feature: a rational argument for a conversation about reparations

November 5, 2014
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What would I accept for reparations for 240 years of slavery and 150 years and counting of Jim Crow, segregation and continued discrimination? 

By Nick Douglas, AFROPUNK Contributor 

Some of my black ancestors came to the U.S. as slaves. One of them, Nanette, was taken as a child from present day Senegal to New Orleans around 1710. She was one of hundreds of slaves held by one of the richest men in New Orleans, Claude Dubreuil, and bore five of his children. Because Nanette was a slave, and had no power to refuse Dubreuil, I consider him a rapist as well as a slaveholder. Nanette became the great-grandmother of Henrietta Delille, the only Creole/black American to be venerated by the Vatican. She was an activist against slavery and the custom of plaçage relationships in New Orleans. Her veneration is a step towards sainthood based on her work founding the Catholic Order of the Sisters of the Holy Family. Delille founded a home for orphans and a home for aged female former slaves.

In the run-up to the Civil War, my Louisiana relatives were prohibited from incorporating their cigar business because it was illegal for corporations to have black boardmembers. In the late 1850s, some of my ancestors left Louisiana after free blacks were attacked by angry white mobs throughout the state. They formed an agricultural cooperative in Mexico with hundreds of other New Orleans Creoles and free blacks.

My ancestors were forced to leave the French Quarter, a part of the city of New Orleans they and other people of color and Creoles were largely responsible for building. In 1894 a segregation law was passed by Alderman Sidney Story that made the French Quarter exclusively for whites. The result was the creation of the famous Storyville district of New Orleans. To gain perspective on Creoles’ financial loss due to this legislation, consider that New Orleans Creoles and free people of color were taxed on real estate and property that was worth $15 million in 1860. That amount corresponds to $412 million in 2014.

My black Creole ancestors helped fund the Plessy v. Ferguson case, which unsuccessfully challenged segregation in public transportation. They, like other people of color in both the South and North, suffered segregation and discrimination for many decades. In the 1970s and 80s I experienced discrimination, profiling and stereotyping as a young black man growing up in Oakland, California.

What would I accept as reparations for these and other injustices?

I would want an official apology for slavery and Jim Crow, segregation and discrimination. In 2009 the Senate gave a half-hearted apology for these wrongs, but a real acknowledgement of government involvement and support of these evils would be a good start.

I would want all Americans educated not only about slavery, but about the Jim Crow, segregation and discrimination that followed, and which still poisons our society. White Americans have to be educated about historic racism and discrimination to understand contemporary racism and discrimination. I would adopt proposals put forward by scholars like Joe Feagin (professor at Texas A&M University, author of Racist America ) that curricula from grade school to grad school in the U.S. include classes on racism and stereotyping. We need to educate Americans on the lasting effect that the historic evils of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation have on our society today.

I would also want real enforcement of the civil rights and discrimination laws we have on the books. That means more resources to enforce and investigate complaints about discrimination, especially in housing and employment. It also would mean a reworking of affirmative action legislation. The original legislation was created by white legislators, who intentionally made the legislation weak, with few methods for enforcement. The result has been a lack of meaningful advancement for blacks, Latinos, Asians and women who have suffered from past discrimination and exclusion from job and educational opportunities.

The idea about starting a conversation about reparations in not a new one among government officials, in the 1860s Thaddeus Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner (the same Massachusetts senator who sponsored and presented the petition for black voting rights to Congress) proposed land grants to newly freed slaves “to eradicate the large disparity of wealth, status and power.”  Unfortunately in 1866 this legislation was rejected by Congress. (It would have been doubly ironic to give land stolen from Native Americans to newly freed African-Americans.) In 1989 Congressman John Conyers started a yearly introduction of a bill in Congress to simply set up a commission to examine the possibility of reparations. Conyers has been unable to even get a hearing on the subject, even as late as 2013.    

Another proposal by Dr. Feagin and others is a new constitutional convention. Delegates to our last constitutional convention were all rich, landowning white men, forty percent of whom were slaveholders. This constitutional convention would include women, all ethnic groups (imagine Native Americans being included in lawmaking for a change) and religions.

A truly representative convention and constitution would likely include language that protects and strengthens enforcement of human rights, voting rights, equality before the law, the right to work, right to counsel, presumption of innocence, and prohibits propagating racism. I find it hard to imagine that these changes—which represent true American values—would be opposed.

Researching my book Finding Octave, I learned about my white ancestors and their living white descendants, and found that many of my ancestors were slaveholders. Slaveholding spans 100 years of my family history. I know the names of my slaveholding ancestors, when and where they lived. I know how many slaves they had, their slaves’ names and ages, when they sold their slaves and if they freed their slaves. I also know the names and details of my slaveholding ancestors who raped and impregnated their slaves, and what happened to their offspring.

Knowing this doesn’t make me unique. Many white Americans, if they cared to find out, could get this same information. But in reality who would actively seek out this type of troubling information?

Then I was confronted by a reality that a unique few Americans will ever face: slaveholding by both black and white ancestors. In addition to my white relatives, I also have ancestors that were black slaveholders, slaves and descendants of slaves.

My white and black ancestors raped their slaves, allowed acquaintances and family members to rape slaves, sold children as young as eight years old to satisfy debts, gave slave babies away and even exchanged slaves as Christmas presents.  A slave named Juliette, an 18-year-old milkmaid, was included in an ancestor’s inventory along with 2,000 bricks and an armoire.

When I first discovered records of slaveholding in my family, I refused to believe it. And we have resisted enacting a meaningful reparations policy for the same reason. Admitting the crimes of slaveholding ancestors is much more shameful than having ancestors who were slaves. I experienced this when I found both slaveholders and slaves in my own American ancestry.

As a kid, I was ashamed to learn an American history where nameless blacks were readily enslaved and silenced. But once I found the names and stories of my own ancestors, I learned that they and others had relentlessly resisted slavery, and spearheaded movements for abolition, voting rights and desegregation.

Black Americans have borne the burden of shame about slavery alone—and white Americans have shrugged it off—for too long. It is time to make reparations, to admit and address the shameful slaveholding in our national past.

Reparations should include an official apology as heartfelt as an individual descendant of slaveholders would make. To the descendants of the people my relatives enslaved, I would beg their forgiveness. I would fully acknowledge that my ancestors unjustly enriched themselves at their family’s expense.  I would make no excuses. I would sincerely apologize, no strings attached. In my book Finding Octave I have done this in a way by bringing stories of my slaveholding ancestors to light, and telling the truth about how heinous I thought each story was.

Most Americans have in some way at some time unjustly benefited from slavery, segregation or discrimination. For example, in the 1800s and 1900s immigrant millworkers in the Northeast made a living, supported their family, and sent their kids to school and college. Even though millwork was often dangerous and inhumane, these workers were able to gain a foothold in American society due to income from their work. These benefits were passed on through generations to the present day. The cotton that they processed paid for their descendants’ prosperity and education—but it was harvested with labor stolen from slaves and later from white and black sharecroppers. This is just one example of how unsuspecting workers, thousands of miles away, profited from slavery and injustices in the South.

For all Americans below the poverty line I would propose cash reparations.  Historically those unjustly enriched by slavery have pitted poor whites, Latinos, Asians and blacks against each other to maintain the economic and social advantages they gained from slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and discrimination. Blacks, Latinos, Asians and poor whites have suffered the same effects. Reparations would alleviate some of the income equality and discrimination they still suffer.

I do not accept the argument that we cannot afford reparations. We as a nation just spent four to six trillion dollars on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan for absolutely no benefit at all. Money given to the people below the poverty line will be spent here in the U.S. and help U.S. businesses, instead of watching palette-loads of $100 bills float away on the desert wind.

Nick Douglas’ book, Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery…. Blog: http://www.findingoctave.tumblr.com/

(Image: Harriet  Tubman and rescued slaves)