A caller on the Carl Nelson Show (WOL 1450AM – Washington, D.C.), at least each time I have heard him, talks about reparations and freedom. He called again when I was Carl’s guest on July 16, 2014. The caller’s passion, concern, anger, urgency, and frustration were all woven into his comments. I could not help but empathize with his position, nor could I refute what he was saying despite his angry tone. He did apologize for the way he spoke, but both Carl and I told him there was no need to apologize. We definitely understood the reasons for his tone.
That brother’s comments stayed on my mind throughout that night, and I kept thinking about the true meaning of freedom as it pertains to Black people in this country. Notwithstanding the acclaimed piece on reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates, it is time once again to write something on reparations, as I have done many times during the twenty-one year tenure of this column.
Having said for years that the culmination of true freedom, especially for Black people in the U.S., is economic freedom, I often imagine what our enslaved ancestors did when they were told they were “free.”
If all you have ever known are the limits of a plantation, where do you go when you are set free? If you have never had money and are given none when set free, what do you do? If you have no land of your own and don’t know any other enslaved person (or free for that matter) who has land, how will you feed yourself and where will you live? Free? That’s a very relative term.
Nonetheless, many formerly enslaved Africans in America answered those questions by striking out, despite the circumstances of their newfound freedom, for parts and conditions unknown. They figured it out as they went along. Some walked until they ran out of land, all the way to Nova Scotia. Some went to Ontario and western Canada. Some stayed on the plantations to scrape out a living as sharecroppers, and others maintained hope in General Sherman’s Special Orders that promised some 400,000 acres of land to formerly enslaved Africans, from Charleston, South Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida, in “Forty Acre” plots. President Andrew Johnson rescinded those orders.
Efforts by Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner to obtain reparations through Congress failed, and Black folks were disenfranchised once again, “freed” and left to fend for themselves in an environment that had little or no regard for their lives other than how much money it could continue to earn from their labor. Interestingly, prison “farms” were opened and many Black people were sent to them to be leased out as prison slaves.
The caller on Carl Nelson’s show suggested we take the reparations issue to the courts. I asked, “Who controls the courts?” Can you imagine pleading reparations before the current cast of Supremes? Charles Ogletree took the reparations case for the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma riot survivors to the Supreme Court. He would later write “…without a word or a hearing, the Supreme Court refused to consider the case.”
How about the International Courts then? After being turned down by the SCOTUS, Ogletree petitioned the Organization of American States International Court that reviews claims of discrimination against people of African descent. No reparations for riot survivors granted yet, folks; and their case is only ninety-three years old, not 149 years old. Immediately following the riot, the President of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce said, “The deplorable event is the greatest wound Tulsa’s civic pride has ever received. Leading businessmen are in hourly conferences and a movement is now being organized… to formulate a plan of reparation.” Yeah, right.
Reparations for Blacks can (and should) be given in several forms other than cash, i.e. tax abatements, education tuition benefits, land grants, and business subsidies. Whatever the means, reparations should be paid for the 250 years of free labor that brought tremendous wealth to this country. Our current President does not support reparations, the courts have demonstrated their recalcitrance on the issue, Congress will not take up John Conyers’ HR 40, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, while it is great, has a very limited shelf life. You know how short our attention spans are.
Could reparations truly make us “free”? I say, “Yes,” but in a larger more collective context. To quote Coates, “Reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis. But they did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a road map for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name…More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”