The topic of reparations is never far from the minds of most people in America. Even if it’s not a subject dominating the conversation, it is always niggling at the subconscious of the population, and just about every one has a strong opinion on the matter: Either reparations is owed to the descendants of slaves or it isn’t. It’s tempting to assume that race primarily plays a factor in attitudes for or against (the most vocal opponents of any reparations initiative are frequently white), but there are quite a fair number of people of color who oppose the idea that the descendants of African slaves in America are due any sort of pecuniary redress because “slavery was a long time ago” and we’ve had ample opportunity to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps. In his book Enough, Juan Williams paints those who pursue the cause as those looking to exploit the blood sweat and tears of slaves and the current suffering of Blacks in inner cities and impoverished pockets of the nation as wanting to line their own pockets. He calls the reparations conversation ‘dead’.
As long as there is racism in America – as long as violent racial tensions exist in the country – the reparations conversation will never truly die. I say this because the topic is far more complicated (at least in my mind) than ‘for or against’; because the idea of reparations, like the successful institution of slavery, requires deep thought, much effort and a clear vision about desired outcomes for the future.
Every once in a while, an event from America’s ugly past makes headlines and necessitates a conversation about reparations. Earlier this year, a story revisiting the 272 slaves that were sold by Georgetown Jesuits in 1838 in order to pay off a debt (briefly) took over the national conversation about what the descendants of slaves are owed, if anything at all. Esther Armah discussed the Georgetown incident with her co-hosts for the day on her podcasts The Spin in a refreshing look at the topic from the both the African and African American perspectives. It is here that Christina Greer explores her complex feelings on the topic, particularly where Georgetown is concerned. For her, the idea that naming a building after the ill-fated slaves in the 1838 purchase, or giving university applications of their descendants a “closer look” does not even begin to mark redress for the tragedy their ancestors endured. Yet it seems this is where Georgetown has begun and ended their monologue. It was a ‘monologue’ because the descendants were never brought to the table to discuss reconciliation or acceptable steps moving forward.
I’ve recently had similar conversations with Chriss Tay, one of the most brilliant academic minds I’ve had the pleasure of encountering. Mr. Tay is of the opinion that the key – and missing – element of the reparations conversation is not money, it is education.
He says, “Should there be monetary compensation to the descendants of slaves? Absolutely. But that alone is not remedy enough for the ills that the Trans Atlantic Slaver Trade unleashed globally. Monetary reparations won’t stop a cop from shooting a child playing with a toy in the park or from choking a man selling cigarettes…but education WILL. There is something that this man has been taught about Black people to see them as a threat and a menace first, rather than human.”
As a professor of history himself, he asserts that the history and horrors of slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, the Flint water crisis and so on must be taught accurately and beyond platitudes. This history – poorly taught – affects current attitudes, and not just in America, but globally. How does he know this?
“Look. If you put a big ship at the harbor today in Ghana and wrote ‘Slave Ship – Destination: America!’ indigents would be fighting among themselves to get their spot on that ship. They have no concept or understanding of the types of things African slaves went through on board and after they got off of those ships in the New World. This is because of a lack of education.”
He and I had this talk in June of this year. If I had any doubts about his assertion, they were all put to rest when I saw this video of African migrants jubilating at their first sight of the Europe after they were rescued from the coast of Libya on BBC:
If only they knew what they were in store for, eh?
The reasons why these migrants and all minorities are little better than second class citizens go back to the systems that were erected to keep them there; and I believe it is those systems that need to be eradicated, rather than having money thrown at them.
We know that money has never really solved a problem. Not at its root cause. It is integrity and intention that brings about true change. Giving Black and brown people in America 40 acres and a Hyundai today are not going to resolve the issues of chattel slavery. Why? Because most people aren’t going to know what to do with those types of resources…because harboring this level of ignorance has been by design. Furthermore, Black people and communities who have historically shown themselves to be entrepreneurial and self-sufficient have had their work and efforts destroyed, forcing them back into positions of need.
I am against any sort of lump sum pay out per head for slavery. I believe it would be a disaster from both ends of the equation. First, I believe that for white people it would signal the end of the conversation. America declared itself “post racial” with the election of Barack Obama, something the news and interactions in your WalMart parking lot tell you is nowhere near the truth. Can you imagine what a payout of $xxx would signal to them? “Well we’ve already given you money you didn’t earn. What more do you want” The second problem is what to do with the money itself. I can’t say with confidence that an individual payout will help communities of color if there is no plan for community re-investment.
When Hurricane Katrina happened, we were all privy to the number of victims who ended up in Lennox Mall with their emergency money in hand buying Luis Vuitton bags or scheduling cosmetic surgeries. These people had never been taught the value of investment and long-term thinking. They have lived hand to mouth with moments of mirth sprinkled in, just as their predecessors had. This was not an accident. From Reconstruction to Second but Equal, the creation of a second-class citizen and a blunted mind was intentional. And if white people in general and the elite in particular want to throw off the shackles of the White Man’s Burden – his self-appointed directive to ‘civilize’ the world – then this corps is going to have to do just that. They will have to put in the same effort that made slavery and the many forms of effective subjugation that followed successful into the effort of demolishing these old systems and the erection of new ones with the partnership of people of color. Probably more effort. Everyone knows it’s more difficult to undo a knot than it is to tie one.
Let me give one example. The DeWolfs – a prominent family in Rhode Island – made their fortune in the shipping and selling of slaves. James DeWolf (1764-1837), was a U.S. senator and a wealthy merchant who was reportedly the second-richest person in the country when he died. In the 1790s and early 1800s, DeWolf and his brothers virtually built the economy of Bristol.* In reading about the DeWolfs, I discovered that their wealth generation was not a straight line: it was a web. People from all walks of life in their New England community invested in DeWolf slave ships for a handsome return on that investment. Blacksmiths, bankers, even preachers earned capital from those investments. So when folks use the excuse that their ancestors never owned slaves to absolve either themselves or their family from the great stain of slavery and its aftershocks, it simply doesn’t wash. We see here that you didn’t have to own a slave to be a beneficiary of slavery.
This is just ONE community that invested its time and resources into making the institution of chattel slavery a success; efforts that went on for hundreds of years. The Civil Rights Act was just passed into law in 1965. That was only 51 years ago. Do you think slavery was the efficient monster it grew to become after its first 51 years? No. African folk were still running away, talking back and thinking their ideas counted for something. The enslaved mind had to be made and that inheritance passed on to their descendants. The undoing of that effort is the new White Man’s Burden. Teachers, the TSA and Theresa May will need to invest their resources into revolutionizing not just the minority mind, but “mainstream” thinking as well. If Black people could have done it alone, we would have done it by now. But we’ve been appealing to white consciousness with very little effect for centuries. See the ease with which people blame the Trayvon Martins of this world for their own deaths.
Unlike Juan Williams, I do not believe the reparations conversation is dead, but I do believe it’s time for it to evolve. I suggest that the conversation move away from reparations to restoration. What financial compensation can be offered for the fracturing of families? How many dollars is displacement worth? Can you put a figure on what it means to have your identity ripped away from you? And yet, that’s what’s required to bring this quarrel to a close: a restoration of what was lost in those centuries of colonization and slavery. Put back what you stole. Give people back their dignity. Give them freedom over their affairs. Stop cheating, experimenting and poisoning whole communities. Commission effective programs that will give people a real world skill. Allow people to feel safe in their own communities. Restore the humanity that was and is still being siphoned away today. And just like the triangular slave trade, this must be a global effort. The aftershocks of slavery have not affected North and South America alone. Everyone from Cape Town to Copenhagen has a part to play in this process. Whether for pain or pleasure, we are all the heirs of our ancestors’ actions and have a responsibility to work towards righting any wrongs for the sake of our progeny.
Let’s here from the scholars. What are your thoughts?