In a new book entitled The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, TransAfrica founder and president Randall Robinson argues that America still owes an enormous debt to Africans and African Americans for the incalculable damage that backs have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of nearly two hundred and fifty years of slavery and segregation. [includes rush transcript]
- Randall Robinson, founder and President of TransAfrica.
AMY GOODMAN: What does America owe to blacks? That is the question that Randall Robinson poses in his new book, The Debt. Randall Robinson, the executive director and founder of the organization TransAfrica, which helped to spearhead the movement to influence U.S. policies toward Africa and the Caribbean, helped to lead the fight against apartheid in South Africa. He recently gave a speech on the issue: “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks.”
RANDALL ROBINSON: And so, Americans woke up looking at Somalia in 1993, when we invaded, and we couldn’t understand it. But years before, one wondered what happened to Somalia. Well, Somalia is an ancient culture, thousands of years old. Mogadishu, its capital, was started in the eleventh century. Their proudest product is poetry, a wonderful coherent working society.
But Siyad Barre said he was a communist and got aid from the Soviets, and arms began to flow in there like they flowed into Ethiopia from us. And then Haile Selassie was overthrown in Ethiopia and replaced by a Marxist Leninist named Mengistu, who had not smiled since 1952. And we said to ourselves, we can’t give arms to a Marxist Leninist, and it was like the American ambassador sat down in that lounge in New York at the U.N. with the Soviet ambassador, looked at each other, winked and switched sides. That’s when Soviet arms started to go into Ethiopia and American arms started to go into Somalian.
From 1987 until 1977 until 1989, the United States gave to a bloodthirsty dictator in Somalia $887 million in American aid, $200 million in arms, tanks, surface-to-air missiles, mortars, recoilers, rifles, military training. You name it, we gave it to him. And with it, he destroyed his country.
And so, when we went in in 1993, and Americans opened their newspapers and saw that Somalia had come apart, most Americans said, “What happened to Somalia?” We happened to Somalia. But most of us could not understand it, because we come in at the end of the movie.
One looks at Haiti, and people have to wonder, for those of us who go to the Caribbean all the time, you know in the winter months we love to get down there in Barbados, in Jamaica, and drink that rum and look at the palm trees sway and all of that kind of stuff. And my wife Hazel and I go to her country, St. Kitts — I call it mine now. And we go down there in the winter, say, “Isn’t this lovely, these democratic, stable, middle-income countries that we don’t appreciate up here enough?”
What was different about Haiti? What happened to Haiti? Why has it had such a difficult time? Well, in the 1700s, Haiti was the prize principal piece of real estate, as the major building block of the French global empire. And France had the most notorious slave system on earth. I mean, they treated slaves like dogs. They didn’t believe in giving a slave medicine or nutrition or food or any kind of care at all. If a slave died, replace him or her. They even had this practice of putting slaves in barrels and driving nails through the barrels and rolling it down a hill for recreation, listening to the screams of people inside until they died before the barrel came to rest at the bottom. Throwing people into burning brick ovens, they did.
And so, towards the end of the 1700s, these slaves got an idea that they were going to militarily take on the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. And they did. Napoleon sent his brother-in-law with 60,000 troops. And twelve years later, the slaves had defeated Napoleon Bonaparte under the leadership of Henri Christophe, who fought with George Washington at Savannah in the American Revolution, and they put in place the world’s first black republic. The world’s first successful slave revolt.
They thought that Thomas Jefferson sitting up in Charlottesville was going to be ecstatic because they were free. But Thomas Jefferson looked outside the window at Monticello and saw the slaves working in the field and decided that what they had done in Haiti was not a good idea, for if they could do that in Haiti, they might get ideas at Monticello, they might get ideas in Louisiana, they might get ideas in Georgia, in South Carolina and North Carolina.
And so, these people who had fought so hard for their freedom in Haiti, that were led to expect support from America, these people who had so weakened France as to make the Louisiana Purchase possible for Thomas Jefferson, these people were disappointed, for it was Thomas Jefferson who joined with Europe in imposing on this new black republic a global economic embargo that would last until the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States. And so, from the very beginning, it was our company — country that crippled the new black republic of Haiti.
Then we had Woodrow Wilson early in this century during World War I, who invaded because we thought the Germans had design —
It was those people we had armed in Haiti who overthrew their first democratic government. And it was the president for whom I voted, the president that we helped to bring to office, who picked up out of the sea Haitians fleeing from tyranny — we were picking up Cubans, bringing them to Miami, making them eligible for American citizenship within a year — picking up Haitians, taking them back to a certain death in Port-au-Prince.
Bill Clinton, who criticized George Bush for this policy, did it with even greater relish, because he thought that people in Florida wanted Cuban refugees and did not want Haitian refugees, because they were black. But still, we settled.
The last analysis, we have many great reasons in the world to have righteous anger. But we cannot protest those things about which we do not know and do not follow. Information is everything. Without it, we have no hope to survive and prosper in the world.
And now, the communist bloc has fallen apart. The question is: what will American policy be towards the world now and towards the developing world, towards Africa, towards Asia, towards the Caribbean? There is now afoot in the Congress something called the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. Sounds good. The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act sounds like America is about to do something nice for Africa, the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act.
I learned a long time ago that it wasn’t really communism that we were opposed to. We were opposed to any threat to transnational corporations.
But when Zaire was founded, I was in college, and Patrice Lumumba was the first head of state. But he said something foolish like “Congo for the Congolese.” We didn’t like the sound of that. And it was Dwight David Eisenhower who approved plans to assassinate the first leader of Congo. And we replaced him with our CIA, with Mobutu, the world’s first successful state kleptocrat, the only leader I’ve ever known who had crystal chandeliers hanging on the outside of his house. He was imposed by us. He was armed by us. He was kept by us. And he was sustained by us. And eventually he was discarded by us, because after the demise of the Soviet Union we no longer needed him.
No, it was not communism to which we were opposed. The Chinese are practicing something now called market Leninism. They call themselves communists, but we’re not opposed to China. We love China. Phil Knight can make Nikes in China for pennies. We love it and sell those Nikes to black kids in the United States for $200 a pop, with Michael Jordan’s face on the cover and Tiger Wood’s face on the other. Paying these people in Vietnam and Indonesia and China and other places less than a dollar a day, less than starvation wages to children as young as my eight-year-old daughter, working seven days a week, from can’t-see to can’t-see, under unsafe conditions. No, we love China. We don’t have a problem with what is called communism, as long as our capital is able to operate in your country in any way that we see fit.
So that is what the new American face to Africa is: the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. When I was in law school many years ago, boys don’t have to learn much more in reading legislation than the distinction between two words: “shall” and “may.” This act has everything that the United States is supposed to do for Africa as a “may,” and everything Africa is supposed to do for America as a “shall.” This act says that Africa, a country that — a continent that pays about 80% of every dollar that they earn out in debt service, debts that were rolled up when they were encouraged to build projects that they neither needed nor wanted, built by American and Western investors who took away their profit and left these countries with a debt. And so these countries need debt relief. But on the question of debt relief, the legislation says we “may” have debt forgiveness, but these countries “shall” privatize.
Privatize. You’re hearing all these new mantras now around the world. We like words like “globalization,” “privatization,” “structural adjustment,” all this kind of stuff that when you put it in the speech, I mean, it’s a painkiller. You just fall out your seat and go straight to sleep. But it is important stuff. It is the stuff of the twenty-first century. It is the stuff of power. It is the way those people whose faces you would never recognize are reacquiring Africa and the third world.
We are about to see the re-colonization of countries for which we fought very hard. And it means that — privatization means that they have to sell anything and everything the state owns, countries being forced to sell their harbors and their airports, countries being forced to sell anything people own in common, when it is known to us that the people of these countries individually have no capacity to purchase it from their own governments. And so, it is being offered at fire-sale prices to any bidders. And the bidders are led by the United States. And our country has its eyes on owning in African countries water systems and roads and telecommunications. And we’re saying to get any help from us, they must put these things on sale to us.
We’re asking these countries to do things we don’t allow other countries to do in our own country. It’s against the law for foreigners to own a domestic airline. It’s against the law for foreigners to own in the United States telecommunication facilities. Certain timberlands and farmlands and mining rights, you can’t own, but we’re saying to Africa they must sell them, and they must sell them to us.
In addition, we’re saying to these countries that they can no longer subsidize schooling for their kids. The governments can’t — the IMF says you can’t do that. They can no longer subsidize education, and so school enrollment is falling. They can no longer under the IMF subsidize inoculations, and so inoculations are falling. And we’re seeing the reemergence of life-claiming diseases like tuberculosis and diphtheria across the continent of Africa.
We’re saying they can no longer subsidize farming in their countries, and so we’re seeing food production fall. But we subsidize farming ourselves. We pay farmers in our country not to grow stuff. And when they grow too much, we dump it on African countries that can’t grow it for themselves anymore. So if we don’t have the information, we’re in trouble. We’ve got to know what we’re up to and how we are responsible for tenaciously opposing it.
I learned a long time ago, when I was in law school in the late '60s. I remember in the ’60s they had [inaudible]. This was at the height of people, like myself, who at the time thought we were revolutionaries. You know, everybody had a field jacket, and we were bad. We were all reading Frantz Fanon, reading stuff like The Wretched of the Earth — I couldn't understand a word of it — walking around talking about dialectical materialism. Somebody said hello. I’d say, “Dialectical materialism.” What is that? It’s not important. Dialectical materialism. We were throwing stuff like that down. I was bad. I had an Afro big enough to camp a snowstorm on.
One day, in my Harvard Law School’s corporation’s class, we were talking about American investment in South Africa and the extent to which we had propped up the apartheid system. And I rose on the floor of my class that day, and I struck a certain pose, and I was about to launch the greatest speech that had ever been made in the history of Harvard Law School. You know, I can tell this story any kind of way I want to. And I launched — and I want to tell you the thing started up here, it was like a pyramid. It started at a point, then it began to unfold, and it had — it had a certain poetry about it. It had certain seamlessness, and it was cogent, it was brilliant, it was artistic, and it was persuasive, and the thing got so good that I lost control of it. It became disembodied. And I went on with the thing. It was like some higher — some higher intelligence was using me as some kind of vessel. And I reached the conclusion, I threw it down like a gauntlet at the feet of my professor and said, “So there!” And the man looked at me and said, “Mr. Robinson, that is very nice, but the Divinity School is one block over and two blocks down.” And I learned on that day that things in this world don’t happen because they’re right. Right people lose all the time.
Things in this world happen, because principled, courageous, painstaking, tenacious, tireless, believing people devote their lives to making them right, people who understand that we’re where we are today in New Orleans, with Essence, because we’re standing on the shoulders of those who have come before. As Ed Lewis always talks about the role that his mother has played in his life, as I know the role that my parents played in mine, and understanding that we follow on the works of Harriet and Sojourner, Martin and Malcolm, that we owe somebody a debt.
When I went to law school in the first place, I understood that those people who burned down cities in this country bought my ticket to that law school. They didn’t go looking for people like me. They went looking for people like me, not people like them. And so it meant that people like me had a responsibility to people I would never meet across this planet, generations yet to be born. When we understand that and when we commit ourselves to understand that, we will know that we can change the direction of our world.
For all of these things, to reclaim Nigeria, to rebuild Haiti, to protect the Caribbean, to love Africa, to build Africa American institutions, to make us strong and united around the world, we must understand always where we came from and where we are trying to go. And understanding that, understanding clearly enough for all of us, we are nothing less or more than we have been for thousands of years: the sons and daughters of Africa. And as the sons and daughters of Africa, we must know that from Ouagadougou to New York City, from Kingston, Jamaica to Nairobi, Kenya, from Cape Town, South Africa to New Orleans, Louisiana, we must understand always, sons and daughters of Africa, for those who walk proud in our time, taking the baton from the last generation to the next. For the sons and daughters of Africa, we must know always that the blood that unites us is thicker than the waters that divide us. Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks.