biko Agozino

Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University






This Lecture, the 17th Annual Lecture on the AMISTAD,  focuses on the US Supreme Court case                      of US v. Amistad, to question why the US was a party to this case; and why it was framed as a case of libel rather than liberty; why John Quincy Adams adopted the strategy of sending the captives back to where they came from in order to win the case; why painters of the uprising depicted the Africans as the ones doing violence to supposedly innocent white men; and why the National Archives mischaracterize their action as mutiny and not as liberation? The significance of the Harvard University Ph.D. dissertation of W.E.B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, will be used as the theoretical framework for the analysis of the illegality of the slave trade contrary to assumptions by many historians that it was a legitimate trade that should not be judged by norms of international human rights law.[1] The Oxford University D.Phil. thesis of Eric Williams on Capitalism and Slavery will be used to further establish the profit motive that sustained the human trafficking of Africans for hundreds of years.[2] And the SOAS doctoral thesis of Walter Rodney on A History of the Upper Guinea Coast will be used to answer the haunting question of whether Africans sold their own people into slavery for 400 years.[3] My own doctoral dissertation on Black Women and the Criminal Justice System at the University of Edinburgh will be used to decolonize the practice of victimization as mere punishment.[4] Finally, the relevance of the Amistad case to the demand for reparative justice by people of African descent will be explored.




The United States, Appellants, V. The Libellants and Claimants of The Schooner Amistad, Her Tackle, Apparel, and Furniture, Together with Her Cargo, and the Africans Mentioned and Described in the various Libels and Claims, Appellees:


The ship is personified in the title of this case as a woman with her apparel and furniture, ‘together with her cargo’. The Africans are ‘mentioned and described’ autonomously to suggest their relative autonomy from the schooner, and the libellants who claimed to own the ship, merchandise and Africans. For the US to be the appellant is an indication that there must have been a ruling in the lower courts in favor of the appellees or libellants. They were called libellants because anyone who brought a claim in civil courts in those days was called a libellant who was seeking to recover damages incurred from an injury to their property or reputation. Thus, a petitioner or applicant in a divorce proceeding is called the libellant and the respondent is called the libellee. This term applies especially to a case of libel but it is not exclusive to libels. This may be an indication that civil cases in admiralty courts were conceived as involving property relations and that injuries to property rights were similar to injuries to reputations. Perhaps it was the other way around. Injuries to reputation were seen as injuries to property rights and were judged in terms of the potential loss the person would suffer from the injury. In other words, property rights are the model of rights in legal discourse and even the right to life is seen as a property right,  to the extent that defense of property is acceptable as reasonable defense against the criminal prosecution for homicide. Margaret Davis[5] has questioned the rights of settler colonialists to seize the communal land of indigenous people and claim it as private property but such a claim would be even more brazen and indefensible when it is a claim to millions of people as ‘lawful property’ for hundreds of years in the case of the enslavement of Africans.

The overemphasis on private property in legal philosophy has been critiqued in Marxist sociology of law by Pashukanis as “the commodity fetishism” thesis which states that under capitalism, the logic of the market penetrates social relations and becomes the model for the evaluation of all other claims, even in the administration of criminal justice.[6] Accordingly, punishment is calibrated to equal the harm done by the crime, just as the price paid for a commodity is calibrated to equal the value of the commodity. The difficulty for commodity fetishism is that some crimes are so huge that no punishment can ever be calibrated to equal the injury done by the crime without outraging the conscience of reasonable people. For instance, since it has been accepted that slavery is a crime against humanity, is there any amount of punishment that could be calibrated to equal the injuries suffered by Africans for hundreds of years? Due to this impossibility of equal responses to the harms of slavery, people of African descent are not seeking punishment or vengeance but instead are demanding reparative justice. More on this later.


The US Supreme Court summarized this case using the logic of commodity fetishism as a magic wand that wins cases once waived in court unchallenged. It was recorded that on 27 June 1839, the Spanish-owned schooner Amistad, set sail under Captain Ferrer and two other Spanish subjects – Ruiz and Montez. The ship and the crew were owned by their country and they also owned the ship and their country because even citizenship was conceived as private property right in terms of commodity fetishism. Furthermore, the Spanish subjects also owned other human beings who were not subjects but objects or commodities to be bought and sold. The Captain had an enslaved boy on board named Antonio who was called ‘a slave’, a mere property instead of recognizing his humanity as an indictment against the captain for libeling the rights of Antonio in his own person. Only  commodity fetishism would entertain a claim that someone bought a child as a slave without arresting the libellant for child abuse but instead returned the boy with the ship to the representatives of Spain as their property. Furthermore, the court recorded that ‘Ruiz had 49 negroes’. Was he eating them or defiling them,  and what gave him the cheek to claim that he ‘had’ them as if they were in his pocket like dollar bills or in his shopping cart? ‘Montez had four negroes, which were claimed by them…’ Not who but ‘which’ is the language of commodification being normalized by the US Supreme Court in a case that involved the trafficking of men, women and children. How did this case even reach the Supreme Court if, as the court stated from the start:


In fact, these African "negroes" had been, a very short time before they were put on board the Amistad, brought into Cuba, by Spanish slave traders, in direct contravention of the treaties between Spain and Great Britain, and in violation of the laws of Spain.


They were put on board like ordinary cargo and ‘brought into Cuba by Spanish slave traders’ who were directly breaking national and international laws against human trafficking. The Africans on board were fully aware of their human rights and rose to fight for their freedom on the ship. They killed the Captain but spared the lives of the two who claimed to own them but demanded that they should navigate them back to Africa or to any other country where slavery was illegal. Maybe they should have spared the captain because those that they spared probably did not know much about navigation even though they claimed that the Africans ‘were totally ignorant of navigation’. Instead of sailing to Africa, the Spanish men ‘deceived’ the Africans and sailed towards the US and anchored off the shore of Long Island, New York on 26 August, after more than two months at sea. Some of the Africans went on shore in search of water and provisions and the ship was discovered by Lieutenant Gedner who ‘took possession of The Amistad, and the negroes on shore and in the vessel’ with the assistance of the staff and crew of the US Naval ship, The Washington. They ‘brought them to Connecticut and there libeled the vessel, the cargo, the negroes for salvage’. Taking possession is a language of the commodity fetishism that is not applicable to human beings and that is why officer Gedner did not take custody of the Spanish subjects on board.


Instead of being libeled for salvage as thingified human beings, Ruiz and Montez filed their own claims as owners of the commodified Africans who, or ‘which’, they called their slaves and ‘prayed’ that they and the cargo should be delivered to them or to agents of the government of Spain. Also, those who helped to capture “the negroes” on shore filed libels for a share of the expected profits from their eventual sale into slavery. Writing about the outcome of the case of L’Amistad, Du Bois observed that despite being freed by the Supreme Court, the Senate made many attempts to indemnify those who claimed ownership of the Africans as property:

Such proceedings well illustrate the new tendency of the proslavery party to neglect the enforcement of the slave-trade laws, in a frantic defence of the remotest ramparts of slave property (Du Bois, 1896, 1906: 142).[7]


The question of whether people of African descent and women were human beings or property was central to the Amistad case and went beyond it, having preceded the case and followed it. The defense of property rights was always central to the US constitution and was privileged much more than human rights. That was why the Bill of Rights Amendments to the constitution came as an afterthought to founding fathers who owned people as property and who treated women as their properties. The problem with a property test of citizenship is that there will always be people who are without property even while possessing citizenship as a birthright. Children generally owned no property of their own until and unless they inherited or made it as adults, and women were deprived of property ownership unless they inherited it from their fathers or husbands. Poor people and the enslaved might have possessions but they generally lacked property and yet they remained human. This is a major contradiction in the American dream – the dream of a house and a car and a family is not accessible to all Americans even though everyone has the equal democratic access to the dream world of fantasy. President Barrack Obama highlighted this as one of the flaws in the US Constitution in the sense that private property rights trump the commonwealth, given that once upon a time, people were seen as private property of others and people without property were excluded from the citizenship right to the franchise. ‘Our Constitution places the ownership of private property at the center of our system of rights’, wrote Obama in The Audacity of Hope where he argued that public good is more important than private property because the road to your private property, for instance, was built by the public and even those who have no private property remain equal citizens deserving of dignity, not to be commodified nor dehumanized, thingified, owned.[8]


From Slave Pen to Penitentiary


One of the lessons from history is that the laws made to control enslaved people tends to be extended to the rest of the population especially after slavery is ended. W.E.B. Du Bois warned against the criminalization of newly freed enslaved African Americans,  in The Philadelphia Negro.[9] They were prohibited from walking in the parks, their votes were fraudulently seized by political clubs, and they were arrested and sold to farmers or used to perform public works without pay. Du Bois implied that if law enforcement continued to ignore the crimes of the business class and instead obsessed about criminalizing the innocent and the guilty poor alike, the impact would be felt by the White poor, too, and not by the former enslaved people only. It is important to remember that women, including White women, could not vote at a time that Black men were being disenfranchized through voter intimidation that continued long after women got the right to vote. In the magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois wondered why the poor Whites who did not enslave Africans accepted the social and psychological wages of whiteness to the benefit of the White bourgeoisie whereas if the poor united in the political process, they would have elected governments that were favorable to the poor.[10] The tendency is for people to think that only those who would benefit from certain policies would agitate for them or resist policies that affected them adversely but Du Bois called for compassion towards those who suffer because chances are that the suffering might be generalized to all the poor, despised and oppressed in a society while their victories would be in the interest of all, calling for alliances and coalitions to defeat oppressive practices everywhere.


In his book, Slavery and the Penal System, Thorsten Sellin used evidence from ancient slavery and New World slavery to make the point that harsh punishments reserved for the enslaved by private enslavers did not remain exclusive to the enslaved for long because they slowly became the norm that the conscience of the society was willing to tolerate as public policy.[11] During slavery, drunk English men also went about singing that the English man would never, never, never be a slave but Marx reminded them that they were wage slaves all right.[12] What Sellin got wrong in his book was the claim that the enslaved had no power to testify against the enslavers in a court of law whereas the Amistad Africans did testify while being discouraged from doing so; though it is true that defendants in courts are rarely heard these days because most cases are plea-bargained. C.L.R. James started The Black Jacobins with the case against Le Jeune who tortured some enslaved Africans to death and who was convicted initially on the testimony of the enslaved,  before the governor intervened to say that he must be freed because the safety of the entire island depended on his acquittal.[13] If only the court in San Domingo had used that case to abolish slavery once and for all, if only the US Supreme Court had used the case of the Amistad to abolish slavery as unconstitutional and inhumane, the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the Haitian revolution and in the civil war in the US could have been spared. Long before Sellin’s book, Ida B. Wells made a similar point more graphically by demonstrating that the terrorism of lynching was never reserved only for African Americans but was extended to poor Whites who were about one-third of the over three thousand cases of lynching that Wells documented.[14]


The haunting of the US by the prison-industrial complex today has been traced back to the institutionalization of “the slave pen” as a means of social control reserved for enslaved Africans.[15] Many scholars have observed that the penitentiary evolved from “the slave pen” and now holds over two million poor people irrespective of racial, ethnic, or gender differences.[16] Some people may have supported the expansion of mass incarceration in the past because they believed that it was a means for controlling African Americans and Latinos but the impact on poor Whites is also significant. Michelle Alexander sees the problem as indicative of the lack of racial justice in the US but the evidence suggests that it is an articulation of racial, class, and gender injustice that affects lots of poor Whites, too.[17] If the Amistad Africans had lost their case and were handed over to Spain, they would most likely have been executed for killing a white man. Many White people would have supported the death penalty for them if convicted just as they appear to support the police today when criticized for violence against Black people. Unknown to White supporters of police violence against Black people is the fact that the police kill twice more White people than they kill Black people, and it is just that the rate of killing Black people and Native Americans by the police is much higher than the rate of killing Whites.[18]


Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere:


The Accursed Share Theorem was used by Jean Baudrillard to theorize the fact that all attempts to eliminate difference would end up threatening the existence of all and not just that of the other.[19] Martin Luther King Jr. conceptualized this accursed share theorem with the hypothesis that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. In the ‘I Have A Dream Speech’, there is a hidden prophetic truth that is missed by most. He was referring to the willingness of activists of all racial and religious backgrounds to go to jail in defiance of unjust laws. He said that irrespective of racial, gender, class, religious or national differences, ‘we will go to jail together’. Well, he could have been theorizing the mass incarceration of today that spares neither the White nor the Black poor, just as police violence is not reserved for only the African American poor. In other words, the entire society would pay a terrible price whenever any group is targeted for oppression and dehumanization, even though the prices paid by all are never equal. For instance, the eagerness to restrict the movement of “runaway” enslaved people in the US resulted in the compromise called the Fugitive Slave Act which probably prevented the lawmakers from thinking about adding the right to freedom of movement to the constitution. Unlike the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is no explicit provision for the freedom of movement in the US constitution. Instead the US enslavers who framed the constitution, insisted on the power to use slavery or forced labor as punishment for crime to the disadvantage of the poor who are engaged in coerced prison labor today. This was predicted by Rusche and Kirkeimer in Punishment and Social Structure, though they thought that penal labor would be more likely to be found in a slave society.[20] The US apparently abolished slavery with the 13th Amendment while retaining it as punishment for crime. The disenfranchisement of ex-felons and the incarceration of debtors in the US have combined with the war on the poor in the guise of the war on drugs,  to make the prison population in the US obscenely obese compared to other industrialized countries. The war at home is correlated with foreign wars to create a culture of violence in which some US citizens have continued to terrorize their communities and families,  the same way that they terrorized the enslaved for centuries. As Bob Marley and the Wailers put it, ‘When the rain falls, it won’t fall on one man’s housetop’.


The Articulation Model


The legal system saw itself as a scientific system that relied on evidence and rules, trained professionals and a hierarchy of authority, to prevent errors from being made, according to the rational bureaucratic model of Max Weber.[21] Yet, even Weber recognized that sometimes, charismatic authority from a religious sect like Protestantism could be significant in the determination of the formation of an economic system like capitalism. Weber visited the US to interview pioneers in order to help him to refute the theory of Marx that the mode of production was the determiner of the shape of the society, including the legal system. Weber said that the Protestant teaching that wealth is a sign of Divine blessing must have driven capitalists to accumulate more wealth and so, the spirit of capitalism emerged first in Protestant countries. Du Bois showed in Black Reconstruction that Weber was mistaken because it was the unpaid labor of millions of enslaved Africans for hundreds of years that created the wealth of capitalists in Europe and in the Americas, as Marx proved and as CLR James, Eric Williams, and Walter Rodney later confirmed: ‘A Negro is a Negro. Only under certain conditions does he become a slave’ (Marx, 1954). The Protestants of New England tried to turn the Amistad Africans into Christians by giving them slave names and a Bible but they insisted on retaining their African names. Today, many people of African descent still bear slave names and practice the Protestant faith but they remain poor because they have not benefitted from centuries of enslaving millions of people to work without pay. As a homage to the Africans who liberated themselves from captivity on L’Amistad, maybe we should change the name of this Lecture Series and Annual Award by giving it an African name. The apologists of slavery must be laughing at us for retaining the name of a slave ship as a thing of honor for people of African descent, for as Rastafari say: ‘Fire upon slave ship named Amistad!’ Maybe we should rename it the Africana Award and decenter the Spanish ship which should have been auctioned off and given to the Africans on board as part of their reparations.


I would have suggested that we call it the Mende Lecture Series but all Africans are not Mende. Just because the initial human trafficking ship set sail from what is called Sierra Leone today does not prove that all the captives were Mende. Some Africans could have been captured in other parts of Africa and forced into the original ship that sailed from Mende sea port. Looking at the names of the captives as listed by the Supreme Court, I can recognize some names that sound like Igbo names. It is also a fact that the Igbo made up a significant number of the Africans kidnapped and trafficked into slavery, according to Douglas Chambers, not because they loved money so much that they would sell their own mothers as some Nigerians now stereotype them, but because they were democratic and without any central authorities and standing armies to defend them against raiders.[22] You may have heard of Igbo Landing in Georgia where a group of captured Igbo allegedly decided to drown themselves en-masse rather than be enslaved, much like the Amistad captive who chose to stay back in the US but whose tombstone reported that he was drowned; no he did not drown, he was drowned. The Igbo were likely drowned en-masse rather than drowning themselves in mass suicide perhaps following an uprising that is better described as Igbo Rising and not Igbo Landing for the Igbo detest suicide. If many of the recaptured captives returned to Sierra Leone by the British were known to be Igbo and if some of them even wrote an Igbo text book to teach the language to those who later accompanied evangelists to Igboland and helped to translate the Igbo Bible,[23] then I am almost certain that there was an articulation or intersectionality of African nationalities among the Africans on the Amistad.


The articulation model was developed by Stuart Hall who borrowed from Marx the idea that sometimes, race relations become part of the material conditions that articulate or intersect with class relations and with gender relations under capitalism.[24] For instance, it did not make sense to go to apartheid South Africa and tell the anti-apartheid activists that they were wrong all the time because what they were facing was neither racism, nor sexism but class struggles under ‘the economy all mighty’. The comrades would have laughed at such crude economic determinism because they knew that even poor whites enjoyed their white privileges under apartheid and were the eager foot soldiers that enforced racial segregation just as the poor whites did during the centuries of slavery and the poor Germans did under Nazi hegemony. Cabral, Rodney, Fanon, Angela Davis, bell hooks, and James made similar points that it was not a choice of either racism or class exploitation or gender oppression when it came to a choice to fight for freedom under white supremacist imperialist patriarchy.[25] Stuart Hall reminds us that people do not experience these systems of oppression separately because they are articulated, disarticulated and rearticulated in the shared experiences of the masses (White and Black) contrary to the tendency to treat them as independent variables to be isolated in analysis. Crude economists choose to emphasize class struggles only, race men prioritized racism as the main problem for Black people, while feminists insisted that sexism was the core problem for women. Hall says that we need to see that although these social relations are different, they are never separate in practice and must therefore be fought together especially because they pose a threat to all under authoritarian populism.[26]


The Frankfurt school responded to the crimes of Nazism by formulating Critical Theory, with emphasis on class oppression and the unfinished project of modernism, but their experience in Germany should have alerted them to the racism and sexism that were part of the Nazi agenda, not just class exploitation and oppression.[27] This Critical School of Frankfurt was adopted by scholars in the Sociology of Law to show that poor people lacked access to justice.[28] That is true but it was not the only problem with the law. Racism also runs through the system even against rich or highly educated people who are targeted because of their appearance just as women are systematically discriminated against for their gender. Du Bois and others had been pointing this out all along but Eurocentric sociologists chose to ignore his insights. Feminists came along and started emphasizing the gender dimension as the main thing that mattered to women but Critical Race Theory quickly stepped up to develop the intersectionality perspective along the same lines as the articulation theory of Stuart Hall who actually used the word ‘intersect’ in his 1980 essay before the 1989 influential essay of Kimberley Crenshaw on intersection of race and sex.[29]


The theory of articulation or intersectionality helps to explain why people from different racial, class, and gender backgrounds have always aligned and formed coalitions to successfully struggle against systems of injustice that constitute a threat to all and not exclusively as problems only for those targeted. The Amistad case shows that the Africans did not fight alone. Rich and poor people, Blacks and Whites, men and women, struggled together to win their limited victories. This was also true of the broader abolitionist movement, the struggle against Jim Crow and for Civil Rights, the anti-apartheid struggle, the struggle for universal suffrage, the struggle against Nazism, and the decolonization movement. Contrary to assumptions in political struggle, people are not always divided by selfish interests regarding who gets what, when and how. Sometimes, human beings are capable of supporting the oppressed even when they do not share directly in the experience of the oppression but they are aware that if the oppressors get away with picking on one group, they would likely expand the attack to other groups; and once the struggle is won by progressive forces, the deepening of democracy and expansion of freedom will benefit everyone. This lesson of international solidarity should be taught along the lines of Martin Luther King Junior who said that we all live in one World House left to us by a great ancestor, a house that Chinua Achebe called Mbari in the Igbo tradition of communal clay miniature houses peopled with inhabitants from different racial groups as a symbol of tolerance, a tradition that Desmond Tutu identified as Ubuntu – the bundle of humanity: I am because we are, not I think, therefore I am.[30]


Reparative Justice


Finally, let us conclude with the campaign for reparative justice to which I contributed a documentary in 2001 and an Ashgate book chapter of the same title in 2004, recently republished in 2017 by Routledge.[31] When I presented that chapter and the documentary in St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago, at a conference organized by UNESCO to mark the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, in 2008, a young journalist interviewed me and gave me a two-page spread in one of the dailies but a radio DJ used my presentation to address his daily comic show about ‘Things That Make Me Vex’. He listed all the people who deserve reparations, too, if people of African descent should be paid reparations. The UNESCO office in Jamaica requested my chapter for possible publication in a book that they proposed and I sent the chapter with the copyright permission but never heard back from them. I am happy to see that the term that I used, ‘reparative justice’, has been adopted by Caribbean countries in their law suit against European powers that enslaved Africans.  Prof Hilary Beckles, Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies (we were colleagues on different campuses) invoked this term when he delivered the Amistad Lecture in 2017 and he confessed that reparative justice was always in his consciousness if only ‘subliminally’. I hope that my presentations helped to raise the consciousness of the Caribbean to encourage the demand for reparations whereas they may have been thinking of it as alimony after the divorce, the wrong analogy used by Professor Hilary Beckles. Slavery was not a marriage, it was an organized crime against humanity.[32] Rasta may have to change their chants from repatriation is a must to reparation is a must! Almost every other group got reparations, only racism-sexism-imperialism block that of Africans. When the University of Glasgow pledged $10 million towards slavery reparations to the University of the West Indies, there should have been an offer to share that with universities in Africa and with Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the US.


The strange thing is that the Caribbean countries are only demanding for reparations for themselves and not also for mother Africa, contrary to my preference for a Pan African strategy which was once supported by the assassinated Chief Moshood K.O. Abiola following a conference on this issue in Nigeria in the 1980s. People of African descent should unite and demand reparations for all people of African descent and include demands from the rich Arab states for the Trans-Sahara Slavery that preyed on Africans for 500 years before the European slavery, as Walter Rodney implied in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. In the US today, those who identify as American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) claim that they alone deserve reparations and question why an African actress should be cast to play Harriet Tubman. One journalist even falsely claimed that it was the Igbo who sold the ancestors of Harriet Tubman and so an Igbo woman should not be honored with the role of representing one of those that they sold into slavery. This is a question that students have asked me in the Caribbean and in the US and it was the first question that was asked when Dr. Blyden presented the 16th Amistad lecture last year: ‘Were you not the ones who sold us?’


I often answer that question by stating that I would have been among the warriors who fought to keep our ancestors from being captured and enslaved as Oluada Ekwuanu (Voiceless Unheard) revealed in his Interesting Narratives of 1789.[33] The question does not come only from students but also from highly educated people like Henry Louis Gates who asked market women in Africa how it felt to meet the descendant of one of those that they sold into slavery in the past, though Gates never asked the White crew of his BBC documentary, Wonders of the African World, how it felt to work with a descendant of those that their ancestors enslaved for hundreds of years?[34] The Amistad shows that it was not a trade of the sort in which Africans put their children on shelves with prices. They were kidnapped and trafficked by Europeans with the help of their agents. Du Bois completely rejected the idea that it was a legal trade by showing that there were laws to suppress the trafficking, right from the start, due to fears of insurrection with increasing numbers while no African state ever made laws legalizing the kidnapping of Africans for enslavement. It was a crime against humanity from start to finish and it should be addressed with reparative justice.


The trade question must have motivated Eric Williams to dedicate his doctoral dissertation at Oxford University to the question of the relationship between Capitalism and Slavery.[35] He concluded that it was not really a trade because the Africans continued to resist all the way from the ships during the middle passage to the plantations to make slavery unsustainable under capitalism. Walter Rodney returned to the propaganda of history that suggested that Africans had themselves to blame for selling themselves into slavery and he found that it was not a trade but class warfare in which a few African leaders were duped to wage war against fellow Africans on behalf of European traffickers. The majority of Africans remained warriors and activists against slavery.[36]

The poor Whites who resist the demand for reparations by people of African descent should realize that the enslavement of Africans was also used to oppress their poor ancestors who were paid slave wages and were conscripted into the Civil War to fight for the continuation of slavery, paying with hundreds of thousands of their lives. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere and that was why many White people joined the abolitionist struggle. The poor Whites today need to join the demand for reparative justice to atone for the crimes against humanity that were visited against people of African descent.


Let me end by quoting the decisive view of Frantz Fanon on the question of reparations that I quoted in my documentary and book chapter on reparative justice. This view from his conclusion to the chapter, ‘Concerning Violence’ or the section that he called ‘Violence in International Relations’ in The Wretched of the Earth is often concealed by newspapers that prefer to quote from Black Skin White Masks where Fanon was addressing the psychology of racial prejudice (''I have neither the right nor the duty to claim reparation for the domestication of my ancestors….There is no Negro mission; there is no white burden….I am not the slave of Slavery that dehumanized my ancestors'', cited in a Letter to the Editor, New York Times, Sept. 23, 2001) to suggest that Fanon opposed reparations for slavery and colonialism. On the contrary, Fanon rejected apologies that the granting of independence was a form of ‘moral reparation’ because, according to him, moral reparations will not feed us. He referred to the fact that Germany was forced by other European states to pay reparations and return looted treasures after the imperialist world wars over which European power would have the lion’s share of colonies in Africa. Therefore, he concluded that:

“Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from the underdeveloped peoples. The ports of Holland, the docks of Bordeaux and Liverpool were specialized in the Negro slave trade, and owe their renown to millions of deported slaves. So when we hear the head of a European state declare with his hand on his heart that he must come to the aid of the poor underdeveloped peoples, we do not tremble with gratitude. Quite the contrary; we say to ourselves: "It's a just reparation which will be paid to us.”[37]


Although Fanon is often mischaracterized as an apostle of violence in African political theory, he actually argued for the use of education and mass mobilization of the people for democratic change with the assistance of revolutionary literature.[38] Obviously, as a psychiatrist, he analyzed violence to explain why the enslaved and the colonized sometimes returned the violence of the oppressors against them. Fanon did not give a prescription of violence as a strategy, he offered a psychiatric explanation of why such violence occurs. He even presented such violence as madness by a torture victim who runs amok and runs down the street with a kitchen knife. Such insanity is also observable in the white torture official who went home from work to torture his wife and children. The violence of the relatively powerless is also visited mostly against other people who were relatively powerless to such an extent that the armed uprising by the captive Africans cannot be read as a strategy for Africans today. Whenever Africans are armed at home (Biafra, Rwanda, Congo, Liberia, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Libya, Mali, Boko Haram) and in the Diaspora, they have tended to use such arms to kill and wound people of African descent more than they threaten any other group of people. This is not different than people of European descent who have also used armaments and defective products heavily against fellow Europeans in genocidal proportions, just as Asians tend to kill fellow Asians and Arabs tend to kill fellow Arabs more than they kill any other group.


The strategy of waging nonviolent battles within the law was what ultimately won the freedom of the Amistad Africans and this was the major strategy adopted by the Civil Rights Movement under the leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People founded by Du Bois, Ida B. Wells and others. The Black Panther Party did not require the right to carry arms as one of the principles in the ten-point program because the bourgeois constitution already guaranteed the right to bear arms. So, carrying a gun did not make you a revolutionary, otherwise the police and the military will be the greatest revolutionaries. The Panthers also relied on legal battles in court to free their leaders when they were falsely accused and relied on revolutionary literature to arm the people while offering free medical care and free breakfast programs. Malcolm X explained in his speech, ‘The Ballot or the Bullet’, that whenever the ballot is allowed, it should be the preferred option for the sheer numbers of the oppressed would make electoral victories important in the struggle to end oppression. However, the pursuit of reparative justice should not be limited to battles in the court rooms because such litigations tend to make money for lawyers who take up to 40% of the payouts. Moreover, those who won reparations in historic cases of injustice rarely won them in courts of law but through campaigns by journalists, investigation by legislators and lobbying of the executive to agree to reparative justice demands.





[1] Du Bois, W.E.B. (1904) The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America: 1638-1870, Harvard Historical Studies, Vol.1., Harvard University.

[2] Williams, Eric (1945) Capitalism and Slavery, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press.

[3] Rodney, Walter (1970) A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545 to 1800, Oxford University Press.

[4] Agozino, Biko (1997) Black Women and the Criminal Justice System: Towards the Decolonization of Victimization, Aldershot, Ashgate, republished by Routledge, 2018.

[5] Davies, Margaret (2019) ‘Can property be justified in an Entangled World?’ In special issue of Globalizations, edited by Maria Giannacopoulos and Biko Agozino,


[6] Pashukanis, E.B. (1924) Law and Marxism: A General Theory, Moscow, Progress Press.


[7] Du Bois, W.E.B. (1904) op. cit


[8] Obama, Barack (2008) The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, New York, Vintage.

[9] Du Bois, W.E.B. (1896, 1999) The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.


[10] Du Bois, W.E.B. (1935, 1998) Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880, New York, Free Press.


[11] Sellin, J. Thorsten (1976) Slavery and the Penal System, New York, Elsevier.

[12] Marx, Karl (1954) Capital, Vol 1, Moscow, Progress.

[13] James, C.L.R. (1980) The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938), 3rd ed. London: Allison and Busby Limited.

[14] Wells, Ida B. (1972). Alfreda M. Duster. ed. Crusade For Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

[15] Baptist, Edward E. (2016) The Half that Has Not Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, New York, Basic Books. See also Shaun Gabbidon and Helen Taylor (2008) Race and Crime, Thousand Oakes, Sage.

[16] Wacquant, Loic (2009) Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity, Durham, Duke.

[17] Alexander, Michelle (2010) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, New York, The New Press.


[18] Agozino, Biko (2018) ‘Black Lives Matter Otherwise All Lives Do Not Matter’ in African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies, Vol.8, No.1.


[19] Baudrillard, Jean (1990) The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomenon, London, Verso.


[20] Rusche, G. and O. Kirchheimer (1939) Punishment and Social Structure. Columbia University Press (edn.) (1968).


[21] Weber, Max (1947) The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Translated by A.M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons. London: Collier Macmillan Publishers.


[22] Chambers, Douglas B. (2005) Murder in Montpellier: Igbo Africans in Virginia, Jackson, University of Mississippi Press.


[23] Achebe, Chinua (1999) Echi Di Ime: Taa Bu Gboo, Odenigbo Lecture, Owerri. Archdiocese of Owerri.

[24] Hall, Stuart (1980) "Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance." Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism. Paris: UNESCO, 1980. 305-345.


[25] Cabral, Amilcar (2016) Resistance and Decolonization, New York, Rowan & Littlefield; Rodney, Walter (1972) How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, London, Bogle l’Ouverture; Fanon, Frantz (1963) The Wretched of the Earth, New York, Penguin; Davis, Angela (1983) Women, Race and Class, New York, Vintage; hooks, bell (1981) Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism, Boston, New Beacon; and James, C.L.R. (1980), op cit.

[26] Hall, Stuart (2016) Cultural Studies 1983, Durham, Duke University Press.

[27] Habermas, Jürgen. (1987). The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. MIT Press.


[28] Unger, Roberto Mangabeira, The Critical Legal Studies Movement. New York:Verso, 2015.


[29] Crenshaw, Kimberle (1989) ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’ in University of Chicago Legal Forum.

[30] King, Jr., Martin Luther (1968) Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community?, Boston, Beacon Press; Achebe, Chinua (2012) There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, New York, Penguin; Tutu, Desmond and Tutu, Mpho (2014) The Book of Forgiving, New York, Harper.


[31] Agozino, Biko (2004) ‘Reparative Justice: A Pan African Criminology Primer’ in Anita Kalunta-Crumpton and Biko Agozino, eds., Pan African Issues in Crime and Punishment, Aldershot, Ashgate, republished in 2018 by Routledge; see also, Biko Agozino (2001) Reparative Justice, Color, 35 minutes, Lagos, Africa Independent Television. See reference to this theory in Shaun Gabbidon (2008), Criminological Perspectives on Race and Crime, New York, Taylor & Francis..


[32] Agozino, Biko (2003) Counter-Colonial Criminology: A Critique of Imperialist Reason, London, Pluto.

[33] Equiano, Olaudah (1789) The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written By Himself, London


[34] Gates, Henry Louis (1999) Wonders of the African World, New York, Alfred Knopff

[35] Williams, Eric (1945) Op. Cit


[36] Rodney, Walter (1970) Op. Cit


[37] Fanon, Frantz (1963: 58), Op. Cit..

[38] Agozino, Biko (2003) Op Cit.


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