On the wall of my den, I have a faded sepia-tinted photo that must be 100 years old. It is a classic Victorian-era portrait of a gray-haired African-American couple in stiff, high collars. The man's bushy white beard and twinkling cheekbones make him look like a black Santa Claus. His wife looks more serious, as if she is waiting for this picture-taking foolishness to end so she can get back to more important duties.
I never knew the two of them, but they mean a lot to me. My father tells me that they are his mother's parents. He doesn't know much about them beyond that they were farmers in Alabama, they went to church every Sunday and, before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, they lived their lives as slaves.
That last fact makes their portrait particularly intriguing to me. I search the ancient eyes of my long-departed great-grandparents for clues as to what it was like to grow up as somebody else's property.
Generations of black parents avoided talking very much about slavery to their children, as if they didn't want the future of their children to be bound too tightly by bitter memories of the past.
Still, America's racial past unavoidably haunts its present and nags at its future. Even the slavery question returns in periodic eruptions, like last weekend's Conference on Reparations that brought a reported 200 people to Detroit's Cobo Hall for three days.
The idea of black Americans ever receiving compensation for their forebears' free labor, our "40 acres and a mule," has been, for most black Americans, either a rallying cry or a sick joke for many years.
It's not just an idle dream, it's a broken promise. Several bills to provide reparations to slaves were introduced during the Civil War, but all were blocked. A post-war field order by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman divided up nearly a half-million acres of confiscated slave owners' land into 40-acre plots for former slaves, but was rescinded by President Andrew Johnson in 1869.
Since then, the reparations possibility has faded, but the movement lingers on. It has fueled the rhetoric of separatists and demagogues who rail against white treachery and deceit. It gathered strength during the black liberation movement in the late 1960s. It has stayed alive in Congress thanks to die-hard reparationists like Rep. John Conyers, a black Democrat from Detroit.
Most recently the movement seems to have been invigorated by the success of other groups, like the Japanese-Americans who won $1.2 billion in reparations for their internment in camps during World War II and the eight Sioux Indian tribes that won $105 million in 1980 for land seized by Congress in 1877.
In that spirit, Detroit activist "Reparations Ray" Jenkins promised at last weekend's conference that a class-action lawsuit for reparations for African-Americans will be filed against the federal government later this year.
I wish him luck. Forty acres and a mule fetch a pretty good price these days. But I am not holding my breath waiting for either to be delivered. The legal hurdles look, to say the least, formidable. Today's living African-Americans, unlike Native Americans or Japanese-Americans, lack two things courts look for: direct victimization and a contract (or treaty) that has been broken.
The primary victims of slavery, unlike the Sioux tribal organizations or the victims of Japanese-American internment in the 1940s, are all dead. Slave family lines have become diluted over the years with non-slave family blood. The best one could hope for would be an amusing stampede by cash-hungry folks who heretofore had claimed to be white but now amazingly want to be considered black so they can cash in. One leading reparationist, Jesse Jackson, gets around that concern by calling for a more generalized compensation for all African nations and people of African descent for the pain of colonialism and its exploitations, slavery included.
But what, one wonders, about the descendants of those Africans who profited from selling fellow Africans into slavery? Pardon me for bringing up an unpleasant historical fact, but it is a fact.
If the reparations movement has any value, it is in its reminding Americans that the problems associated with black poverty and discrimination today were not created overnight. They are the product of historical injustices, a debt that, left unpaid, exacts a calamitous social cost in lives, property and national confidence from everyone, whether their families owned slaves or not.
The black filmmaker Spike Lee named his company "40 Acres and a Mule Productions" to remind everyone of America's unpaid debt to the families of black slaves. But, though his company is named after reparations, it is not the product of them, unless you count in a cosmic way the education he received at Atlanta's Morehouse College, a historically black college established for the children of freed slaves.
America's neglect of public education and job opportunities in low-income black neighborhoods has created new generations of slavery out of freedom. There may be no better way for America to right its historical wrongs than to ensure that everyone, regardless of race or background, has access to the educational opportunities all Americans need to succeed in the coming century. We can't change the past. But we can save our future.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.