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Reparations redux

Herb Boyd

Herb Boyd

By Herb Boyd
Special to the Michigan Citizen

A replay on reparations is gathering a bit of traction nowadays thanks to the recent cover story in The Atlantic magazine by Ta-Nehisi Coates and a summary of a reparations conference at Chicago State University under the auspices of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century.  The organization’s director of communications, Don Rojas’s summary of the conference was published by The Nation magazine and amplifies much of the argument posited by Coates.

There’s nothing new about the push for reparations, and both Coates and Rojas are wonderfully aware of the history and the obstacles the issue has encountered since it was first launched in the 19th century, though neither writer expends any attention on the pioneering efforts of Callie House and Rev. Isaiah Dickerson who established the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association of the United States in 1894.  What Ms. House and Rev. Dickerson set in motion has been given a modern gloss by the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), which was founded in 1987.

All of this is said to contextualize the discussion on reparations. Reading Coates and Rojas’ articles, along with experiencing the wide-ranging presentation of Sir Hilary Beckles at the conference in Chicago (see video on YouTube and at the IBW21stCentury website) is to be excited by the new energy being given to this time-worn subject. Congressman John Conyers, D-Mich., has taken to Congress  (since 1989) a reparations bill, HR40, that does four things:

- It acknowledges the fundamental injustice and inhumanity of slavery

- It establishes a commission to study slavery, its subsequent racial and economic discrimination against freed slaves;

- It studies the impact of those forces on today’s living African Americans; and

- The commission would then make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies to redress the harm inflicted on living African Americans.

Renewing the discussion is vital and veteran activists who attended the World Conference Against Racism confab in Durban, South Africa in 2001 should be exhilarated knowing their demands are getting some resonance these many years later.  At that U.N.-sponsored conference, the 400 delegates from the U.S. demanded the international slave trade be condemned as a crime against humanity and the victims be compensated for their enslavement.  The first part of the demand was honored but, as we know so well, getting the second part continues to be a struggle that will probably persist into the distant future.

Waiting for reparations is almost akin to waiting for Godot.  There was a smidgen of hope for the issue with the election of Barack Obama but the word reparations is apparently not part of his vocabulary.  He’ll probably say “Assalamu Alaikum” before he utters the word reparations.

As long as we have the struggle for reparations carried from one generation to the next, there’s always the possibility that one day we’ll get the forces in power to get a portion of it applied, and as the proponents have stressed — it ain’t about money — as much as it is about how resources can be earmarked to deal with social, political and economic issues that continue to plague the African American community.

Yes, the discussion is back on the agenda in the same way Professor Charles Ogletree tried to make it stick in Chicago a few years ago with Tulsa Riot approach, but as Johnita Scott-Obadele said in her essay a few years ago, quoting James Baldwin:

“I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least one can demand — and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle  of human history in general and American history in particular, for it testified to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”

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