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Repair, Restoration & Atonement: A Reckoning with Chattel Slavery and its Aftermath

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W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1909 (Biography of John Brown) that “As a school of brutality and human suffering, of female prostitution and male debauchery; as a mockery of marriage and defilement of family life; as a darkening of reason and of spiritual death…[slavery]… had no parallel in its day.” The Atlantic Trafficking and subsequent enslavement of captive Africans represented the theft of a people’s humanity and personhood which resulted in a permanent state of dispossession, exile and homeless.

That the fathers of the American revolution, with its ideals of liberty and inalienable rights promoted by theories of the enlightenment thinkers of the age, used their lofty words and doctrines on which to base their own drive for independence while denying it to the humans they had stolen and held in captivity is nothing short of an “amazing moral contradiction.”

At the same time, what the founders were constructing was something uniquely sinister: ritualistic racial bigotry and an oppressive systematic form of dehumanization of Africans—chattelization. Leading slavers, politicians, philosophers, and theologians of Europe created a category called “blackness” as property. Africans were, in effect, according to their discursive rendering of them, without a soul, a spirit, emotions, desires, or rights-- because chattel/things could have neither mind nor spirit. At the same time as African captives were re-designated chattel,” black and inferior, Europeans were assigned the status of “white” and superior.

Chattel slavery was something far more brutally inhuman in its end result than more ancient forms of slavery because Africans could be (and were) hurt physically mentally, and spiritually but without any recourse to judicial redress. In process of chattelisation, Blacks were defined as real-estate, assets, units of monetary value; they made products and created wealth. They themselves had monetary value as a commodity. All of this represents a great “theft,” (as Edward Baptist calls it)  that has been the defining signifier of black people’s experience in America.  This reality, it can be argued, is directly linked to the present dispossessed status of African-descended people in the US and other countries of the Atlantic world today.

The commodification of Africans also established a pattern that would become the fundamental method of transferring wealth in a capitalist society. Who could accumulate wealth by dispossessing Africans? Whites could do it because they had acquired the privilege of “whiteness,” regardless of their origins, conditions or the economic status with which they arrived in America.  Wealth accumulation could be assured by virtue of the fact of chattelization of Africans. Thus, accumulation by dispossession became one of the principal ways Africans and their descendants in the United States were systematically constrained and restrained, constructed and reconstructed in inferior positions economically, socially, politically, legally, and psychologically throughout their experience in America. This saga of original theft and ongoing oppressive conditions for descendants of formerly enslaved and colonized African people is at the base of the current national and international debates about repair, restitution & restorative justice.


  • Dr. Joyce Hope Scott is Clinical Professor of African American Studies at Boston University/Boston, Massachusetts.  She is a former Fulbright professor to Burkina Faso and the Republic of Bénin and a former-Scholar of the Oxford Round Table (United Kingdom). She has lectured extensively, nationally and globally, on African/and Black American history and culture. She has developed and taught Courses in African-American and Caribbean Literature and History, Black Theatre and Popular culture; Reparations and Restorative Justice in Comparative Perspective; Slavery and the Creation of Race; The Black Radical Tradition; African Spirituality in American Literature and Culture; and created and led International Service Learning and Internship Programs to Ghana, Benin and Senegal.  Prof. Hope Scott is Co-Founder/Co-Director of the International Network of Scholars and Activists for Afrikan Reparations (INOSAAR) and current President of the Boston Pan African Forum. In February 2020, she organized the international symposium on “Restorative Justice and Societal Repair on Global Racism and Reparations” at Boston University; she is invited consultant to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Resolution & Accountability, Remedy and Redress for transatlantic slavery, colonialism and systemic racism;  Invited Expert for New York University’s Review of Law’s Colloquium on “Past, Present and Future of Reparations”;  A Principal Organizer of International Conference on “Rematriation and The Future of Reparations and Restorative Justice for the Enslavement Of African People,” held in Porto-Novo, Republic of Bénin (2018).  She is current President of the Boston Pan-African Forum (BPAF) and Vice President and Co-founder of the international NGO, Hope for Africa (HFA), for sustainable development in West Africa.  Prof. Hope Scott is the recipient of many awards and recognitions and author of numerous publications.

Recommended Reading and Links from Dr. Scott

  • Reparations, Restitution, Transitional Justice: The International Network of Scholars and Activists for Afrikan Reparations (INOSAAR). Symposium: Using World-History to Inform Work for Reparations. Journal Of World-Systems Research. Vo. 26 Issue 2. (DOI 10.5195/JWSR. 2020).
  • Contentious Discourses: Signifying on the Law in African American Writing.” Journalism & Mass Communication Vol.5 No. 4, (April 2015), pp. 181 – 193.
  • Culture & Liberation: Amilcar Cabral and Martin Luther King’s Nationalist Aesthetics.”
  • Leadership and Legacy: King and Cabral. J. Kamara (Ed). (in press) Boston: Diaspora Press.
  • Senghor & the Godmothers of Négritude. Interrgating Gaze: Colonialism and Negritude. J. Kamara (ed). (in press) Boston: Diaspora Press
  • Subversive Language & the Carnivalesque in Toni Morrison.” Cambridge: The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison. Justine Tally, (Editor) 2007.


  • Jim Garrison, President, Ubiquity University


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