How Much, If Anything, Do the Beneficiaries of Profits From Slavery Owe to the Descendants of Former Slaves?

Turns out Benedict Cumberbatch’s fine arse is the descendant of plantation owners who got super from owning sugar-cane producing plantation in the Caribbean.

A newly appointed city commissioner in New York, Stacey Cumberbatch, told the New York Times last week that she believed British actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s fifth great-grandfather owned her ancestors on an 18th-century sugar plantation in Barbados. They “are related,” the newspaper noted, “if not by blood, then by geography and the complicated history of the slave trade.”

The actor, now playing a slave owner in the film 12 Years a Slave, has in the past acknowledged his ancestors’ slave ownership, and revealed that his mother once urged him not to use his real name professionally for fear of becoming the target of reparations claims by the descendents of slaves.

Benedict’s family made so much money as slave-holders that the young Cumberbatch was able to attend a 33,000 pound a year private school, paid for in part by money passed down from those slaveholders. For his part, Cumberbatch says his role in movies like 12 Years a Slave are partly done to atone for his families past, an explanation I’m not buying. Comberbatch may think he’s atoning for the past crimes of his ancestors, but in reality he’s just making himself feel better while getting richer and more famous. If he really wanted to atone he could donate any inheritance hes due upon his parents death (or any monies they’ve already given him) to charities benefiting those whose ancestors worked on plantation in the Caribbean.

But, I’m not arguing that Cumberbatch should give any money back. As horrible as how that money was accrued, it was accrued legally since slavery was legal at the time. Furthermore, I think there are much better ways to help those whose life prospects have been statistically diminished due to the enslavement of their forefathers. After all, if Cumberbatch is still benefiting from the money accumulated by his fifth great-grandfather, then it shouldn’t be a stretch for to you understand that people are still suffering today because their fifth great-grandfathers (and grandmothers) were slaves.

I, for one, believe that the way we slowly eradicate the unearned benefits which white people reaped from slavery is by creating a more just, more equatable society today. We do this by creating scholarships and grants so that no one is denied admittance to the best pre-collegiate schools due to inability to pay tuition. We push to create access to quality healthy care for all, despite ability to pay. We take mental health care seriously. We force the various housing authorities to monitor and punish those who rent slum housing to poor people. We make sure that there is a free-at-the-point-of-access college option available to everyone. (Show of hands…who remembers when California had a free public university system?) There is so much that can be done to make the world a more just place. We just have to be practical, and we have to be honest about the fact that the wrongs of the past have not entirely been righted, not yet.

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