I’ve been listening to Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson’s audiobook, Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair where they deal with, you guessed it, reparations. If you’re unfamiliar with the term it simply means bridging the gap between two parties or peoples, usually, by financial means. The offending party makes restitution for its offense. It repairs the situation. It reparates.
Lexico defines reparation this way:
“The action of making amends for a wrong one has done, by providing payment or other assistance to those who have been wronged.”
The conversation surrounding reparations has become controversial because when we delve into it we tend to allude to the possibility that the American federal government will have to compensate the people who they robbed of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for centuries.
Discussing reparations today is like diving into a pool of hostility and bitterness because too often the responses on either side of the discussion reach a stalemate.
“Pay us back. If you don’t you’re racist.”
“We want five trillion dollars! Now!”
“My family never owned slaves and I’m not racist so why should I pay for what white people did centuries ago?”
“Yes, my family owned slaves but that was centuries ago.”
“Why should they be compensated? They’ll just squander the money and waste it and then they’ll ask for more.”
“They’re forcing us to pay for something our ancestors did. Who is the racist one now?”
The scenarios are endless but you get the gist.
The call for reparations is not new, in fact, I found out that the federal government is very much in favor of reparatory compensation as a means to maintain the peace, stability, and unity of the United States of America. History will show that the federal government leads this discussion by example.
The only problem is that the reparation made regarding the emancipation of the negroes in the United States was not made toward freed slaves but toward former slave owners.
“Wait… wait wait wait wait wait wait a minute. Pause. Rewind. Redux. Whatever redux means. And say that again.”
You heard me the first time loud and clear but I’ll elaborate.
The District of Columbia Emancipation Act
In the year 1862, president Abraham Lincoln signed a bill called the District of Columbia Emancipation Act that benefited the Union favoring slave-owning southerners by granting them up to $300 for every slave they set free.
A little bit of math here for context.
The New York Times pulled up an old newspaper from the golden civil war era. In this article, they find that a slave could be sold for anywhere between $40 – $400 depending on the slaves’ age, sex, and quality of health. Prices varied and later escalated toward the start of the civil war as I imagine slaves became a commodity as valuable as gold itself.
Either way, let’s pull up the value of a cheap slave at $40 and the value of a great slave valued at $400 and ultimately the highest priced slaves around $1,000 and compare them with today’s evaluation system.
Adjust for inflation, time, and all that mambo jumbo stuff, were we to purchase slaves today, this ‘investment’ would set us back a lot of money.
$40 in 1862 would amount to $1,048.02 today.
$400 in 1862 would amount to $10,490.18 today. That’s a Django kind of slave.
And, for the ultra optimal performing slave, you know, the kind that can work like a bull twelve hours a day, is built like a tank, and able to produce an offspring like non-other the price would be around $1,000.
$1,000 in 1862 would amount to $26,225.45 today.
Now, do you understand why slave-trading and slave-owning Americans were so resistant to the idea of abolishing slavery? Plantations would own and house anywhere between fifty slaves and the larger plantation companies would house hundreds of slaves. So do the math. It was a multimillion-dollar industry that if one were to ‘invest’ in the property of slave-ownership they were either rich or on the road to becoming rich simply by procreating his slaves. Two slaves today. Seven in ten years. The value adds up. Procreate them. Work them. Sell them. Buy them. Repeat. Amass wealth.
Anyway… back to reparations.
So with this District of Columbia Emancipation Act signed by American favorite, Abraham Lincoln, allowed the federal government the power to easily dispense $300 dollars to slave owners for each of the slaves they released from bondage.
$300 in 1862 would amount to $7,867.63 today.
If you were a Georgian slaveowner who wanted the civil war to end sooner than later but were lacking in your financial stability you could release your slave and be awarded $300 by the US government as a means to help you in your dire predicament.
If you had ten slaves and you wanted to release all ten, well, guess what, Abraham Lincoln’s war-torn Union would pay you for releasing those slaves.
But…. but the slaves, however, well, it’s America you see and in America, the one thing Americans cannot do is help former slaves or the descendants of said slaves rise up from their miserable predicaments.
In fact, the American government suggested freed blacks emigrate to Liberia and offered them up to $100 if they left the country altogether.
$100 in 1862 would amount to $2,622.24 today.
So, if you were a slave and you worked for forty years, day and night, back-breaking, whipped-up back, denigrated dignity, no education, no reading or writing skills, and psychologically damaged for life and here, in 1862, the US government says it plans to set you free and will pay your master $300 for your liberation and will pay you $100 if you leave the country and head to Liberia.
If you stay, however, you get nothing.
You’re just… well… free?
But if you leave, to a country from which you did not originate, to a land you do not know, to a people who are not your people, they will pay you $100.
Eight months after Abraham Lincoln gave out ‘free money’ to slaveowners he signed the Emancipation Proclamation to abolish and end slavery in the United States of America once and for all.
And here, with this monumental edict, blacks, and indigenous peoples went without reparation whereas Americans of European descent and whose sole rise to fame and luxury arose from the plundering of black and indigenous bodies went on to amass a little more wealth with the help of the US government.
Some will say that Lincoln’s District of Columbia Emancipation Act was a war tactic to destabilize the Confederacy and bring the war to a swift end without further loss of life.
It was Lincoln’s good heart that sought to pay white slave owners for their slaves with federal funds just so they could help bring this unnecessary war to a conclusion.
Possibly. But possibly isn’t good enough.
The Issue: Hypocrisy
The issue here is that the American Government paid slaveowners reparations for disrupting the slave trade but refused to financially, culturally, socially, and geographically structure and stabilize black and indigenous peoples during and after the civil war. And they refuse to repair these two communities to this very day.
I understand that in wartime, government leaders make drastic decisions to advance their position and hopefully win a war not worth the loss of life. I get it. Drastic times call for drastic measures. Whatever. But either Lincoln or his defamed successor could have worked for this effort but failed to because the issue in America was more endemic and pervasive than just slavery.
We know that white supremacy is the issue here but they were too blinded by their racial superiority to consider it.
Either way, I was shocked to find that the same government that today dares not dip its fingers into the conversation of reparations is the same that pushed for reparations for slaveowners 150 or so years ago.
And understand this, reparations are not an issue relegated to financial restitution alone.
It’s about restoring relationships, acknowledging wrongs, giving back that which was taken and stolen, without limits!
Whole states were wiped of their indigenous peoples. Wiped clean. Certain governments paid citizens for the scalps of Native Americans.
State-sanctioned violence toward Native Americans, y’all. You could make a living by killing Native Americans and collecting your bounty from federally funded locations.
What… the…. Hell.
I’m losing my cool here but that’s okay because no one should be calm and collected when discussing the rise of this great nation whose sole identity is based on its patriotic endeavor to liberate people from oppression and give them new liberties and freedoms here, in the West.
The same group was responsible for razing indigenous peoples, responsible for immoral and unethical land seizures, unlawful colonization, and unwarranted violence in that endeavor. They removed millions of black lives from one continent and subjugated them to race-based slavery and inferiority in this ‘new nation.’ It wasn’t new because there were other groups already there. They amassed international financial dominance off of slave labor only to repay slaveowners for disrupting the slave trade and then giving native Americans a little patch of land somewhere in the plains where the buffalo are gunned down by white Americans for sport.
And the same government is hostile to the idea of repairing and restoring that which they took? Barely admitting to its wrongs, quickly alluding to how long ago these things happened, and ignoring the reality and continuity of these harms that are still present in our nation today?
By our nation, I mean the United States of America and the western hemisphere that was affected, one way or another, by the transatlantic slave trade and the Doctrine of Discovery which initiated a church-sanctioned call to conquer the lands to the West.
But none was more complicit in moral and international hypocrisy than the land that swore that they stood for freedom but enslaved others. Stood for freedom of expression but silenced others. Freedom from unlawful forfeiture of their property but considered black people property and seized the lands of those native to that same land.
I believe it’s time for the second District of Columbia Emancipation Act to be signed into law but this time the money, the financial stability, the property allocation, and respect must go to the right groups. The black and indigenous groups.
It is true that none of our federal employees own slaves, and possibly, most of them have ancestors who may have never owned slaves but the thing is that they’re still responsible for repairing the damages done to the colored communities centuries ago.
Of Blessings and Curses
Americans today benefit from the sacrifice Americans made centuries ago. Those who crossed the Atlantic in pursuit of a better life, those who ventured deep into the bush in hopes of finding better land, those who ventured west in pursuit of gold and wealth, those who fought in wars and built the nation that exists today. We’re all benefactors of their sacrifices, their pain so we could live in comfort, their loss of life so we could be alive and live freely.
But, this same system created evils and damages that linger to this very day, that have settled into how the culture operates and how even our communities are set up, how some of us come from money and others don’t, and those who don’t are normally people of color.
Shall we accept only the good our ancestors committed but shy away from their evils?
Are we are shocked when descendants of slaves and indigenous peoples seek that which is rightfully theirs?
Duke Kwon uses an example in his book that makes sense but even this simple example is not encompassing enough to demonstrate or explain just how complex this situation has become.
Imagine I steal your car and drive it for twenty years, it’s a Toyota so it’ll last that long, and I pass it down to my children. They didn’t commit grand theft, they simply inherited something from their father, unknowing of its origin or acquisition. But years later the true owner of the vehicle shows up demanding their car back and my kids say, “Well, I didn’t take anything. I’m just driving it. It has been passed down in my family! I’m no thief, are you mad? If you take my car away now you’ll disrupt my life! There’s a very good chance you’ll wreck the car if I give it back to you now. Why should I have to pay for my father’s mistakes?”
Do you see what I mean?
Whose car is it in the first place? Right.
Who gets a say on what happens to the car? Me, my children, or the owner or the owners’ children?
Native Americans want their land back.
African Americans want reparations for all their hard work as descendants of slaves.
That incentive should have never made its way to former slaveowners or the children of these slaveowners who amassed wealth first from slavery and later from emancipating their slaves.
Either way, much work to do, perhaps, with a more diverse nation, one more aware of its history and one with a willing heart to repair and reconcile this issue will rise up in the near future to fix these wrongs. To make amends for the wrongs committed ages ago.
We’re not there yet but one day we might be.
Perhaps the United States of America might become something other, something else. Part United States and part Turtle Island.
People of color will have the chance to remove confederate terrorist symbols and statues from government buildings and public spaces the same way Germany removed Nazi symbols and criminalized them after the war.
The Confederates prided themselves as rebels, you know. A violent insurgency that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. An army and pseudo-nation that plagued the world by fighting for the preservation of white supremacy and slave trading. And we still see their battle flag wave about here and there as if over time it has come to mean something other than seditious terrorism.
Reparation demands that the offending party or the group or agency that benefited from this offense admit fault, repair that which was broken, replenish that which was robbed, reconcile that which was severed, repent of the white supremacist ideations that caused these evils in the first place, and rebuild that which was destroyed over time. It is a call to do all these things under the banner of collective responsibility to do what is just and what is right.
This isn’t an easy thing to accomplish but if this nation has survived this long through so many wars and troubles it can survive a necessary reparations act that will benefit the descendants of peoples who were wronged.
Because what was taken from black bodies and indigenous bodies was not just money but land, identity, culture, a right to voice their grievances, to vote, citizenry, protections, futures, posterity, education, religion, and dreams.
We’re still struggling with the legacy of white supremacy within the United States and we will continue to struggle against it further but the calls for reparations have gone unanswered and ignored for too long.
The time for restitution and reconciliation is now.
Or we could just stick with $300 for the children of former slaveowners and call it a day.
The Christian Conscience
In Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, the authors speak primarily but not singularly to Christian conscience. They appeal to Chrisitan holy writings to drive the point that is it a Christian’s duty to repair and restore things broken and stolen. We’re to be the Good Samaritans in a situation where many have walked away from a demanding task. A task that requires we sacrifice personal comfort and experience public scorn. We’re to take time away from our comfort to suffer a little so that others may be comforted. As followers of Christ, we are obliged to live as Christ lived, calling out injustice where He saw it and giving our lives for one another.
Mind you, it was a supposedly Christianized nation that enslaved and pillaged these lands for centuries and again a supposedly Christianized people who sought to abolish slavery. Again, a supposedly Christianized conscience sought to bring equality between the races and the dignity of colored people back from the chambers of darkness.
Therefore, it must be a Christian conscience that spears this fight for reparation because we created this mess and we must fix it.
We are supposedly the sole guardians of a clear conscience, a clean heart, and clean hands. Therefore let us use these for good.
If we fail then another institution, secular or religious, will lead this project and their means and ends may be more disastrous than our complicit participation in slavery and our complicit silence on the topic of racism, white supremacy, and reparations.
Go and reconcile men and women unto God but do not leave the same destitute, naked, and abandoned in the process. That’s not our purpose on this earth. Restore the entire man or restore nothing at all.