The issue of reparations for the enslavement of Africans in America has finally reached the front burner. And even at this early stage, the accompanying debate is fascinating and instructive. Those who condemn the mere mention of reparations as divisive and likely to worsen race relations in America are dug in and set to attribute America’s current abysmal and declining racial climate to the proponents of reparations. Those who support reparations occupy and populate a wide and sometimes schizophrenic spectrum ranging from demands of cash payments to demands for a variety of social services. On both sides are blacks and whites.
I support reparations. Us For Once wishes to solicit and make available the views of parties on all sides of the debate so that ideas and opinions are available for review and scrutiny by the general and interested public.
When examining the question of whether or not reparations are owed and due, at least two considerations must attend. Was a crime against humanity committed and, if so, should a remedy for that crime be fashioned and applied? Only a few rabid detractors would go so far as to suggest that slavery did not constitute a crime. Even the loud chorus proclaiming the one time legality of slavery submit to its characterization as inhuman, immoral and criminal in nature. Nonetheless there are those (mostly white) who believe that no matter how grievous and horrendous the crime of slavery it is inappropriate to consider reparations such a long time after enslavement. These are often the same people who champion victim compensation awards and legislation. The fact is that no length of time can give comfort to the hypocrisy of such a double standard. This view, however, does highlight the lingering maladies embodied in the remnants of a slave culture and crystallizes the unchanged character of slave society that defines present day reality.
White people continue to regard black people as inferior and undeserving and many blacks have resigned themselves to that status. America herself is held captive to the unresolved issues emanating from slavery. The gulf between former slave and former master is widening while the basis for accommodation are contracting. No amount of rationalization can deny that slaves were victims of a heinous crime and compensation to remedy the fallout of that victimization is warranted. Justice demands it.
Given the obvious and irrefutable criminal status of slavery we are left to grapple over an appropriate remedy. What shall that be? For the moment let’s decline to offer proposals for remedy but rather draw attention to the conditions that make the mere discussion of reparations bitter and arduous.
Slavery is America’s dirty laundry, and its stench does and will hover in our midst so long as we steadfastly refuse to air it out. Three hundred years of brutal, inhumane and barbaric treatment of African people laces the foundation of the world’s only superpower which prides itself as the bastion of human rights and democracy. Until America comes to grips with the full and open truth underlying its ascendency, the open wound of slavery will fester, undermine and ultimately take a huge toll on the nation.
As I examined the crowd that went to Washington on August 17, 2002 to demonstrate for reparations I thought back over my public school education and tried to recall what the system of public education had taught me about slavery. Virtually nothing. I called around to some friends and contemporaries to inquire as to their recollections. Every response was the same. Virtually nothing. It wasn’t the first time I had thought about this but it was the first time I initiated an informal survey of acquaintances. Latent racism aside, it is no wonder that many Americans have no sympathy or sense of justice about reparations. They are truly ignorant of the reality, degree and vestiges of slavery. As a nation, we have conspired to stuff our dirty laundry down as far as we can into the hamper of the past. It is reasoned that this subject and object of shame is better forgotten and omitted. Why bring it up? The only possible result being hurt and resentment. Even black educators shrink from strong advocacy for the full unfettered teaching of slavery to their own people and the world. Why?
Many in the black community are ashamed of slavery. It is a stain on their subconscious selves and they want to avoid the pain of coming face to face with the reality that they were once property of those with whom they have struggled so long to claim equality. They prefer to forget and in some cases even forgive. Many profess to have overcome the vestiges of slavery or assert indeed that no vestiges ever existed. They are angry with those of us who raise this divisive topic and thus make conversation in their current circles of social and professional acquaintances uncomfortable. Clearly they cannot defend the wrongs of America but also cannot support the demands of reparationists. Hence, they find themselves straddling yet another fence. One perhaps more perilous and rickety than the fence that divides black and white in America. Where is the answer? What is the way out?
I say choose knowledge. Thoroughly educate Americans and the era about slavery. Black studies courses are no substitute for an in-depth familiarization with slavery. Why not throw open the books? Take inventory and have our leaders certify the history of America and lay it bare for examination and debate. Teach every child the truth. Kill white supremacy in its infancy by telling white children of the horrors wrought by their ancestors. Crush black shame by telling black children the truth. This is a proper function for our elementary and secondary schools but unlikely to happen there. So it then becomes one plausible goal for the reparations movement. Repairing Africans’ mind-set by teaching the truth. Jarring white supremacy from its perch by laying open its historical sores and blisters and allowing the release of its putrid puss. Choose knowledge first. Then there will be a foundation upon which to build in both black and white communities. A dialogue concerning reparations will have a proper frame of reference.
The black community is so severely damaged by a lack of understanding of its own genesis that our confusion is a fertile breeding ground for fratricidal behavior. We live in fear of everything. Almost every certainty results from the validation of white society. What must the impact be when our children find in us no long term independent ability to provide for their security or futures? And even facing growing dysfunction, we are more concerned with being unmasked.
African Americans emerge from a great tradition of verbal history. Yet stories of slavery are only whispered if passed along at all. And those that are passed along are shrouded in guarded secrecy. The result continues to be catastrophic. We are a people without cultural demarcation. No language, no discernable cultural attributes, no nation with which to identify, and homeless in the land of our birth. We were made in America and like abandoned children, she refuses to claim us. White America and even some blacks say forget it all. They say the rape of your great-grandmother is of no consequence because it happened so long ago. Yet America at this very moment is pursuing those who harmed and threaten her to the ends of the earth. How can we be told not to pursue reparations. Teach slavery that we might escape its present day cousin.
The advent of American slavery will never be a passive reality subject to romanticism. And while time past might obscure the facts it can never erase the event. Our duty is to ensure that the facts surrounding our holocaust remain as vivid as those of every other peoples’ holocaust. Teaching slavery is the answer. All of America rose on the scarred backs, broken bones and violated bodies of slaves. And despite such monumental abuse, these sons and daughters of slaves are by and large among America’s most loyal citizens even as America refuses to offer so much as an apology for its demonology. Their truth deserves telling.
One of our great fears is reminding and telling the world that we used to be slaves. Reparationists threaten an open admission of the tragic reality of our past. So doing poses a people-splitting dilemma. Not so with Jews and their holocaust. We are each regularly reminded of the struggle, plight and saga of the Jews. It is they who make sure that we never forget. And they do it with great flair and gusto. Why? Because they envelop us all in their tragedy and insist that we all share responsibility for their future even if we had nothing at all to do with the horrors of their past. We all accommodate the holocaust, the internment of Japanese, crimes against native Americans and more. Why then, can we not see the wisdom of opening up the slavery discussion which should precede or at least accompany the reparations discussion? Teach the whole story of American slavery. Teach it now and teach it often. Every child should be made to study the Institution of American Slavery in America’s elementary and secondary public schools. There is simply no justification for this pivotal three hundred year period in history being relegated to a footnote in the study of America by Americans. Nothing less than a comprehensive, graphic, detailed exposé will suffice. And there is no better time than the present.
Reparations will come. Its form will be hotly debated, rigorously crafted, a work of creative diplomacy and imposing on all sides. But it will happen. Will there be divisiveness on the road to finality? Of course. But that divisiveness can be minimized and better managed in the context of the truth about slavery.
I say let’s get it out and get it on.