"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.

"It's Our 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.

The general agreement

"Black America 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 the time.

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.

"We cannot 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.)

"What time is it? Reparations Time!" - chant

Black America 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.

Reparations is 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.

The immediate 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."

Conyers attempted 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 whole.

The Reparations 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.

Common threads

Common Threads Mural Art - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

"In Houston," 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.

Local organizations 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.

Deadria Farmer-Paellmann 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.

"We will 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 ask for.

"Power 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.

The magnificent 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."

Reparations activists 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 change.

The magnitude 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.

Charles Barron 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 young.

Your comments are welcome. Visit the Contact Us page for E-mail or Feedback.




Bookmark and Share




If someone passed along to you make sure you visit the Free Sign Up page.

Don't miss anything!


Other commentaries in this issue:

Zimbabwe's Mugabe and White Farmers: by Dr. A. Chika Onyeani, Guest Commentator

DC's Measure 62: A Green Light for Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation
by Opio Lumumba Sokoni, J.D., Guest Commentator

A letter to our readers: Fight on, Sister McKinney... Afghan dope on U.S. streets... Don't bet Black futures on the market... Rep. Clyburn bears witness to racist crime

Commentaries in Issue Number 9 - August 8, 2002

The State of Black American Politics: Dr. Martin Kilson's Report to the National Urban League

Dignity - Plus a Living Wage and Benefits: Home health care workers win victories - for themselves and civilization

A letter to our readers: Burger King digested... Ashcroft stalks librarians... Cory Booker roams wilderness

e-Mailbox: McKinney: A Hero in Need of Money... Rep. Hilliard Rebuked on Ivy League Warning... Forget About Randall Kennedy!

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety on the Past Issues page.