Slavery reparations: because bygones are not bygone

On a recent cross country road trip my wife and I stayed overnight in Memphis. Memphis was not our destination. We had booked an Airbnb there because it was conveniently located about halfway between Oklahoma City and Asheville. I didn’t have slavery on my mind. It had escaped my attention that reparations had once again become an issue on the 400th anniversary of the introduction of slavery into the US. I had forgotten that Memphis was the site of MLK’s assassination in 1968.

When my wife, discovering the National Civil Rights Museum was a local attraction, suggested we go, I felt some resistance. After all, I had lived through the civil rights movement, hadn’t I? Sort of? At least vicariously? And of course I had been fully in support of the brave souls, including my friend Betty, who risked their lives on trips back then to the Deep South.

I was of the chorus and didn’t need preaching to–even by MLK.

I actually imagined the Civil Rights Museum might be a little boring (as in: been there, done that).

I was wrong. The fact is I have never been so moved in any museum anywhere. As we wandered from room to room carved out of the motel where King spent his last night, I was blindsided by how much feeling I had been carrying around about slavery and its aftermath, about what our society and government had done to people, feelings buried in my psyche which apparently I would have been just as happy not to have disinterred.

The emotions–is there such a thing as vicarious PTSD?– would have been learning enough. But also there was intellectual learning. Turned out I didn’t know everything there was to know about the subject.

I knew, had always known, it seems, that slavery was a great wrong, a great blotch on our record as a nation. But reparations? Payments made by people who are themselves blameless of slavery, to people generations removed from slavery? Didn’t make sense to me. But what I hadn’t understood is what a huge role slavery played in the creation of the wealth of what we now view as the most affluent society in the world.

As the museum made clear and as the recent, powerful New York Times Magazine issue on slavery put it, “Slavery was undeniably a font of phenomenal wealth. . .Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. . . . What made the cotton economy boom in the United States…was our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people….”

It was our nation’s business plan, established in law: kill or otherwise clear off the natives to give ourselves a clean continent on which to pursue our “manifest destiny,” then drag people from another continent as slaves to do a lot of the work for us.

There was a letter to this paper back in June titled “Let bygones be bygones”. But the slave period of our history is not bygone. There is no understanding New World affluence without that jumpstart provided by unpaid labor. We all still, every moment of our lives, go on benefitting from that terrible, unpaid labor. (Some more than others, of course.)

So the new learning for this old dog: the logic of reparations. Not to assuage white liberal guilt, not as symbolic gesture, and not even for the psychic damage to those who live always with the knowledge of how their ancestors were treated by our society (try to imagine that vicarious PTSD) but because in a strict business sense, we owe them In a country which allows descendents of robber barons (including slaveholders) to go on legally profitting, through inheritance, enjoying the fruits of that ill-gotten gain we owe the descendents a cut, at least, of the value created.

I wouldn’t know where to start to figure out the details of reparations, but the logic, economic and human, is clear.

Call it back wages, with interest. To be collected by the next of kin.

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