How to think about reparations in a context of racial capitalism and ecocide, where human lives have a fixed value and Mother Earth’s labor, none? Linda Quiquivix describes this context and draws from Maroon and Zapatista experiences as revolutionary alternatives to it.
Article published in The Funambulist 30 (July-August 2020) Reparations. Click here to access the rest of the issue.
In debates on reparations in the United States, a dominant objection that arises is, “I never owned any slaves.” This is said mostly by Americans who selectively remember that every generation leaves its inheritances. They fondly recall the legacy of freedom gifted to their country by its Founding Fathers but regret any reminder that their Fathers owned slaves, which beyond a regrettable footnote in history, was itself the foundation for U.S. freedom.
U.S. freedom is often understood as the ability to individually shape one’s life while participating in civil relations within the U.S. project. These relations are facilitated through a set of rights that uphold equality, property ownership, and contractual agreements. We can put that a different way by saying that Americans define themselves against what they are not: the enslaved, those whose lives are shaped by an external force; those outside of civil society; those who cannot own property because they are property; those who are denied consent. This dualistic logic that requires a conceptual antithesis in order to provide meaning is so dominant Western philosophy, the modern world itself was only able to invent Europe through the invention of non-Europe. The Europe that began to be built in 1492 as a relatively peaceful geography, one of friendly relations between nations and of international law, could only gain meaning through the invention, both conceptually and materially, of non-Europe as a geography where Europeans could export violence, lawlessness, and enact war. This dualistic logic also exists externally: the unity of Europe/non-Europe has fashioned itself as a one-world world, the only world possible that must be imposed universally, inferiorizing and denying the existence of other worlds that hold other ways of living and relating.
As a project of Europe/non-Europe, the United States inherited this logic of negation, where the genocide of Indigenous peoples were its attempts to extinguish other possible worlds and the invention of the Black-African-as-slave would serve as the negative mirror of what was to become the white-American-as-free-subject. And perhaps because the ability to determine one’s own life is at stake most with American freedom, at its most abstract level, the work of the U.S. foundational dualism might be to sort between those who must die so that others can live.
The dismantlement of chattel slavery over 150 years ago in the U.S. has made it difficult for many to understand how this dual inheritance of freedom/slavery can persist today in U.S. life. Most Americans learn to believe the enslavement of Africans and was limited to an economic function (exploitation for profit) within a specific geography (the plantation). In addition, from the moment enslaved people freed themselves from chattel slavery and could enter into new categories previously unavailable to them, namely as waged workers and citizens, the category of the slave became understood only as a legal one that, now outlawed, could appear to no longer exist. While formally no longer enslaved, the same formative relation that decides who dies so that others may live became upheld explicitly by the police — themselves former slave catchers — whose job has been to guard the line between whiteness and Blackness, hence preserving the equation that Blackness equals death. The genealogical link from slavery to mass Black incarceration that exists today continues to tie blackness onto the captivity of “slaveness” that is necessary to continue giving meaning to the free American subject. The murders of Black people at the hands of the police and vigilantes that frequently go unpunished, in fact, need to have no reason to destroy Black lives other than as a reminder that, in the U.S., one is free to do so.