Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations” deals with repairing past wrongs by doing right now (HR 40). By discussing house discrimination in Chicago Coates demonstrates that far too many race issues have continued with both blindness and malice leading to an integrated balkanization of race and racial bigotry. It really doesn’t matter what you call it, bigotry, racism, prejudice, race issues today could be resolved by paying attention and providing support. Yet, no one in politics wants to deal with it.
But while the people advocating reparations have changed over time, the response from the country has remained virtually the same. “They have been taught to labor,” the Chicago Tribune editorialized in 1891. “They have been taught Christian civilization, and to speak the noble English language instead of some African gibberish. The account is square with the ex‑slaves.”
Not exactly. Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.
Broach the topic of reparations today and a barrage of questions inevitably follows: Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay? But if the practicalities, not the justice, of reparations are the true sticking point, there has for some time been the beginnings of a solution. For the past 25 years, Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represents the Detroit area, has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for “appropriate remedies.”
I live on an antebellum house on a farm that had some 50 slaves at the time of the civil war. With a saw mill, grain mill nearby, and two roads intersecting the property over a creek ford. The farm would have looked like a small city. Now it’s idyllic pastures with a large house overlooking the creek, fields all around. The dam and mill long flooded away.
The slaves here were better educated than elsewhere I am told by their descendants and yet they were treated harshly–some descendants became lawyers, doctors, engineers, and others farmers, craftsmen, writers, activists. Family history has it that depending on the overseer slaves were treated better or worse. On the one hand a neighbor talks about how when the horses went lame the slaves “volunteered” to pull the equipment to get the field done on time. On the other hand descendants once stood on the back porch and told us how their name “Fox” came to be because a mother hid her children in the bushes to avoid having them taken away.
Jefferson said the best money to be made on a plantation was in breeding slaves. A slave sold for 5-10 years worth of paid labor. When we hear the dollar amounts in movies-books we forget just how little any labor was paid at the time.
The photo above is of two girls who lived here. I am not sure of their last name. We don’t know where they lived. We don’t know where the slave cemetery is. Almost nothing remains of their lives but what was most likely the overseer’s house, another house, and the Big House. I still stack wood in the same spot haunted by memories and ghosts of so many people who have come this way.
When the civil war began Lincoln promised to pay for the slaves taken from the farm; send a letter listing them. The letter and bill were sent but payment was never made. The letter is posted in an old mildewed room here–some family members still wait. Many southerners resent that many such promises had been made. It shows the disingenuousness of northerners to actually be concerned with the grave economic and cultural issues of the South. The North couldn’t physically whip the South but it could so severely economically devastate it that it has never recovered. No one gets out of here alive.
This was after all where families were divided and a brother might be trying to kill a brother in battle, both quoting the bible for support. John Brown was tried and hung near here. Harper’s Ferry is a short drive away. The farm changed sides some 70 times during the war. After the war the house was put up for tax sale like so many others. Past taxes were another means of punishing the South, providing land not for freed slaves but predatory white land grabbers. Belle paid the taxes. She paid again when the house burned and had to be rebuilt. The farm was saved at least three times by women who married into the family. The farm has never paid for itself since. I don’t think it ever paid for itself. It was such a grandiose vision of English aristocracy in the rough and tumble wild west (then) of the new world.
Talking to one of the descendants I expressed my discomfiture I often feel at living here (I married into the family). He said that it was important to never forget. That these relics serve as ongoing lessons of what war did, does, how it should never happen again, and how we must continue to build a better world. That our being here rather than abandoning the house to annual family reunions would allow people to visit and gain insight.
I can’t feel personally guilty about past actions of which I disapprove yet I can do everything possible to make the present and future better. I am embarrassed when Civil War buffs come with their blind enthusiasm for war devoid of the hurtful meaning to others. I am embarrassed when people of color come by and remove the portrait of Jeb Stuart from the wall.
Reparations are a problem for so many people. I worked with Native Americans for awhile and they deserve so much more, in spite of gambling profits with its accompanying corruption and inhumane service jobs. The Hispanic and Latinos of the Southeast, Southwest, and West, where California once tried to become independent and may again. Women and their too many hours of unpaid labor mocking the issue of complementarity. Abused children, females, males, and minority labor of the North and MidAtlantic states. Going even further the Native Americans who conquered each other such that land disputes still exist between tribes such as the Hopi and Navajo. Other minorities like LGBTQ and ethnics that have been occupationally disenfranchised since their being or arrival. Still. All still.
The answer to me is in restorative justice. Reparations for all. Vast efforts must be made to serve all of the disenfranchised, to enable them to do well, to rise above their history of oppression made real by current difficulties. Social justice issues are mocked as enabling entitlement yet the most entitlement is in the wealthy who built such vast amounts of capital they need never work again or their children, children’s children–they expect never be held accountable for how they gained their wealth. Economists may pick at data to show that capital gain is not so much greater than labor gain but it is never questioned that labor will always earn less, the fluidity between the two always low.
Coates raises important issues in an “enjoyable” yet difficult to read article. Let people gain from their reading the deep understanding of our fellow friends who still live their lives amuck because of the ruinous deeds of the past, still incapacitating all but a few who luckily escape in spite of contrary odds. That we can do so much more now, to mutual benefit, and because it is the moral thing to do.