Some coincidences are meant to be. Among them, surely, was the death last week of Maya Angelou, poet and storyteller par excellence of black America, and the furious debate unleashed by a magazine essay on how her country must make amends for its past of slavery, segregation and racial persecution that happened to shape her life and art.
“The Case for Reparations” is the title of the piece in the current issue of The Atlantic, by the writer and academic Ta-Nehisi Coates. It runs to 15,000 words. It is provocative but somewhat repetitive, and the theme isn’t especially new. Yet its effect has been that of vinegar poured on to an open wound.
The notion of reparations for America’s original sin was around even before the end of the Civil War, with the famous promise of “40 acres and a mule” for former slaves attributed to General William Tecumseh Sherman, he of the Union Army’s scorched-earth march from Atlanta to the sea.
The acreage, outlined in a Sherman field order of January 1865, is true, but the mule was added later, probably aprocryphally. Alas, the plan was reversed after a few months by President Andrew Johnson, a sympathiser of the Old South. The confiscated land was returned to its previous owners, and the former slaves ended up more or less at square one.
Since then the concept of reparations has been periodically revived: indeed, this being America, precise numbers for what is owed have been worked out, based on the slave population, the hours of labour per day that were stolen from them, calculated using the modern minimum wage and two-and-a-half centuries of compound interest. The estimates range from less than $2trn (£1.2trn) to $59trn. The former sounds enormous but is hardly so when compared to America’s current annual GDP of around $17trn. The latter is truly colossal, only slightly less than the combined net worth of all US households, and representing $1.5m for every one of the 40 million descendants of slaves.
Nothing of course has happened – but not because reparations per se are unprecedented: since the 1950s the Germans (largely at US instigation) have paid $70bn to Holocaust victims and survivors, while the US has made financial payments to Japanese-Americans uprooted and interned during the Second World War.
Neither case approaches, in scale or complexity, the issue of reparations for slavery. Where slavery is concerned, an agreed financial solution is probably impossible. In this numbingly legalistic country the potential issues of litigation are countless. Yes, it was a heinous institution that would now be deemed a crime against humanity, but it wasn’t formally outlawed until ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, in 1865. The outcome would be a windfall for lawyers, but probably not for African Americans.
Mr Coates’s starting point is a moral one: the need to get Americans not just to acknowledge their country’s past, but also the consequences of slavery and segregation that linger still, half a century after the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. And, he argues, the vehicle for this exercise already exists.
It consists of the bill that the 85-year-old black Congressman John Conyers, who represents a Detroit district, has been pushing for the last quarter of a century, calling for a Congressional study of slavery and its continuing effects, which would also recommend “appropriate remedies”. A crime, writes Mr Coates, “that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them”.
Reparations, in his view, are less a matter of dollars and cents than of facing the facts, and accepting “our collective biography and its consequences” – not an expurgated version of history, but “America as it is, the work of fallible humans”. Needless to say, Conyers’ House Resolution 40 (the number refers to Sherman’s acres) has never even made it to the floor, under either Republican or Democratic leadership.
Some facts are being faced. Take the cinema: until now, Hollywood’s dominant image of the antebellum South was the romantic epic Gone with the Wind, in which slaves were lovable old retainers. Fast forward to 12 Years a Slave, the most realistic and harrowing depiction of the South’s “peculiar institution” ever to appear on screen.
But it doesn’t tell the whole story. The cruelty of plantation life is shown in all its dreadfulness, but 12 Years a Slave makes no attempt at a broader historical assessment. His long ordeal finally over, the freed Solomon Northup returns to his family and a comfortable home in upstate New York, as if that were the norm for every black American.
Mr Coates is most persuasive when he addresses slavery’s consequences, some glaringly evident even now: the disparities of wealth between black and white people, racial bias in criminal sentencing and discrimination in jobs and housing. The subprime mortgage crisis bore particularly hard on African Americans, with some loan officials referring to black customers as “mud people” and describing their rigged subprime products as “ghetto loans”.
Complicating matters further is a growing view that the problem has been solved, as illustrated by the recent Supreme Court ruling eviscerating the Voting Rights Act that was a centrepiece of the civil rights legislation, and the court’s increasing aversion to affirmative action in the jobs market and education.
Such protection, it is argued, is no longer necessary – after all, hasn’t a black American made it to the White House? And, for that matter, didn’t Maya Angelou, a daughter of sharecroppers, make it to the top as well? “I am the dream and hope of the slave,” ended a famous poem of hers, “I rise, I rise, I rise.” The dream and the hope perhaps. But not the reality.