Maya Angelou was able to rise, but as for most African Americans, race equality is still only a dream

Out of America: Reparations, according to an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, are less a matter of dollars than of accepting 'our collective biography and its consequences'

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Representative

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To promote and sell the Company...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager - Civil Engineering

£35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Business: This company is going thro...

Tradewind Recruitment: KS1 & KS2 Teachers Required

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind Recruitment are currently working...

Day In a Page

Read Next
John Rentoul outside the Houses of Parliament  

If I were Prime Minister...I would be like a free-market version of Natalie Bennett

John Rentoul
 

Letter from the Political Editor: With 100 days still to go how will Cameron, Miliband and Co. keep us all engaged?

Andrew Grice
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea