For some of us, reparations, a hot topic on the presidential campaign trail, is a new and uncomfortable issue. It raises this question: What does the U.S. owe for the years it benefited from the enslavement of people from Africa and then, through a variety of government-sanctioned practices, subjugated them to the lowest level of a veritable caste system?
Others of us sigh, roll our eyes and say, “Here we go again. How far will we get this time?”
In activist circles, in publications like The Atlantic, in the halls of both academe and Congress, the topic is as perennial as daffodils and cherry blossoms. Starting in 1989, Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, annually introduced a bill known as H.R. 40 until his retirement in 2017. With Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, as its primary sponsor now, the bill calls for the creation of the Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans.
In re-introducing the bill earlier this year, Rep. Lee said, “The Commission aims to study the impact of slavery and continuing discrimination against African-Americans, resulting directly and indirectly from slavery to segregation to the desegregation process and the present day. The commission would also make recommendations concerning any form of apology and compensation to begin the long delayed process of atonement for slavery.”
As one of my students asked last week: Why is there a need to study what seems so obvious?
We’ve ducked and dodged and danced around this issue of what the U.S. owes even as we’ve seen reparations approved for Jewish Holocaust survivors, for Japanese Americans and others interned in camps on U.S. soil during World War II and for victims of immoral medical practices like withholding syphilis treatment from black men. States, including Florida and North Carolina, and cities, including Chicago, have made atonement with money and apologies for everything from eugenics to police misconduct.
A deliberately-exploited misconception is that modern-day blacks want a Lotto-style cash payout for something that may have happened to their long-dead ancestors. Anyone intelligent enough to be reading my words right now is capable of knowing otherwise. Any number of sources explain that slavery did not end in practice in 1865, when the 13th Amendment outlawed its most obvious forms, and that white supremacy has shaped government policy ever since. "The past is never dead. It's not even past," that Southern sage William Faulkner said.
First comes acknowledgement of the wrongs; then comes atonement in the form of education and compensation. And, yes, where there is a will, there is a way.
Textbooks that omit slavery — all 200-plus years of it in our American history — are a starting point. How can we sanction ignorance and still lay claim to having an informed citizenry? Of course, people concerned about public education don’t need a reparations bill to demand changes from school boards and textbook publishers, but the power of the federal government’s imprimatur cannot be underestimated.
Changing official narratives in public historic spaces, from the U.S. Capitol to federal, state and local monuments, is another area. While slowly underway, it’s hit or miss, depending upon who happens to have the will and the opportunity to effect change. At Fort Monroe in Hampton, Va., for instance, Terry E. Brown, the superintendent of this national monument, has taken it upon himself to reshape the traditional military story told there. Now visitors learn that the first Africans in the English-speaking colonies that became the U.S. arrived in that area in 1619 when it was known as Port Comfort and that enslaved blacks built the fort. They also learn that more than 10,000 runaway slaves took refuge there during the Civil War and helped influence President Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. That’s edifying us about a complicated past, rather than erasing it the way some locals have done in removing monuments to Confederate traitors, leaving behind empty spaces rather than explanations.
Support from presidential candidates and thought leaders redirect the spotlight onto the matter of reparations. But this must not become yet another vacuous politically-expedient promise along the campaign trail. Nor must it become a partisan checkbook issue that begins and ends with the question: How much will this cost?
It is not outer space but slavery that is America’s final frontier. If we can muster the will and the audacity to assume we can conquer the former, we can certainly do so to rectify the latter.