From 1619-2019: Lest We Forget…
To the slave master, the auction block was a public space for selling slaves. For the slave and their family, it was a source of fear, shame, and humiliation. There are some public places in America where slave auction blocks remain intact- a daunting reminder of an ugly past. Today, Aug. 20, we honor the memories of our African ancestors that endured the horrors of slavery, a shameful American atrocity that lasted 400 years. We honor the Africans that survived the Middle Passage, for those who perished or took their own lives in the wake, for their courage, their resilience, and their unshakable faith, we say, ase’.
400 years ago today, the first Africans arrived in Point Comfort, VA aboard the “White Lion”, a Dutch man-of-war ship. To be clear, the “20 and some odd Negroes” were among 350 Africans captured and stolen from their native land, Angola, and bought to America. Initially, the 350 captured Africans were forced aboard a Portuguese slave ship, The San Juan Bautista bound for Vera Cruz, Mexico, where they endured horrific conditions. Mid voyage, the ship was attacked by English pirate ships, one of which was The White Lion; the pirates were looking for gold, but instead they found human cargo. The Africans were seized and forced to sail to Virginia where they were sold for food. What ensued for the next two centuries was the systematic, brutal, dehumanizing enslavement of nearly 12.5 million Africans, via the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Today, Africans living in America continue to suffer the profound emotional, mental and economic lingering effects of slavery and the racist ideologies created by chattel slavery. On this historic 400th anniversary of slavery, let us take a moment to acknowledge the atrocities and pain of America’s greatest sin. Let us look to the hope of reconciliation and restoration offered through the promise of reparations for African American people.
Making the Case for Reparations
Since 1989, at the start of every Congress, Congressman John Conyers has introduced legislation to examine the effects of slavery and racism in the colonies and American society from 1619 to present day for the purpose of recommending appropriate remedies. The bill, known as HR 40: The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposal for African Americans Act, to this day has not been passed. Now that Conyers is retired, a fresh new crew of activists have grabbed hold of the baton and are reigniting the discussion on the need for reparations for Africans living in this America. Under the leadership of the current administration, America is experiencing a heightened wave of racial unrest. White supremacists have boldly taken off their hooded cloaks and fear-stoking is being interjected into our everyday lives. These conditions have amplified tensions on both sides of the aisle. But the truth of the matter is that when it comes to race relationships in America, tensions have long existed and very little has been done to have honest, meaningful dialogue about the necessity and the benefits of reparations.
The Oxford Dictionary defines reparations as the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged; the act of repairing something. One must surmise that significant damage had to have occurred before repair (reparations)could be implemented. The issue of “significant damage” is at the heart of the reparations for African Americans debate. In essence, those proponents in favor of reparations for African Americans passionately argue that among the detrimental effects of slavery is generational trauma, the dismantling of the Black family unit and that there continues to be policies and discriminatory practices implemented that dis-proportionally place African Americans at an economic disadvantage than their white counterparts. Furthermore, lest we forget, America has economically benefited off the labor of African slaves- some experts place that number well over five trillion dollars…. The opposition’s stance of righteous indignation will say, “we are not responsible for something that happened more than 150 years ago” and “we’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president” (Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader).
It is statements and attitudes like these that block any opportunity to have meaningful dialogue on this issue. America cannot continue to trivialize 400 years of trauma and pain. We cannot compartmentalize the legacy of slavery, not when we’ve created similar systems and practices that continue to oppress African Americans- i.e. The Reconstruction Era, Segregation, and Jim Crow, The War on Drugs, Mass Incarceration, Implicit Bias and Microaggressions.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act which granted reparations to Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. This legislation offered a formal apology from the U.S. government for the evacuation, relocation and internment of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans; a public education fund to inform the public about this atrocity to prevent re-occurrence and $20, 000 to each surviving internee. Furthermore, slave owners in the District of Columbia received reparations (up to $300 for every freed slave) prior to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation! I bring forth these examples to highlight that reparations in the U.S. is possible and can be successfully implemented. I believe that what is at the root of the tension and opposition around reparations for African Americans is the stigma of racism and a pervasive denial of how this country has benefited (and continues to benefit) from systemic oppression. America has yet to acknowledge that for more than 400 years, we kidnapped, brutalized, raped, separated, lynched, dehumanized and enslaved people of African descent and their families. And when the era of slavery was abolished, in its place we erected other caste systems (such as the industrial prison system) that continues to unjustly dismiss, disregard and dehumanize primarily Black and Brown people. We perpetuate the myth that America is the land of the free and the home of the brave for all people; we project the self-image that we are a great democratizer while snubbing the historical facts of a wretched, horrific past, a past that continues to have a debilitating impact not only on African Americans but on the moral character of our country as a whole. We all cannot be free until we face the demons and ghosts of our past (our actions) and what they honestly say about who we are. We cannot have the dialogue with one another until we face the man/woman in the mirror; you cannot fix what you won’t face.
A New Beginning
The HR 40 bill is the much-needed opportunity to have meaningful conversation about slavery and its impact not just on African Americans, but on American society as a whole. You cannot begin to understand the magnitude of someone’s trauma and pain until you’ve walked in their shoes. There is a deep hurt, a brokenness that exists within the African American community and that brokenness is rooted in the trauma and pain of slavery. We are the descendants of kings and queens, but once enslaved, we were stripped of our culture, heritage and pride and programmed to believe that we were ugly and worthless; we were conditioned to believe that we were a people whose story began in slavery rather than on the shores of Africa.
The democracy of our nation is in jeopardy! Daily we witness the dehumanization of the least, the low and the left out. We witness the grotesque imbalance of power and the crumbling of human and moral decency. If ever there were a time for American citizens to boldly stand for what is right and what is just in this country, that time is now; former President Barack Obama referred to that time as the fierce urgency of NOW! Reparations for African Americans seeks to right an old wrong; it seeks to restore the legacy of greatness to Africans living in America and heal the deeps wounds of our country’s ugly past. Today, as we acknowledge and remember 400 years of trauma and pain, let us look forward to the day when the ugly truth will liberate both the oppressed and the oppressor. Let us look forward to the day when the auction block will no longer be a daunting reminder of an un-reconciled past.
Article by: Dena Chapman, A More Perfect Union & Art + Activism Event Coordinator
*Be Strong Families partners to develop transformative conversations that nurture the spirit of family, promote well-being and prevent violence. We create a safe, welcoming space to have meaningful conversations on issues such as bullying, immigration, gun violence, LGBTQ and racism to name a few. To learn more about our new program piece, A More Perfect Union, parenting through the lens of social justice, click here
Dear White People…
As someone who strives to be an ally to people of color in their struggles for social, economic and political equality and particularly to African Americans in the United States, as someone who wants to be supportive on social justice issues because I truly feel that justice benefits all of us, I asked Dena — the author of this piece, how I could assist. She told me that my reflections regarding how her blog had landed with me could be helpful. So, in that spirit, what I most want to say is: Everybody! Especially white people, let what Dena wrote sink in.
I’m a white, Ivy-League-educated woman, who has done a lot of her own research and had intimate relationships with African American friends — and children — sharing what they know about history of African peoples in this country. I thought I knew about slavery. Yet, there is a lot I didn’t know before reading my colleague Dena’s blog. That’s a travesty of our educational system. For example, I didn’t know that slavery started here in 1619. I didn’t know that the only people to receive reparations over slavery, the only people our government agreed officially needed to be made whole, were the white slave owners. (I actually googled to confirm her accuracy, because I couldn’t believe it. That’s probably another issue of subliminal racism that I could unpack: who would I have believed at face value? Why not Dena? and ... she was correct.)
I guess I knew that there hadn’t been one, but I hadn’t really thought much about the issue of an official apology for the horror of slavery. I also didn’t entirely understand or feel the disparity between the situation of African Americans in this country and others who we acknowledge as victims — comparing our responses to other people who have been horrifically tortured and traumatized with those to African Americans and slavery. . What did you not know? Why didn’t you know the story? Or the whole story? Why do we as a culture tend to minimize the wrongs perpetrated against African American bodies and souls? Why do we treat slavery as a chapter in history that has ended and that was succeeded by the era of Reconstruction? Period. End of story. End of conversation.
Then, when it comes to the idea of reparations: why do we focus on the how instead of the if? Meaning, the first question could / should be: was damage done? The second is how do we atone, reconcile, heal? Given that African Americans won’t receive 40 acres and a mule, reparations in this context might not be solely economic.
We (or a lot of us anyway) seem to understand multi-generational trauma and the need for healing when it comes to victims of the Holocaust. Why do we ignore the very real social and emotional and physical devastation wreaked by slavery? Why has there never been a comprehensive therapeutic response? This would have served the values of both justice and compassion. Why is it so difficult for us to get to a place of admission, responsibility, acknowledgement, and acceptance of the wrongs done? What’s behind why white people resist having difficult conversations around slavery and racism; what truth are folks having trouble facing? And how can we face what needs to be faced?
It may start with White people educating themselves about what really happened — while simultaneously imagining that this had been our relatively recent ancestors’ experience. I invite you to try that thought experiment and then imagine what your family would want and need to heal. Then, white people striving to be good allies, let’s be willing to listen, to learn, and to do more, to step up our game to be instrumental and impactful in changing the landscape. It starts with a conversation. Be Strong Families partners to develop transformative conversations that nurture the spirit of family, promote well-being, and prevent violence. Let’s let this be one of those conversations.
Supporting Article by: Katthe Wolf, President and CEO