Online edition of Shunpiking



The African Diaspora

HISTORY. Legal expert Michelle Williams provides an overview of the African Diaspora in her keynote address at the Racism and The Black World Response Symposium, held 5-10 August 2001 at Dalhousie University, Halifax

I really can’t express how honoured I am to be here today to speak with you at this historic symposium. While I have lived in Toronto and New York. I was born and raised in Nova Scotia and this will always be my home. And I struggled with what to say because I am acutely aware that I stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before me: heroes and heroes like Reverend Skeir and Dr. Carrie Best who remain with us in spirit.

Also, it is because of the efforts of many of you here today that my generation was able to access higher education in increasing numbers. And I thank you for that.

I was asked to provide an overview of the African Diaspora touching upon the global experiences of African peoples, the United Nation’s response to racism, and where we stand now with less than three weeks before the Third UN World Conference Against Racism. That’s a tall order. Especially, because it is always important to link the global situation with what is happening locally.

Therefore. I propose to generally address three main topics. First, the history of the African Diaspora and the global persistence of white supremacy. Second the international and national human rights regimes. And third, strategies for healing and for action.

African Diaspora and White Supremacy

In the beginning, Africa was whole. Pre-Colonial Africa boasted thriving economies, vast civilizations. Unmatched progress in science, psychology, philosophy and arts. Indeed, it is one of the greatest harms of slavery that this rich history and ancestry was wrenched from our conscious awareness. As Randall Robinson says. "We need to recover the story of ourselves for the survival of our soul."

Europeans viciously invaded Africa and committed the most extreme human rights violations in world history. They committed murders, wanton destruction, plunder and theft, and ended the enjoyment of our advance culture and civilization. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and colonialism were genocidal crimes against humanity. And Europeans tried to justify their centuries of barbarous behaviour by constructing white supremacist ideology.

Charles Mills has described white supremacy as:

"… a concept that encompasses de facto and de jure white privilege, and refers more broadly to the European domination of the planet that has left us with the racialized distributions of economic political and cultural power that we have today."

I am not talking about white supremacy as in the Ku Klux Klan or skinheads – although, that’s an extreme manifestation – but, at its base, I am talking about greed and a gross lack of humanity that has exploited the labour, bodies, land and other resources of people of colour and indigenous peoples. And it is fuelled by this notion of white as superior.

One of the scariest manifestations is that the powerful write history as if they should be honoured. But, as NourbeSe Phillip mentioned last night and reminded us, history and collective memory are not necessarily the same thing; and we have to recover our own past for ourselves.

The European invasion and plunder of African civilizations resulted in the forced migration of African peoples through out every corner of the world, literally ripping us from our homes, our families and our traditions. As a result, African peoples all over the world experience a similar type of oppression including State-sanctioned enslavement followed by State-sanctioned labour exploitation, Power resources and opportunity were meted out on the basis of race. This racialized hierarchy of power was violently enforced by private militias and public law enforcement. Where African peoples established communities often in response to forced segregation, they were always at risk of further displacement and land loss at the whim of white interests.

And recently in a conference in Toronto, we heard from a representative of 53,000 Afro-Hondurans who are currently dealing with land-loss issues. It really happened everywhere. African-Canadian Communities share these experiences with Africans throughout the Diaspora.

As you know, slavery existed in Canada for over 200 years, followed by segregation and systemic racism in employment, housing, education, health, social services and so on so prevalent, as to be invisible, to become synonymous with the norm. Lands that were promised to Africans were either never given, or, Blacks were given land that was rocky and difficult to farm, while Whites were given the most favourable tracts of land. And we must note, first and foremost, that land was not really even theirs to give. It is that of the First Nations People, the Mi’kmaq.

Formal and informal immigration laws prevented Blacks from coming to Canada while giving Europeans incentives to settle here. Black labour built a large part of Canada, including Citadel Hill, here in Halifax. Yet we have not participated in the wealth that we generated, while British, French and other European Canadians, including Nova Scotians, profited from British slavery.

There has never been an apology for the African Holocaust. No reparations have yet been made to people of African descent. In fact, the only reparations that have been made were made to White slave owners. And if the problem has never been corrected, why would we think that it has gone away today? The chain of racism, White privilege, bigotry, and prejudice has never been broken. Instead, slavery has morphed into contemporary forms of global anti-Black racism or anti-African racism, however you call it. The same racist ideology that stereotypes Blacks as threatening and violent in order to justify the slave owners’ harsh treatment of us, is used to justify police abuses against Black people today.

The prison industrial complex is a new slavery, wherein Black men, in particular, are imprisoned at soaring rates, stripped of their right to vote, and have their labour used to profit privately-owned prisons. And if you think this isn’t happening in Canada, think again. It is.

We are under constant surveillance in our cars, by child welfare authorities, and as we cross the borders. I have travelled from New York into Canada three times since the beginning of July and I have had my bags checked for drugs every single time. That is an outgrowth of the perversity of slavery and colonialism, when Whites felt they had the right to monitor, control and even abuse our bodies.

Environmental racism and land loss is linked to past segregation and is decimating Black Communities throughout the world. From oil exploration in Nigeria and the Sudan to the siting of hazards in and around African Nova Scotian Communities, to the eradication of whole communities like Africville, race discrimination continues to infest employment, education, health care and social service systems. In addition, millions of African peoples are dying of aids all over the world while drug companies withhold medicine and yet rush to patent indigenous plants and knowledge.

Industrialized countries own 97 per cent of all the patents worldwide. And make no mistake, the new imperialism is economic globalization. A smaller number of people control an increasing amount of the world’s wealth, and the gap between rich and poor worldwide is increasing. According to a 1999 UN Report – a fifth of the world’s people living in the highest income countries has: 86 per cent of the world’s domestic product, 82 per cent of the world’s export markets, 68 per cent of foreign direct investment, and 74 per cent of world telephone lines. The bottom fifth, the poorest countries – and you know who they are – has about one per cent percent of each of these sectors. This gap is widening.

A recent study done by the non-profit research group, GPI Atlantic, shows that 80 per cent of Nova Scotians are worse off than they were 20 years ago. The income gap between rich and poor is wider than at any time since 1980. But we probably already know that because we are working longer and seeing less for it, most of us.

Institutions like the World Bank, IMF and multi-nationals are controlled by the very countries who grew rich from exploiting Africa. Western countries now loan back money to the very countries they under-developed in the first place imposing exploitive and restrictive terms, and forcing developing countries to spend their money on debt servicing and other pro-western initiatives, rather than providing education, health care and other basic services to their own people.

And I just have to stop and say that this is just really unbelievable to me. Let me just break it down a little bit. It’s like me coming into your home, stealing your children and forcing them to work for me for free. I abuse them, and worst of all, I force them to forget you and to hate you and blame themselves for their condition. In the meantime, I also steal your belongings and your land, your most sacred family treasures. And when you finally manage to kick me out of your house and gain your independence, I force you to pay me to order for you to start rebuilding your life and your home.

This greed and dehumanization has got to stop. And the global focus on reparations enables us to embrace the truth about who we are, our work, and what is owed to us. And to set our agenda for recovery, healing and wholeness.

And it is also important for those who are still willing to exploit people of African descent to recover their humanity.

International and National Human Rights Regimes

I now turn to the international and national human rights regimes and the response to slavery, colonialism, and anti-Black racism that I have just talked about. What has been the response of the International Regime to Slavery, which has been called a human rights crime without parallel in the modern world? After centuries of no response, the United Nations was formed as a result of the crimes committed by Nazi Germany. Indeed one of the guiding principles of the UN, created in 1945, is the principle of non-discrimination on the grounds of race.

I will now sketch a brief history of the international human rights apparatus designed to address race discrimination. In 1963, the UN General Assembly adopted the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and a legally binding treaty followed in 1965. That treaty, called the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Race Discrimination, is monitored by a treaty committee and is the primary anti-racist legal instrument at the international level. This is the "Race Convention," as it’s called – or "CERD." It has been ratified by 155 countries, including Canada; Canada has not implemented the treaty here at home, which I will address later.

The year 1968 brought the First International Conference on Human Rights, and 1971 was designated the First International Year for Action to Combat Racism. Clearly, one year was not enough so, in 1973, the First Decade for Action to Combat Racism was proclaimed. One decade gave rise to another, and another; we are now nearing the end of the Third Decade for Action to Combat Racism. I did not know all of this until recently. Another fact unknown to me: throughout this time there were also two other world conferences to address global racism in 1978 and in 1983, both held in Geneva. Most people, including myself, were not there. Most African peoples were not there. In addition to these conference initiatives, in 1993, the UN appointed a Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, and there was also a UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. Now you may be asking why White supremacy and anti-Black racism are still such strong forces in shaping the quality of life of African peoples after three decades, two conferences, a sub-commission on minorities, a Special Rapporteur, a race convention, and related treaties. Part of the reason is that the crimes of slavery in colonialism have never been fully acknowledged or repaired, which is why we are now earnestly focusing on reparations. It is also because the International Human Rights Regime, despite its laudable goals, is also part of the global power structure.

Ultimately, the world’s nations comprise the UN General Assembly and there are, of course, hierarchies of power among nations largely created and sustained by slavery, colonialism and now economic globalization.

It was only in the 1960s when African peoples were breaking the chains of colonialism all over the world, in Africa, the Caribbean, the parallel civil rights movements here in North America, that newly independent countries demanded their rightful places at the UN. Until recently, non-governmental organizations or NGOs, representing people of African descent, have not been involved in the International Human Rights Regime. How can human rights work if the victims are not at the table’? How can they even know what the problem is if we are not there?

Another, related reason that the UN System has failed to eradicate anti-Black racism is that the UN continues to operate under a model that looks for overt, bright-light, glaring discrimination. This was fine when it came to addressing issues like apartheid, but we are in a time, as you know, where contemporary racism is largely institutionalized, systemic and covert.

I am going to move briefly into a sub-category that has concerned me during my years of trying to litigate race cases in Canada. I know that African-Canadians are experts on this type of covert racism, because Canada is a world leader in denial and hypocrisy when it comes to its own racism. The myth of Canada’s racial tolerance, its pride in being the last stop on the Underground Railroad, and its global image as a racism-free zone, are maintained by making invisible the relationships between African-Canadians and White privilege. Simultaneously, this dynamic is enforced through a pattern of denial that racism even exists, a reality that permeates all Canadian institutions, including, and especially, the legal system.

Allow me to briefly digress to give you a recent and familiar example. You know the latest debacle with Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman, where he used Toronto’s multicultural diversity to bolster the City’s Olympic bid, and he then turned around and stated that he was afraid of going to Mombassa, Kenya, because he was afraid of being boiled in a pot by Africans while they danced around. That is, to me, a typical example of how Canada says, it is racism-free, and then turns around and treats us like they do at home. Canada has done a good job of creating legal mechanisms for legal redress of racial discrimination, but not for enforcing them. We have a Charter. We have federal and provincial human rights codes and commissions, and even a Multiculturalism Act and a federal Employment Equity Act. Moreover, Canada has ratified the six major International Human Rights Treaties, including the Race Convention; although the treaties have not been domestically implemented. This means essentially that Canada condones racism at home while it touts itself as a leader of human rights around the world.

Or, as Ida Graves stated in her 1930 book entitled, The Negro in Canada, "the Negro has exactly the same rights as anybody else until he tries to use them". But I do think that African-Canadians can bring that Canadian hypocrisy to light on the world stage and force concrete changes at home. And to me that is one of the promises of being in the international arena.

Canada has portrayed itself as a model of racial tolerance for the rest of the world and now it must live up to its rhetoric. We have to force them to have to live up to that rhetoric.

Where are we now – three weeks away from the Third UN World Conference Against Racism? One of the objectives of the conference is to formulate concrete recommendations and further action-oriented national, regional and international measures aimed at combating all forms of racism. Action and concrete measures arc supposedly on the agenda. But for some reason, reparations for people of African descent is a strong point of contention for western countries. Surprise, surprise!

So far, this Third World Conference has been woefully underfunded and understaffed compared to other conferences, for example, the Beijing Conference for Women. It has been plagued by the undue influence of Western countries – including Canada and the USA. – who have undermined the conference and resisted any meaningful discussion on reparations and other concerns of African peoples. Allow me to give you two quick examples. I went to the first Prep Con in Geneva last May and met with a member of the Canadian Government delegation. We talked about slavery. I was saying, "What’s going on? Where is anti-Black racism?". The member of the Canadian Government delegation responded to me: "Well, technically, slavery didn’t exist in Canada because Canada wasn’t an independent country as we know it now at the time." Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what we are dealing with.

Second example: at the Regional Prep Con for the Americas in Chile, held last December, Canada and the U.S. were the only countries to take issue with the African peoples’ claims for self-determination and reparations. If you look at the document that came out of that, they actually have listed their reservations (as they are called in legalese) at the end of that document.

Another barrier to what’s happening now at the World Conference is that multinational companies are also interfering with the UN process through pressure and influence on politicians at home and abroad. In short, the same sort of tactics, including stall tactics, used locally and nationally to frustrate the interest and work of African peoples are also used by states when negotiating the World Conference’s platform for action.

In light of the current situation, I think that the conference will be a success if, first, we get international acknowledgement that slavery was a crime against humanity; and it is almost unbelievable that we have to prepare and negotiate and strategize to get that declaration. But also, if we are able to at least have proclaimed the right to reparations in principle. If those two things happen, then I think it will be a success on our part.

And I do not think we should be discouraged, because already the Conference preparation has brought together NGOs and African peoples from throughout the Diaspora. And the most important outcome will be the work that is done before – like this work – during, and after Durban, in developing a Pan-African coalition to pursue reparations. We need to remember and draw upon the movements of the 1960s for African Unity; and reparations is a way of learning about and reclaiming our history and the commonalities of our current experience.

An African-Canadian dialogue on reparations linked to the Pan-African movement will help us to recover more than money. It with help us to heal ourselves and our communities and connect with our brothers and sisters worldwide. But unity won’t happen unless we make it happen. We must see ourselves as part of what happened in Lucasville and Upper Hammonds Plains and Preston and Beechville, and defend against the attacks on people like Rocky Jones and Judge Sparks. And we must see ourselves as harmed by the murdering of the Black youth that is taking place in Toronto right now; and as part of what is happening in Rwanda and the Sudan and to Afro-Brazilians and to all our brothers and sisters throughout the world who are dying of aids while drug companies increase their profits.

Strategies for Healing and Action

I have singled out five main strategies for healing and action.

First, we need to manifest unapologetic love for ourselves, our people and begin the healing process. Healing starts within. We are spiritual, creative, industrious, joyful and loving people who are at our best when we look out for and look after each other and others around us.

Second, in order to fully heal, we must learn the truth about ourselves and each other – not the lies we are fed by the media, and even our by education system. We must continue to tell, write, sing, film, document and record our experience. Whereas, Ms. Phillip said last night, "We have to make memory matter, this includes demanding that our experiences, opinions and perspectives be officially included in Canadian institutions – not just in February, and not just as subjects that are studied or consulted by White people.

Research writing and creative expression should be financially supported and disaggregated. And this – this is a pet peeve of mine, I just have to get this out here – as a lawyer, policy analyst, researcher, whatever, I am really tired of government policy that lumps all visible – "visible minorities" is another issue – but visible minorities together instead of breaking down that category to look at what happens to African-Canadians.

Imagine the difficulty when you are trying to find evidence for cases or you are trying to document something. The latest study I read was on what happens to foreign "visible minorities" when they come to Canada. What does that mean? Where are the Black people in there?

And I think we really have to press that point home. Government policy-makers must not just look at gender, but must look at race and must look at the intersection of race and gender when they are developing policy. One important point, for those who are perhaps willing to take that issue up after today, is that the International Race Convention actually requires governments to disaggregate their data and to keep disaggregated data.…

My third point is that we must define our own needs and our own destiny. This takes time and we should not be restricted by what others tell us is possible. Only we can determine what our limits are as African peoples. And I submit that we have none, that anything is possible.

As R. Kelly and Ulanda Adams sing, if you can see it, you can do it. And just do not let other people blur your vision.

I would like to share a personal example with you about "seeing it and doing it." Several years ago, we became interested in using International Human Rights as part of our litigation and policy work after attending a Conference in Virginia. We were not experts – we still aren’t experts. We taught ourselves. I personally interviewed every Canadian advocate that I could find who was reputed to have used the UN System. Less than a year later, in March 2000, we organized the first Canadian Preparatory Conference for the World Conference Against Racism, before the government had even set up their National Secretariat. African-Canadians were not on the Government’s list of invitees to its first meetings. We forged ahead anyway, demanded our rightful place at the table, and formed the African Coalition Against Racism. This was the first such conference since the 1960s. As a result, brothers and sisters from across Canada and the world are now learning much more about each other’s experiences and working and planning together. African-Canadians have taken a leadership role in the World Conference preparations. I say this, not to highlight any one organization, but to stress the point that anything is possible. There are no limits on what we want to do.

Fourth, we do have to take the time to carefully plan, strategize and work toward our goals in a way that puts community first. Building for and with our children. And I must also say that means holding our own accountable when necessary. We have to be very careful not to fall into the age-old "divide and conquer" trap that continues to be used to pit individuals and communities one against the other.

Fifth, we must demand our rights and our rightful place in Nova Scotia, Canada and the world – as decision-makers. Not being consulted after the fact, or having terms dictated to us. We have the right and duty to set those terms, especially when our interests are at stake. If a corporation or government wants to build something or take land away from your community, it is your decision to say yes or no, not theirs. And we must support our people when they do stand up.


African peoples generated the wealth that sustains the world today. Reparations is a moral and a legal responsibility. For its part the federal and provincial governments should, as a first step, fund a National Commission on African-Canadian Reparation that is run by African-Canadians who are chosen by African-Canadians. We have already paid for such a commission or any other initiatives that we deem are necessary for ourselves; we have already paid for all of that a million times over. It is not charity; it is our due. I leave you with that as I turn to my conclusion.


Durban is not the end of the road, but merely one stop along the way to reclaiming our past and shaping our own future. Each of us has a role to play in that process. Our minds, our bodies, our spirits, our families, our communities, and our peoples, have had enough of White supremacy and racism.

Time is up. A new day of Pan-Africanism is dawning – wherein African peoples throughout Nova Scotia, Canada and the global Diaspora work together to reclaim our forgotten stories, and share our collective destiny. We are a spiritual people who have always resisted oppression and made time for love and for laughter. Many did not expect us to survive. But we have, and it is time to move beyond survival to thrive. I am tired of surviving; I want to live fully. It is our time to heal and to demand reparations and our full and rightful place in the world in order to make ourselves whole again.

By being here today, you are already playing a role in this movement. And even your presence here is an act of resistance to oppression and an act of love for African peoples. Thank you for being here, and for allowing me to share this time with you.

Michelle Williams is a lawyer, researcher and policy analyst, presently doing research at New York University.

The text has been edited for publication.

Copyright © 2004, New Media publications Inc. Republication or redissemination of the contents of this screen are expressly prohibited without the written consent of New Media publications Inc