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An interview with Gerald Horne

Daniel Jacobs and Luc Bronder-Giroux

Platypus Review 129 | September 2020

In anticipation of the U.S. presidential election, many on the Left have reconsidered the legacy of the American Revolution. While some have reconsidered this legacy in the wake of the obstacles faced by the candidacy of Bernie Sanders in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential election cycles, others have reconsidered this legacy as a counterrevolutionary settler colonial project. Against this background, the Platypus Affiliated Society has hosted two panel discussions and a lecture series on the legacy of the American Revolution and the Left. The full video of the most recent panel discussion is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvlbLgjnczo. The full lecture series is available at https://platypus1917.org/2020/06/06/the-legacy-of-the-american-revolution-a-platypus-lecture-series/.

On July 18, 2020, Daniel Jacobs and Luc Bronder-Giroux interviewed Gerald Horne, author and Moores Professor of History and African-American Studies at the University of Houston, to discuss the legacy of what Horne refers to as the “American Revolution” and the settler colonial project in light of the recent wave of protests in response to the killing of George Floyd by police and against the backdrop of the upcoming U.S. presidential election. What follows is an edited transcript of this discussion.

Daniel Jacobs: From a general standpoint, what led you to research the history of the 16th and 17th centuries with respect to the settler colonial project?

Gerald Horne: A number of factors led me in that direction. One is that I was looking for synthetic overviews of the 16th and 17th centuries and was unable generally speaking to find those overviews. You can find studies and monographs that deal with various aspects of those two centuries and, as my footnotes suggest, I draw upon those various studies extensively. The second point is when I started on this road I was generally dissatisfied with the origin stories, which I refer to often as creation myths, of the founding of the United States of America. I have also at various times referred to it as the immaculate conception theory of the founding of the United States of America. And, so, I was trying to develop a new story that I thought would be consistent with what is going on today. Because, fundamentally, it seems to me that the creation-myth story, even by its authors, is a bit incoherent. That is to say, supposedly, this country gets off to this great start with this grand constitution in the late 18th century but somehow runs off the rails with Donald J. Trump in 2016. Although, how the country ran off the rails remains unclear according to these authors. Then, as usual, there is a kind of technological determinism. That is to say, well, it’s all cable television: if it weren’t for cable television then 63 million people wouldn't have voted for Donald J. Trump. Of course, technological determinism is a favorite of many analysts of the United States of America. For example, we're told that, but for the development of the cotton gin, slavery would have withered away. But, damn it, that technology intervened, and then slavery expanded. Drat! So, secondly, in other words, I was seeking to create or to develop a new understanding of the origins of this settler colonial project. Of course, by the way, it is quite striking that the term settler colonialism oftentimes is not invoked by those who write about settler colonialism, interestingly enough. 

Third, as my CV suggests, I had written a number of books about those who were trying to propel the socialist project in the United States of America, particularly, although not exclusively Black Americans, and their triumphs and travails. One of the things I found with regards to that particular historiography is that those who have written on the socialist project oftentimes view that project in absolute terms. They will take the position that everything about it was bankrupt, and nothing was worth redeeming but then with regards to the U.S., which is a country founded upon massive enslavement and genocide, they tend to rationalize that and look at it relatively, and try to extract from that bloody morass what they consider to be something positive. So that struck me as being utterly contradictory, and so that impelled me likewise to go back in time to try to explore the history of this settler colonial project and perhaps shed light on why, to me, so many of its authors have given it a pass.

In that regard — I think I say this in the opening pages in my 17th century book — I think that there were so many Europeans who found the so-called American Dream in the U.S., and were lifted out of poverty. In fact, one of my colleagues at the University of Houston was, in a sense, reprimanding me for my historiographical turn because she told me that her parents had come from Europe, poverty-stricken, and they had been able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do well. So, what gives me the right to write so negatively? I'm supposed to overlook the fact that my ancestors were dragged over here involuntarily, enslaved. In other words, I'm supposed to sign up to white nationalism, basically, even though it delivers nothing except negativity towards me. So that is one of the points that I have extracted from my studies of the early history of the settler colonial project in North America.

DJ: In the begging of your most recent book, The Dawning of the Apocalypse (2020) you mention that the 1619 date, which is currently in the news, is notional at best or, alternatively, is like understanding the man without understanding the child. How does your most recent book about the long 16th century clarify your thesis about the 17th century and its lead up to the 18th century?

The Dawning of the Apocalypse

GH: My 16th-century book points out that the project of enslaving Africans precedes 1619. Even if you take an Anglo-centric view, it precedes 1619. As early as the founding of St. Augustine, Florida in 1565 you have enslaved Africans. The Spanish from their perch in Santo Domingo in the 1520s bring enslaved Africans to what is now South Carolina. And, of course, they defect to the Native American side and chase the Spanish back to the Caribbean.

This 16th-century book seeks to develop further the issues of whiteness and white supremacy that are troubling in the 17th-century book, and certainly in the 1776 book. I tell the story in the 16th-century book about the settler colonial project emerging in the context of religious conflicts between Protestant England and Catholic Spain. The former are the scrappy underdogs; the latter, Catholic Spain, had a religious qualification for settlement. And this is taking place in the midst of murderous conflict between these two religious factions. And, in a creative adaptation, the Protestants in London move away from a religious qualification for settlement towards a pan-European project which morphs into whiteness, which morphs into white supremacy. Therefore, even though London had expelled its Jewish population in 1291, approximately 200 years before the Spanish did — under the gun — these scrappy underdogs, the Protestant Londoners, opened their embrace to the Jewish community to be settlers. This, of course, eventuates in the fabled and vaunted First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing religious liberty that many of our credulous scholars have ascribed to some sort of an Enlightenment project which is rather curious since it is taking place in the midst of massacring of indigenous and mass enslaving of Africans. As I tell the story, this interpretation is fundamentally part of a rebranding that would make Madison Avenue blush.

When those religious factions that had been warring rebrand themselves as white they can better subjugate and subdue those not so endowed. In fact, if you look at that 16th-century book closely you will find that I suggest that the whiteness project even extends before this creative adaptation of the Londoners in the 16th century. You could extend it back to 1095 when so-called Christian Europe sought to reclaim what they called the Holy Land, which helped create a kind of pan-Europeanism grounded in a European identity. One of the points I try to make in the book we are discussing is how these concepts of race and racism basically extend and grow from religiosity. This is one reason why I say in the opening pages that many of the penalties ascribed and affixed to the Jewish population of England in the 13th century are then transferred to the new other — the Africans in the settlements in North America — as the religious folk begin to rebrand themselves.

As is well known, a turning point in European history comes in 1453 when the Ottoman Turks seize what is now Istanbul, then Constantinople, from the Christians, which creates an existential anxiety in what can fairly be called Christian Europe. This leads to the ongoing conflict between the Ottoman Turks and the Catholic powers. And, as I say in the book, one of the reasons we're sitting here speaking English is that perfidious Albion cuts a deal with the Muslims against the interests of their fellow Christians, the Catholics, and not only the Ottoman Turks but the Moroccans as well. And this not only helps them to steal a march on Catholic Spain, but it also helps to deliver a withering blow to Africa itself in 1591, when a joint English-Moroccan project leads to an attack on the Songhai Empire in central west Africa which is destabilized with negative results ricocheting and cascading as far south as today’s Nigeria softening up west Africa for the onrushing African slave trade.

DJ: In the second chapter of your most recent book you mention, “enslavement had always been an exceedingly ugly process, but seemed to reach new depths of decimation when combined with the untold wealth introduced by plundering the Americas.”[1] You just spoke about how the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453 and the spread of Europeans — southward into Africa and westwards into the New World — throughout the 15th century conditioned the development of the slave trade. How does slavery change then in the 16th century? What are these new depths of decimation? And, also, does it change again in the 17th century, or is it just a further extension?

GH: I think it is an elongated process of racialization. Even The Economist, the conservative British weekly which usually has its head stuck in a sensitive part of its posterior, acknowledged that racialization was the differentiation with regard to these forms of enslavement of Africans that arises in the 16th and 17th century in their recent cover story on the new ideology of race.[2] Now, in my 17th-century book I talk about the gradual process whereby the enslaved are initially designated as being non-Christian, which makes them worthy of enslavement — so-called heathens. Gradually that definition erodes, and they are racialized. They are enslaved because they are Black, and Blacks are inferior, but still they are going to be given the rescue of Christianity, supposedly. So, this kind of devaluation helps to shed light on the new depths to which slavery sinks with the onset of the transatlantic slave trade.

It is well known that there was a slave trade involving Muslims. For example, the Ottoman Turks enslaved Africans. But the Ottoman Turks enslaved everybody. Well, not exactly everybody, but you can see they enslaved eastern Europeans if you look at the history of Albania, Bosnia, and Bulgaria, for instance. And, of course, the north Africans, who were Muslims, as late as the early 19th century were enslaving Euro-American settlers and seafarers. Witness the Marine Hymn, “from the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli,” and all the stories about Thomas Jefferson, the U.S. president, not wanting to pay tribute or ransom to rescue these seafarers. But it is well known that a Black person, a person of African descent, could rise in Muslim societies, sometimes to the highest levels. I mean, Black people only began to rise to the highest levels in North America, you could say, in the late 20th century.

DJ: You mentioned, for example, the Italian prince Alessandro de' Medici.

GH: And in Mexico, you had a president of indigenous and African descent, Guerrero. Whereas, in the U.S. you have your first president of African descent in the 21st century, Barack Obama.

If there were a better understanding of this racialization process that is still haunting the U.S. it would shed light on the recent tumult that this nation has endured with the lynching on camera of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020.

DJ: Could you talk about what you call the second-mover advantage? At this point in the story, you are illustrating the backdrop against which Spain began to import slaves into the Caribbean, whereas England came late to that process. But there was indigenous resistance. There were slave revolts that had an effect on the decline of Spain and the future colonization of the mainland by England, the late-comer. I was wondering if you could talk about this second-mover advantage, as you put it.

GH: Basically, what was happening, particularly in the first half of the 16th century, was the indigenous and the Africans, on the one hand, and the Spanish, on the other, are going toe-to-toe, and they are engaging in a process of mutual exhaustion, of mutual weakening, of each other. And, therefore, when England finally is able to establish a settlement in the area it calls Virginia, named after the alleged Virgin Queen, Queen Elizabeth, in 1607, the Spanish, as I show, from their perch in St. Augustine, Florida, are not happy with this to put it mildly but they are tied down in Florida. They are not able to try to defeat the English from encroaching on what they consider to be their territory. Not only that, but, as I try to show throughout the book, the theological and ideological approach that the Spanish take to colonialism and the upcoming system known as capitalism is much too… they take religion much too seriously.

DJ: Is it that they are too feudal, so to speak? Is that one way to put it?

GH: That is one way to put it. Or another way to put it is that there is much more flexibility, shall we say, with regard to the religion of the Londoners, and of the Dutch too. The Dutch play a major role in my story and in the history of the rise of colonialism and capitalism. They are much more flexible. The heterogeneity of Protestantism versus the stolidity or the monolithic nature of Catholicism is much better suited to this new era of colonialism and a rising capitalism. For example, just in terms of having enough settlers to confront the indigenous and the Africans, if you have a religious qualifier for settlement that limits you tremendously. But look at the United States of America. This is what is so almost mind-boggling about the U.S.: you have this identity, whiteness, which you would think is like homo sapiens: it is something that is normal and natural...

I always find it ironic, if not insulting, that those defined as white oftentimes use the term “identity politics” to put down Black people in particular and their organizations when whiteness is nothing more than identity politics: it is militarized identity politics! You have those who were warring over identity in Europe: English versus Irish, English versus Scots, English versus Welsh, British versus German, German versus Pole, Pole versus Russian, Serb versus Croat, Northern Italian versus Southern Italian. All of the sudden, when they cross the Atlantic, they are redefined as white. As a matter of fact, the identity is so capacious that even those who do not have roots in Europe can take on this moniker. I mean you remember Ralph Nader, who is a Lebanese Christian? He is defined as white. You have Iranian and Jewish people in Los Angeles who are defined as white. I mean, come on folks, let's have some interrogation of these fundamental concepts! Stop trying to normalize it and stop trying to act like it's natural when it's an artificial creation that was essential to the settler colonial project. Also, you don't talk about that. You don’t use the term “settler colonialism” and then you wonder why you're falling behind. You wonder why there are uprisings and tumult in the streets. Oh, my goodness.

DJ: You mention in your 2018 book that with the so-called Glorious Revolution is a take-off then of slave trade in that sense. And it also seems, as you were just mentioning, that whiteness is a project starting in the Americas or on the American soil. How do you see this project of whiteness emerging with the so-called bourgeois revolutions?

GH: Certainly, if you look at 1688. But more so, I would say 1776 which, of course, I have called a counterrevolution. Since, in my estimation, what was impelling it, what was impelling these affluent settlers, led by real-estate speculator George Washington, to break the law was a threat to their real-estate interests. For example, the Royal Proclamation of 1762 – 1763, wherein London expresses reluctance to continue expending blood and treasure to move westward and seize the land of Native Americans for the benefit of real-estate speculators like George Washington. And, of course, Somerset’s case of 1772, where London fundamentally sought to bar slavery in England itself, quickly followed in Scotland and elsewhere in the Isles, which was seen as a danger to the vast fortunes of those like Thomas Jefferson, who, of course, owned hundreds of enslaved Africans. Just like, I am sure, in Puerto Rico they pay careful and close attention to the laws that apply to the 50 U.S. states on the premise that eventually those laws could apply to the colonies.

Too often, U.S. historians take the origins of the United States as a given. They do not think it is necessary to look into some of the issues to which I have just referred. And then, of course, that leads to something I have already alluded to: they are trying to reconcile their lofty view of (small-r) republicanism with today's messy reality. And, so, they then try to reinterpret what the CUNY historian, David Waldstreicher, referred to as slavery’s constitution[3] because they want Black people, I guess, to believe in the U.S. constitution even though its founders were slave owners, and even though the slave trade expanded exponentially after the founding of the United States. The United States was controlling slave trade to Cuba as early as the 1790s, and the slave trade to Brazil by about the 1840s. London lost its market with respect to enslaved Africans when it lost North America with its so-called revolution. Despite all that, they still want Black people to feel that no, the U.S. state was not constructed against your interests. “Actually, we had you in mind. Admittedly it was a convoluted process, but, trust me, we had you in mind.” And, “Yeah... okay, fine. George Floyd and all these other police killings... that can't be ascribed to the legacy of slavery. So, it certainly can't be ascribed the legacy of 1776! Oh no, oh no!”

DJ: The standard story that is given — and I am sure other historians have presented this to you — is that slavery surges with the invention of the cotton gin. You had alluded to this earlier, but I was wondering if you could go into that take on history. What do you find to be wrong or misleading about?

GH: It is technological determinism. You had slaves producing sugar; you had slaves producing tobacco. In my 16th-century book I talk about how you have enslaved Africans in London as early as the late 1400s. So, to think that this system that had roots stretching back centuries would have withered away but for the cotton gin once again, it's an attempt to blow smoke in the eyes of the Black American population — to “calm the negroes down!"

Luc Bronder-Giroux: It seems like the brutalization of slaves and enslaved peoples intensified after such technological innovations.

GH: That is something that Edward Baptist points out. The good news for you folks is that, at least theoretically, you will have a lot of work to do to rewrite these histories. The bad news is I am not sure if the archives will be open for some time to come.

DJ: Knock on wood. You mention at the end of your book, 1776 as a Counter Revolution (2014), that “Lenin may have overestimated the positive impact on the global balance of forces when the leading power that was London was defeated and underestimated the negative impact that the republic that would come to exert globally.”[4] So what role do you see 1776 playing in the historical imagination of the Left? Do you see 1776 as having even contributed to defeats for emancipatory Left politics?

GH: Well, I think that routinely — and this is happening right now with respect to this presidential cycle — there is an overestimation of the progressive potential of the slaveholder’s republic and its descendent, which is what we are experiencing today.

I remember when I was in graduate school, a convenient device for historians was comparing the U.S. to England, with England coming out second-best and demonstrating that the U.S. is great. But these are oftentimes half-truths. For example, yes, there was the abolition of monarchy and, yes, there was the establishment of republicanism but as the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell put it more than two centuries ago, basically, you had the erosion or replacement of the aristocracy of lineage with the aristocracy of race. Now, I’ll leave it to you to determine whether the latter is more progressive: you have the tyranny of monarchy replaced with the tyranny of racism. And it’s quite remarkable that so many who have access to the archives — because it is only recently that folks like myself gained access to the archives, for we were routinely barred from the archives just like we were routinely barred from their cemeteries when we died — have all of these one-sided comparisons to England but there is not a comparison, say, to Canada, which is right across the border and did not revolt against British rule. Yet, even progressives in the United States often point to Canada as something the U.S. should aspire towards with regard to healthcare. Wouldn’t you think that the so-called revolutionary republic would be in the forefront of such a social-welfare measure compared to a country that did not revolt against monarchy?

Or look at the other settler revolts that often sought to grind down Africans which rarely come up in historians’ discourse: for instance, the settler revolt in Algeria in the late 1950s that also sought to overthrow the regime in France. If I were a credulous U.S. historian I would bring up that example and say, “At least as far as we know, George Washington and company did not try to bring about regime change in London unlike the settlers in Algeria, so give Uncle Sam another pat on the back and boost his ego.” Or the settler revolt in Rhodesia, in 1965 — I think this is in my 1776 book and it is certainly in my book on Zimbabwe — when Ian Smith said openly that they were walking in the footsteps of 1776.

I think that there has been this sort of overestimation and misreading of settler revolts. Number one, there is a long history and trend of that, I’m sorry to say, in Marxist thought which then makes many people incapable of understanding all of these crimes: be it wars in Indochina; overthrowing regimes in Grenada, Panama; invasions of Iraq; attempted destabilization of Iran; attempted overthrows of the socialist regime in Cuba or on the Korean Peninsula from 1950 to 1953. I mean, this is a hell of a revolutionary republic, that’s all I have to say!

LB: You mentioned earlier the idea that there is nothing worth redeeming about the failed socialist projects in the past and I just wanted to pick up on this language of redemption and ask if the American Revolution or counterrevolution as you say is completely irredeemable. Are there any grounds upon which we could redeem at least the struggle of those who fought for freedom and those who suffered unimaginable oppression and exploitation?

GH: Yeah, but that is struggling against the republic! That’s like valorizing apartheid by pointing to Nelson Mandela. Apartheid couldn’t be all bad because, after all, it helped to give rise to Nelson Mandela. I mean, I think that’s kind of blinkered thinking.

And, in fact, it reminds me of how in my classes — say, like introduction to African-American studies — what oftentimes happens is that the Black students enter the class and are interested in “Why have Black people been treated so terribly by the United States? Give me an answer!” Whereas non-Black students, particularly Euro-American students, want me to say something redeemable about the United States of America. And, I have to say I pitch the class to the former not the latter. You’ve got thousands of historians redeeming the United States of America, you don’t need me to do it, to put it quite frankly, unless this is some sort of weird fraternity where everybody has to pay obeisance to the same mantra and if there’s one outlier, then he has to be liquidated! Well, sorry folks. Even though I know that book-burning has been a staple of society going back millennia, if you do liquidate me, presumably my books will still remain on the shelf and people can still peek at them.

LB: In your estimation what could we replace America or Enlightenment ideals with as something in which or in whose name we could carry out this redemption?

GH: I’m not sure I understand the question.

LB: If we can’t redeem the struggling and the suffering that happened through the project of what is now called America, then what’s the ideal?

GH: Like I just said, I don’t connect the struggling and the suffering to the U.S. I connect that to being contra the United States, against the United States. Like I said, let me repeat it: it’s like the defenders of apartheid trying to claim Nelson Mandela. “Oh, we helped to give rise to the ANC. We helped to give rise to this emancipatory impulse — we couldn’t have been all bad, come on now! Give us some credit!” No. There are enough people giving you credit; you get no credit from me.

DJ: I wanted to ask a question on something that shows up at the end of your Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism (2018). You mentioned that the ascendency of Moscow, post-Bolshevik revolution, and China, post-Chinese revolution, brought a new scrutiny to the origins of the U.S. by bringing out the issue of class reflexively in the maniacal obsession on race as you say. What is the legacy of the socialist revolutions on these newer histories of the U.S? How do you see your work as fitting in with the socialist revolutions and the socialist challenge to the immaculate conception as you put it?

GH: Well, just to take a step back. The story I am telling, since at least the 15th century is the transition from religion as an axis of society. There was a rebranding and reconciliation of religious battlers to racial alleged superiors. That process was disrupted by the Haitian Revolution of 1791 – 1804 which led to a general crisis of the entire slave system. This could only be resolved with its collapse, including in North America by 1865 converting slave labor to cheap and degraded labor. Then with 1917. Although, even before 1917 with the overthrow of slavery you have the push for the 8-hour day, you have the rise of early unions.

DJ: The First International.

GH: Of course, and that all culminates in 1917 with the class project, of course, leading to the CIO in the 1930’s and the New Deal, which it backs, bringing the social-welfare measures which we still rely upon including Social Security, unemployment compensation, all the rest. Then, of course, the breakthrough in 1949 with the Chinese Revolution.

But I hope people pay close attention to what I say about China in my 16th-century book. Just as perfidious Albion cut a deal with the Muslim powers against his fellow Christians and this ascended to the point where here we are in North America, speaking English, believe it or not, in the early 1970’s China cut a deal with the Yankees in order to encircle the former Soviet Union, which of course led to mass foreign investment into China which has now created this juggernaut. And now the United States is trying to encircle China which it may. We’ll see. Of course, it’s probably going to have to build up India in order to do so, which may turn out to be another boomerang, just as building up China was. But refresh my recollection as to your question.

DJ: I was just saying, how do you see your writing in that legacy of Socialist revolutions? You said that they were scrutinizing and bringing to light the origins of the United States, but you have also just mentioned earlier that 1776 has at times been, for lack of a better word, a fetish object for the Left, as well.

GH: Yeah, well, obviously I’m breaking. It’s interesting, if you look at my 1776 book or even myself, as a person. I’ve been embraced by the Black community. That’s really what has helped to keep me afloat, frankly. I’ve not necessarily been embraced by these folks on the Left, especially our Euro-American friends and comrades. They’re a little skeptical.

However, overseas in 2010 I remember one of the real breakthroughs for my 1776 book. God, I’ll never forget it, I may have even seen it live. It was on national television in Australia. I remember I was very moved. The Labour prime minister Kevin Rudd, who of course, speaks Chinese made this very moving apology to the indigenous population. If you notice, in that book I use Australia, too, as an example of a British colony. I said “God, when is somebody in Washington going to do that?” Which, then reminds me of 2007, you had this remarkable ceremony in London, marking the 200th anniversary of the end of London’s role in the African slave trade. Queen Elizabeth participated; Tony Blair participated. Of course, that whole date went unremarked in the United States, even though, of course, the United States supposedly exited the slave trade in 1808. Although as my books have shown, they continued. It’s like saying the United States bans marijuana, so people stop smoking marijuana. No. They banned the slave trade but the slave trade continued.

So, I remember juxtaposing London and Washington. Why is this colonial power making a big to-do about its role in the African slave trade and the U.S., the major recipient of this unpaid labor, acts like, you know, it never happened? Do they want to bring back the slave trade?

Plus, it reminds me when I first started going to London to do research. I remember I was just stunned by how warmly I was received. I know a lot of it has to do with accent discrimination. I know that if I had a Jamaican accent or Nigerian accent I would probably be treated differently but still. I’m used to these Euro-Americans being so hostile: masters of the universe. I mean, it’s like they don’t want you around; they don’t mind you knowing it. I mean that’s a mass phenomenon. I wasn’t treated like that in London. I’ve hardly been treated like that anywhere in the world, frankly. As a matter of fact, in my 1776 book, I talk about Hong Kong at the end of the preface and how when I was living in Hong Kong, the taxi drivers would pass the Chinese to pick me up, whereas in New York, they pass me up, to pick up anybody! And, of course, I realize that this is a class phenomenon. They think I might be a diplomat or a tourist or whatever but still.

This lack of introspection on the part of these people of the United States, including members of the scholarly and intellectual community, has really done a disservice to the country. It’s really done a disservice to the members of the ruling class, who pay their salaries. If you are an investor you want all the intelligence you can get so you can make a sound investment, but these intellectuals are not providing intelligence. These scholars all deserve awards from the environmental community for recycling. All they do is sort of recycle. They recycle ideas. They recycle DuBois or they recycle the progeny of Dubois — I mean, come on. How about something new and original?

DJ: What about in terms of politics in the present? I have heard you talk about this before, and you end a few of your books with this question of reparations. I was interested in both how you see reparations not even just helping the Black community in the present, but also in terms of the past, and how certainly the oppression of the Black community in the United States has gone beyond what reparations could repair. What other kinds of political tasks do you see as necessary?

GH: Fortunately, we have a new book out about reparations: From Here to Equality (2020) by William Darity, Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen, who are not recyclable, to put it mildly. Maybe it’s an inheritance from the stiff-upper-lip tradition of London, when Black people say, “Well, we survived slavery, so we can survive Trump.” You weren’t around when there was slavery, you didn’t survive slavery! Fortunately, hardly anybody is around who went through the worst days of oppression. What we are going through now, obviously it is not a bed of roses, but it is a far cry from 1850.

When I talk about reparations I am not talking with respect to only the African-American population but also the Native American population as well. As a matter of fact, to show us just how retrograde some of our friends on the U.S. Left are, I said on a Zoom lecture just a few days ago that the recent decision in Oklahoma by the U.S. Supreme Court — one of the most conservative and reactionary bodies on Planet Earth — was in some ways to the Left of the U.S. Left when it comes to Native American issues. Because, of course, the Left anthem is “This Land is Your Land. This Land is My Land.” Well, no. This land is their land. Neil Gorsuch of the Supreme Court says, “Well no, this land is not your land, Woody Gutherie. This land belongs to the Indigenous people who signed the treaty.”

Where is the U.S. Left? They would have to talk about settler colonialism. They would have to talk about very naughty and difficult questions of compensation or adjustments to the terrible plight of Native Americans. So rather than that they go blithely along totally unaware seemingly of the tragedies they are ignoring.

I also think we need to talk about our Caribbean brothers and sisters who are pressing reparation claims against London, and certainly we need to talk about reparations claims towards West Africans. I did an interview with BBC Brazil just a few weeks ago where I suggested that Afro-Brazilians should also be filing reparations claims against the United States, since the United States was the leading carrier of slaves to Brazil in the 1840s, and since crimes against humanity have no statute of limitations. As Nikole Hannah-Jones pointed out in her essay on reparations in the New York Times magazine just a few days ago, the United States has been somewhat generous with regards to reparations with respect to other groups. She points out that the United States regularly pays reparations to the victims of the Holocaust in Central Europe in the 1930s! Okay, generous Uncle Sam, what about these people here who suffered through the Holocaust that you perpetrated?

This conversation is just opening up. There have been nibbles like the cities of Evanston, Illinois and Asheville, North Carolina voting for forms of reparations, so we’ll see in this post-May 25th environment what’s in store.

DJ: Speaking of May 25th, various statues have recently been torn down of figures that have putatively been fetishized over the last several centuries. I was wondering how you see this as raising consciousness of history?

GH: There was a cartoon in China Daily the other day of these folks pulling down Confederate statues and another crowd nearby pointing to a massive statue with the inscription “Systemic Racism.” The caption says: “What about this?” That’s a fair statement. I think that the cartoon seeks to remind us that pulling down these statues of Columbus and other so-called conquistadors and slavers is a step forward, but it’s not the whole ballgame. I think those who are seeking to reorient the landscape — the majority — realize it’s not the whole ballgame, but it is a new start, a fresh start. Certainly, it’s changed the conversation. Up until now, the Pentagon wasn’t talking about banning Confederate flags on U.S. military bases, which I think is a step forward. Up until now, the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was not talking about renaming military bases named after Confederate traitors. Now, he is talking about that. So, it has shifted the conversation. It’s an opening. Hopefully, it’s an opening to an all-out assault on systemic racism, which, of course, is going to be a battle royal to put it mildly. But a trip of a thousand miles, to quote our Chinese friends once again, starts with one step.

Transcribed by Luc Bronder-Giroux


[1] Gerald Horne, The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020).

[2] “The New Ideology of Race: and what is wrong with it,” The Economist (July 2020), available online at <https://www.economist.com/leaders/2020/07/09/the-new-ideology-of-race>.

[3] David Waldstreicher, Slavery's Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009).

[4] Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, (New York: New York University, 2014), 333.

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