Point of View Columns

Reparations -America’s Past Due Bill

Reparations from the United States to the descendants of black slaves has been alternatively treated by mainstream media as a pipe dream or as a concept with no basis in reality. But the reality is that every year since 1989 House Representatives John Conyers and Sheila Jackson Lee have introduced the HR40 Reparations Bill which would establish a federal commission to study the issue of reparations for American descendants of slaves and to recommend viable strategies for moving forward.

But times do change and HR40 has been given new life. The progressive candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are supporting the modest, but important step, of having Congress (which is seated in the Capitol building which was built with slave labor) seriously consider a means of finally recognizing the horror of slavery and the need to establish a mode of reparations as a first step towards true reconciliation on the issue of race in America.

From the earliest record of Africans and people of African descent in this country racially based sanctions have existed. Black Codes, slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, lynching along with malign and benign neglect have always circumscribed the existence of black Americans in this country. And it was on the anvil of slavery that the principle of white supremacy was forged and embedded in the soul of America. So profound was the enslavement of black Americans that even a century after the shackles were broken by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, there were laws, proscriptions and sanctions which clearly and indelibly marked black people as “the other”.

And that is why the issue of reparations to black Americans by the United States of America is so important. For two reasons – no matter the dollar figure, monetary damages paid to every black person descended from slaves would not be enough. Just as the billions of dollars paid to the state of Israel by Germany will never be enough, the centuries of pain, suffering and inhuman degradation can never be adequately reduced to dollars and cents.

But dollars were paid to Israel by Germany as a way of acknowledging the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust as well as a way of recognizing the humanity of its victims and survivors and their descendants. Certainly the unspeakable horror of slavery and the need to finally recognize the humanity of the victims of slavery as well as their descendants warrant similar treatment by the only means possible – reparations.

The second reason is perhaps even more compelling. Although the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in January of 1863 and the 13th Amendment was ratified in December of 1865, the degradation and ill treatment of black Americans did not stop. It did not stop with the termination of the protection of black people by federal troops in 1876. It certainly did not stop throughout the domestic terrorist campaign waged against black people by the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Magnolia, the White Citizens Councils and virtually all of the local and state governments in the South and throughout much of these United States.

The mistreatment and denial of the humanity of black Americans continued through almost a century of lynching and the infernal bounds and barriers imposed by Jim Crow and the legalized dehumanization of men, women and children who were descended from slaves. And the current race- related disparities in education, housing, mortality rates, incarceration rates and various indicia of standards of living that still leave black people on the lesser side of the national ledger are facts that compel a serious discussion of how reparations should be structured.

Simply put, to dismiss reparations is to ignore history and dismiss the humanity of black Americans. It is past time to put reparations in the center of the national discussion. Proclamation of the legal rights of black Americans without reparations is to intentionally fail to recognize the humanity of black Americans alive today as well as to somehow turn a blind eye to the pain and suffering of millions of black men, women and children who may be nameless to the United States government but are well known and remembered by a Power greater than this country.

There has never been a convenient time to discuss reparations in this country. There will never be a convenient time to discuss reparations in this country. And that is all the more reason that now is the time to move forward on the issue of reparations for black Americans.

The stain of slavery, racial discrimination and white supremacy will never be removed from the fabric of this country’s history. Reparations would be an important step in restoring its soul by finally and definitively recognizing the colossal mortal sins committed against men, women and children of African descent.

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Point of View Columns

Why America Needs to Buy This Book

Having recently finished reading “Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead, I was absolutely pleased to learn that this book, in addition to having won the National Book Award, had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Indeed “Railroad” is that rare combination of artistry, passion and genius that makes it a book that can be simultaneously savored and devoured.

“Railroad” is a work of historical fiction that begins by chronicling the horrific banality of slavery in America. An America where torture, damnation and misery were the ordinary characteristics of the everyday life of a black slave. From “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to “Twelve Years A Slave” to “Roots”, the slime of America’s Original Sin and its Lingering Stain has been told and retold, but America has neither fully accepted the reality of its origins or the absolute fact that the Shadow of Slavery dims the lights of freedom and decency which are supposed to illuminate this land. And that is why America needs to buy “Underground Railroad”.

That is because at some unknowable point this work fiction literally jumps the rails and becomes a work of fantasy woven into an unforgettable fable. But with every word and every page, Colson Whitehead never lets the reader forget that for black Americans in that era, slavery was a constant nightmare – a nightmare from which there was no awakening.

And it is the constancy of horror and fear and humiliation and abject surrender that accompanies the reader on every single page that in turn forces the reader to understand that slavery was not simply a bad but best forgotten chapter in American’s history. “Railroad” has the potential to help every American understand that the institutionalized, regularized and degradation of black Americans for centuries has deformed the character of this country to this very day. And the truth is that this deformity cannot be cured until it is recognized in the first place.

For those who would contend that the combination of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution freed and empowered the men and women who were formerly chattel, “Railroad” clarifies matters. For it is not possible for an entire nation to either enslave or countenance the enslavement of human beings  and then suddenly proclaim and amend a new vision and a new day.

Because it is clear that the racial disparities that prevail in these United States 152 years after the end of the Civil War do not exist because of inferiority of black Americans or a lack of remediating strategies ranging from legislation to Supreme Court decisions to black capitalism to affirmative action. The disparities exist because the equality of black Americans is not a fully accepted fact – indeed it is still subject to dispute, particularly when that dispute is thinly veiled in sociological jargon.

Disparities in incarceration rates, mortality rates and unemployment are the strange fruit of the slavery vineyards that were planted centuries ago. The insults and venom that were leveled at the first African American president had little to do with politics and everything to do with his genetic connection to former chattel.

The mandatory reading of “Railroad” will allow all Americans, black and white, to see in the book the very clear connection between the language, behavior and spirit of the overseer and the owner in the current political discourse. Because as has been seen in Germany and Bosnia and Armenia and now in Syria, if it is possible to deny the humanity of another human being, it is then possible to do anything and everything to that human being.

And that is why, in addition to the well-deserved accolades, every American should read “Underground Railroad” as a very important first step in finally finding a way to bury the past and to create a future that every American deserves.

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