Fyodor Dostoevsky’s protagonist, Ivan Ilyich, was once asked, “What is the most revolutionary way to change society: Is it violent revolution or is it gradual reform?” He gave a careful answer: “Neither. If you want to change society, then you must tell an alternative story, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into our future so that we can take the next step . . . If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.”
Reparations – Will it take another civil war, or can we tell an alternative story?
How an issue is framed and placed in context does make a difference. Peter Wood, Duke University Professor Emeritus and the author of Black Majority, recently put the brutal reality of plantation life in stark context. Speaking in June 2017 at the Carolina Low Country and Atlantic World (CLAW) Conference, Wood argued that enslaved Africans and their descendants — children, women and men — were imprisoned on plantations that should more accurately be described as forced labor camps, no different than the Nazi prison camps of the 20th century.
“Forced labor camps” seems an extreme definition. Yet, the benign term “plantation” whitewashes the brutality of what Africans and their descendants in America and throughout the diaspora experienced. Because of historical subjectivity, the Charleston conference witnessed a sharp split on how or even whether these estates should be preserved. Are they long-gone reminders of a tortured past? From one standpoint, some of the larger ones have become the sites of weddings and other social activities used to finance the preservation of these agricultural factories. Washington’s Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello are places where the veneer of respectability and sacred mythology offer one apologetic and incomplete story. Other historians speaking at this same conference insisted that these places represent the brutal, ugly reality of enslaved Black life. Some suggested that they be destroyed as places of unrepentant evil. The Slave Dwelling Project advocates visits and sleepovers at these places in order to better under-stand what enslaved persons endured and survived, as well as to provide a setting for meaningful exchanges among people of varying ethnic and racial backgrounds, ages, and social conditions.
The oppression of Africans in the “New World” did not take place only on plantations. The burgeoning colonial and American economy was developed beyond large tracts of land utilizing enslaved labor. Plantations with hundreds of Africans in bondage were the uncommon exception. Shipbuilding, heavy construction, forestry, mining—nearly all crafts, trades, husbandry, household skills and small farms—were heavily dependent upon enslaved workers. Significantly the social construction of race and the denial of human equality took shape within a variety of settings. As evidence of the shared fear and the necessity of solidarity for maintaining this oppression, people from many levels were recruited and participated, e.g. patty rollers, ministers, judges, businessmen, and ordinary citizens.
For more than 450 years, over consecutive generations, masses of innocent Black people have been systematically and literally incarcerated, punished, denied liberty and justice, oppressed and exploited. They had done nothing to “deserve” this inhumane treatment. The question now is: how can these aberrations be tackled? The continual oppression of Black Americans is described in the Ava Duvernay documentary, “13th.” This film refers to the Constitutional Amendment which codified full Black citizenship, subverted ever since by the realities of Jim Crow, public lynching, denial of civil and social justice, and efforts to refine and impose mass incarceration. With this back story, is reparation possible? Are current efforts to rectify such events sufficient? Is tearing down Confederate monuments and hiding them in museums a form of reparation? Is opening admissions to descendants of the enslaved at elite universities a reasonable solution? How should amends be made? Truly, “Where’re my 40 acres and my mule?”
The process of repairing and healing is certainly more complex than even today’s discussion about health care legislation. For many of the nation’s political and social leaders who can’t seem to even work their way out of a wet paper bag, reparations are insurmountable. That, however, is no excuse. Citizens and leaders are stymied. Monetary compensation, insufficient as it is, is the easy fail-safe, even as we are told that such payments would “break the bank,” “bankrupt the nation.” Yet, regarding the nation’s debt to Black people, the Rev. Martin L. King, Jr. stated very modestly: “We’ve come to cash the check.”
In the end, there are financial costs; no argument there. For more than 45 years, Michigan Congressman John Conyers has annually introduced a bill to address reparations for African Americans, and for each of those years his demand has been ignored and dismissed. There is a Congressional pattern here associated with slavery and the status of Black people. The gentleman’s rule during the country’s first century was that slavery would not be discussed in Congress because it was too disruptive to the legislative process. It took a civil war to address that issue. It seems that the rationale for avoiding a real attempt at reparations is following a tried and familiar pattern – avoid and deny.
But even before this society can figure out the how of reparations, we have to confront and acknowledge the truth of our nation’s history. If we want to change this society and the inequity we witness daily, with its roots reaching back to slavery, first the truth must be told in our homes, our schools, our media, our public spaces, and in our religious and government institutions.
Reparations have been made in this nation’s history. Certain groups with more manageable numbers have been compensated – Japanese interred during World War II, a few Native American tribes, and individuals wrongly convicted of felonies. When and how African Americans demand reparation for centuries of exploitation and abuse should be seriously considered by individuals, institutions, and local and national governments. This is not something to be tabled endlessly. Its relevance is reflected in the legacy of enslavement that we are experiencing presently with racism, poor quality housing, inadequate education, unaffordable health care, cradle to prison injustice, violence, generational poverty, and environmental exploitation. The reality is in our face, on our screens, and it is dividing us. Whether defined as affirmative action, blood money, or reconciliation, at some point and soon this country will have to pay the piper.
The question is: How? At the table, can we talk, listen, really hear each other? Many Black people want to talk about it reparations all the time, and many White people never want to have the conversation. Nationally and locally we’re at an impasse, but somehow we must begin the discussion — first, on the most personal level. These are some questions to consider as we start the process of truth telling and healing:
When was the first time in your life you were aware of racism? What was your response?
When was the most recent time you were aware of racism? What was your response?
As a reasonable response to racism, how should reparations be made?
Consider these questions deeply and honestly. For, without an individual and subjective connection by each of us, this nation is most likely headed to another civil war.