James Baldwin, the second part: On understanding reparations.


(James Baldwin, the first part)

James Baldwin, speaking at Cambridge University’s Union Hall in 1965 during his debate with William F. Buckley.

You are thirty by now and nothing you have done has helped to escape the trap. But what is worse than that, is that nothing you have done, and as far as you can tell, nothing you can do, will save your son or your daughter from meeting the same disaster and not impossibly coming to the same end. Now, we’re speaking about expense. I suppose there are several ways to address oneself, to some attempt to find what that word means here. Let me put it this way, that from a very literal point of view, the harbors and the ports, and the railroads of the country–the economy, especially of the Southern states–could not conceivably be what it has become, if they had not had, and do not still have, indeed for so long, for many generations, cheap labor. I am stating very seriously, and this is not an overstatement: *I* picked the cotton, *I* carried it to the market, and *I* built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing. For nothing.

The Southern oligarchy, which has still today so very much power in Washington, and therefore some power in the world, was created by my labor and my sweat, and the violation of my women and the murder of my children. This, in the land of the free, and the home of the brave.And no one can challenge that statement. It is a matter of historical record.

On August 16, an article in the Louisville Eccentric Observer caused heads to explode on social media.

White people, here are 10 requests from a Black Lives Matter leader, by Chanelle Helm

[This article is part of a package covering Louisville’s reaction to Charlottesville. Check out the other pieces, including Ricky Jones’ column “Black People Should Arm Themselves Now!” and Erica Rucker’s “America… where are you going?”]

Some things I’m thinking about that should change (in that Southern, black grandmama voice):

1. White people, if you don’t have any descendants, will your property to a black or brown family. Preferably one that lives in generational poverty …

I’ve been aware for some time that there is a persuasive argument for reparations, and thankfully, Erika Rucker was right there in LEO the following week (August 23) to help explain.

On understanding reparations

When Chanelle Helm penned “White people, here are 10 requests from a Black Lives Matter leader” for LEO’s last issue, many readers were unprepared to hear or decipher what she meant. Helm’s piece was satirical, but the point she expressed is serious — America needs to start talking about how to help families who live in generational poverty and make racism and racists uncomfortable. America has to fix these issues.

This message was lost for some in the hyperbole, but, sometimes, to wake people up, shaking them up is the best method. This piece was effective. The reactions were a mix of confusion and outrage. White readers were polarized and frightened. Many reacted emotionally, instead of trying to figure out what Helm was really saying.

America has no idea what it means to create restorative justice, or to institute reparations. Too many believe that reparations means sending everyone in an oppressed group a check, or that a black family would have the rights to move into your personal home as repayment for historical slavery and systemic racism. Reparations is a debt, not a handout.

Americans have missed the point for a long time …

Then I read this article in The Guardian with interest, although finding myself a tad puzzled by the search term “utopian thinking” affixed to it.

Is it really?

The west’s wealth is based on slavery. Reparations should be paid, by Kehinde Andrews

If the countries and companies that became rich by exploiting human flesh paid their debts, the world would be a radically different and fairer place

The west is built on racism; and not in some abstract or merely historical way. Genocide of over 80% of the natives of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries paved the way for the enslavement of millions of African people and the conquest of the world by European powers. At one point Britain’s empire was so vast that it covered two-thirds of the globe, so large that the sun never set on the dominion. The scientific, political and industrial revolutions the British school system is so proud to proclaim, were only possible because of the blood, toil and bounty exploited from the “darker nations” from across the globe. Colonialism left Africa, Asia and the Caribbean underdeveloped, as the regions were used to develop the west while holding back progress in what we now call the global south.

Any discussion of progress in racial equality in Britain or the rest of the world has to acknowledge the damage that the west has inflicted on the former colonies and their descendants. Malcolm X explained that “if you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that’s not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made”. Instead of attempting to fix the damage, we are completely unable to progress on issues of equality because countries such as Britain “won’t even admit the knife is there” …

… Make no mistake, the knife is still planted firmly in our backs and it is time we not only removed it, but healed the wound. The only way to do this is for reparations to be paid to wipe out the unmistakable debt the west owes.

Reparations have been routinely dismissed by British leaders, including David Cameron who told Jamaica that it was best to “move on” rather than expect so much as an apology. But as dismissive as Cameron was, there are plenty of precedents for the repayment of historical and economic debts.

I’ve only excerpted these links. You owe it to yourself to read them all in their entirety. I feel like I understand the concept of reparations far better than before, and Erika’s right: It’s going to take a very long time, but of course we have to start somewhere, at some point.

We can scream, wail and wave fists, but it’s hard to contest the fundamental veracity of these positions — and to conjure a glib way to end this post.