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"We are the
Reparations Generation," said the earnest young man from Atlanta.
Not Generation X, Y, or some other commercial demographic cohort,
but politicized, determined African American youth, believing they
will make and shape history - that they are making it right now, on
the National Mall.
Time - Reparations Time" - banner
The youth's statement
from the podium felt solid, tangible, like an uncontested truth -
not a wish or tentative prediction, but a matter-of-fact announcement.
At that instant it was clear that there was no need to get a count
of exactly how many bodies had arrived in Washington. The Reparations
phenomenon is beyond head-counts. At some point in the recent past,
another epoch emerged in the centuries-long journey of African Americans.
The truth is in the youth, plain as a new day.
There was also
the sense that little weight should be given to who was present or
absent from the stage in the stifling August heat. Johnny Cochran
is down with the Reparations movement, wherever he was and whomever
he was suing, last Saturday. Big-name entertainers incorporate Reparations
rhetoric into their acts. Civil rights leaders, mayors and legislators,
the anointed and the appointed, the selected and the elected, all
are singing the same tune. The tens of thousands who physically showed
up for the Millions for Reparations Rally sweated for the rest - unquestionably
representing many millions. That's what emerging epochs are like.
must unite on the principle of Reparations," said Min.
Louis Farrakhan, speaking only briefly for a change and, as always,
employing the Nation of Islam's daunting yet resonant logic. It has
become apparent that unity around the principle of Reparations has
already been achieved - that is, sufficient unity as can ever be expected
from a dynamic population of 35 million - and was probably there all
There is unity
in the declaration: We are owed. There is no shared agreement on how
the debt is to be paid - and that's just fine, for the time being.
accept a cash payment, because a fool and his money will soon be parted."
Farrakhan is eminently correct. He mentions trillions of dollars and
Marshall-type plans (which must occur, and many times over)
and calls for the transfer of "millions and millions of acres
of land" (which will never occur, short of Apocalypse,
but is not necessary.)
is it? Reparations Time!" - chant
is immersed in the Reparations feeling, an essential prerequisite
for action. Some of us have felt like this before, more than
a generation ago. Others are now privileged to experience youth and
a people-wide awakening, simultaneously - a glorious gift of fate.
The clamor for
Reparations is called forth by necessity, whether the ancestors are
given credit for the summons or not. It is the product of a deep and
fundamental imperative that has informed African American politics
and culture throughout the long sojourn on these shores: the yearning
for operational unity whenever possible, across class, region and
even skin tone lines. It gives us our particular character as a people,
and at the same time compels us to reach out to Africa and the rest
of the Diaspora.
The current phase
of the movement for Reparations - the means to be made whole - requires
acts and acclamations of solidarity that are inseparable from the
concrete goals of the movement, itself. They are one and the same,
a mass ceremony over time and space - yet profoundly political.
This is what unifies
the silk suits and the dashikis - in principle. The inevitable
dynamics of class and other conflicts, not to mention human vice,
will become apparent later on, but only if the movement is strong
enough to achieve things worth fighting each other over - a problem,
therefore, to be welcomed.
an affirmation of human worth and dignity, a super-weapon in any contest
of moral authority. It identifies slavery as an American Original
Sin, plumbing the depths of the nation's religious fabric. Reparations
captures and enthralls the youth, who have nothing if not a legacy.
It envelops and claims the totality of a people's history in this
land, all but forcing them to think big, grand thoughts. Reparations
has the power to conjure up exquisite dreams that the most talented
among us may one day grow into.
A network of grassroots
organizations, led largely by veterans from the nationalist side of
the Black spectrum, has carefully nurtured this once-marginal campaign.
Reparations is now a movement on the brink of sustainability, one
that can carry masses of people beyond their present condition and
outlook. However, as with any song sung in public, the composer soon
loses control of his creation - the most fundamental proof of its
value. There will be many variations on the central theme of Reparations.
tasks ahead are elegantly simple and doable. Detroit's Congressman
John Conyers has been submitting his bill authorizing a congressional
study of Reparations since 1989. "We get it by contacting every
single member of the House of Representatives... and every member
of the U.S. Senate, over there," said the lawmaker, pointing
to the U.S. Capitol building. "Only the Congress can do what
we want done."
to make everyone in the sweltering crowd swear that they would crank
up the phones, prompting many otherwise honest people to lie. However
he, like Farrakhan, is correct. Conyers' Reparations Study bill would
likely result in a process equivalent to extended hearings on the
issue - "I'm not asking for blood," he told the crowd. Beyond
that, only the federal government, through the U.S. Congress, can
make available the astronomical sums necessary to make Black America
crowd was less than enthusiastic about the mundane task of making
phone calls, possibly because they don't yet know what to ask for
- demand - other than the Conyers study. By the time the study
bill passes, which will only come as the result of overlapping campaigns
of education, litigation, agitation, disruption, electioneering, and
general commotion throughout the nation, the first of many serious
legislative proposals should be ready for public study and review.
Hopefully, Conyers will still be in office to oversee the process.
If not, his successor and colleagues will be compelled to do the job.
Reparations is already that strong.
said the head of that city's delegation to the rally, "the issue
of reparations is too big for one organization. On every Black person's
lips is the word, 'Reparations.'" The Houston City Council, he
reported, voted down a coalition-backed resolution based on the Conyers
bill, 8 to 7. The organizers were bitterly disappointed but, from
here, that sounds like a near-victory. Hundreds of cities will soon
be confronted by African American coalitions pressing similar demands.
will find new ways to tackle old grievances under the inclusive
banner of Reparations. Slavery has left a myriad of legacies to
bedevil its 35 million U.S. descendants. The flag of Reparations can
wave over all of these struggles, local and national, giving birth
to an ever-deeper, common consciousness and mission. Such is the connective
beauty of the concept.
stood up for the researchers and lawyers of the movement's litigation
strike force, the Our Dreams Team. The high-profile crew's lawsuits,
targeting corporations and other entities whose current wealth can
be connected to the profits of slave labor, cannot conceivably liberate
enough money to make a dent in the structures spawned by slavery and
Jim Crow. However, the suits have vast educational value; they create
opportunities for precedent-setting, morale-boosting victories; and,
most importantly, litigation has the potential to cause great discomfort
among the people who actually control the United States and its Congress.
not cease these lawsuits until you pay the debt," declared Farmer-Paellmann,
almost within earshot of the House and Senate. If the lawyers have
the stamina to sustain and multiply their filings, it is entirely
possible that harassed corporations will resort to doing what comes
naturally: ask for a bailout in the form of federal assumption of
slavery-related obligations. U.S. corporations usually get what they
concedes nothing without a demand." - Frederick Douglass
The great abolitionist's
words were repeated by numerous speakers, ranging from Farrakhan aide
Ishmael Muhammad, son of Elijah Muhammad, to Ron Daniels, President
of the Institute of the Black World and organizer of historically
important conferences over the last three decades. "Demand"
is an important word in the Reparations movement, which has expunged
most forms of "ask" and "want."
The fact that
the movement currently lacks a set of specific Reparations demands
does not yet present a problem. Quite the opposite; nothing would
sabotage the young movement quicker than hasty presentation of competing
or even antithetical proposals from disparate groupings sharing little
in terms of their world view and analysis of U.S. society. The organizers
have witnessed these kinds of deaths before; nobody wants to be responsible
for scuttling the ship, this time. However, the clock is running.
Masses of people need direction.
In the interim,
African Americans already have a broad list of mutually agreed upon
"demands" (however phrased) that have evolved with remarkable
coherence over the years. These essentially shared positions on employment,
health care, criminal justice, general notions of affirmative action,
education, constitutional protections, the strengthening of ties with
Africa and the Diaspora, etc., have all been formulated in struggle
against the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, and should be linked
to Reparations. United under the principle, We Are Owed, these positions
represent much more than the sum of their parts.
promise of Reparations lies in the scope of the mission, which requires
nothing less than turning this racist society upside down and shaking
out the enabling mechanisms of White Privilege while, in the process,
producing tangible material and political (power) results for the
largest possible proportion of the Black population. Soon, true "demands"
must be shaped to achieve these ends. Once "fired up," the
people will not accept dribs and drabs or symbolic tokens.
To achieve Reparations,
the rules of property must be changed to accommodate justice for the
descendants of those who were held as property: the slaves. This conclusion
flowed logically from the words of New York City Councilman Charles
Barron, directing his remarks to a hypothetical white person: "You
benefited from the wealth, you have to inherit the debt."
have worked and talked themselves into an historical crossroads. One
path leads directly to confrontation with the economic and political
structures that have created and continue to reproduce White Privilege.
The other road doubles back to tinkering on the margins of slavery's
legacy: bargaining for less savage prisons, somewhat more adequate
health care, friendlier police, a little less discrimination on the
job, a few additional dollars for neighborhood economic development,
and so on. That's not Reparations. We should have learned over the
last 30 years that a movement cannot be built along the margins of
of the cost of meaningful Reparations will force those who now mouth
slogans to put forward specific proposals. What does it cost to rebuild
one city? How many hundreds of billions? What about 100 cities? Who
will decide who gets which jobs and contracts in this multi- trillion
dollar reconstruction? What agencies will commission the master plans
that determine the demographics of those who will enjoy the amenities
and advantages of these public works? Have no illusions: The public
treasury is the proper and only resource available for the remaking
of America in Black people's interests.
Hard work ahead
We at The Black
Commentator believe that "self-determination" is the highest
goal of civilization. It is a hands-on enterprise, requiring detailed
planning and collaboration among the "selfs" that want to
"determine" their shared futures. African Americans must
tally up the bill for the debt that is owed. The bill must be sufficient
to create the basis for a new life for 35 million people - and their
descendants. Blacks must make the plans, calculate the cost (the bill),
and then submit the resulting, programmatic "demands." There
is no other way.
continued his dialogue with the hypothetical white person, who asked,
What will you do with the money? "None of your business,"
was Barron's stern reply. "We'll tell you after the commission..."
Barron's voice trailed off, and he failed to finish the thought.
After which commission
does what? About what? Is there a plan in there, and when do we go
public with it? How is Black America to be informed, without telling
the Congress, the people who we demand pay for the plans? Who deliberates
on the plans?
All of these questions
can be answered. They must be addressed to the beneficiaries of Reparations,
in the form of proposals. It is then that the great project in African
American democracy will begin, without which there will be no mass
movement, and no Reparations.
There is time
to get down to the work of proposing Black America's new relationship
to the rest of society - a relationship that the entire society will
have to pay for - but the process must soon begin. It is obvious that
the profound ramifications of Reparations have not been fully digested
by many of those who have, up to this point, concentrated on getting
broad agreement around the general principle. They have dramatically
succeeded in popularizing the word, putting it on everyone's lips.
But no basis has been laid for future "demands."
In the waning
minutes of the rally, as most of the throng dispersed to busses that
would take them home, a rap group took to the stage. Their song's
hook was, "I want my money." The lyrics demanded "free
education, housing and health care." Pay us, said the lead rapper,
"so we can build our own institutions." Then, the kicker:
"Show me my money, or I'll show you a glock [an automatic weapon]."
It is important
that Black youth, the Reparations Generation, have the benefit of
detailed proposals from adults with ideas on how they might become
the architects of their own destinies. The popularizing phase of Reparations
is near completion. We must take the movement further, by engaging
the talents, skills and imaginations of the people, especially the