Courageous Conversations: Should America Pay Reparations for Slavery?
I want to thank Denise Stripes for attending our last Courageous Conversations and capturing the essences of what took place. The following is her perspective of what transpired.
Anyone who has read Toni Morrison’s Beloved has somewhat of an idea concerning the details of the Middle Passage and slavery but, if one has not experienced it, that idea is vague at best. Those whose ancestors experienced these things may have a better idea, though even their accounts are second-hand. Though some have done research that indicates the possibility that trauma from slavery has been passed on to the descendants of slaves, the argument, though cogent, is not conclusive. If, as the research suggests, the trauma has indeed been passed on, the question of whether America should pay reparations for slavery takes on a new layer of understanding.
On 27 July, 2019, Wilburn and Associates hosted an opportunity for discussion on this subject. The discussion began with a presentation on the realities of slavery, followed by a panel discussion, and questions from the audience. The discussion was held in the Carl Maxey Center, and attended by over 40 people of diverse ethnicities. While the conversation was supposed to address whether or not America should pay reparations, the panel and the audience all agreed that we should. The lack of an opposing view left some questions unasked and unanswered, but the discussion was still lively, given that even those who agree that reparations should be paid have different ideas concerning how and to whom the restorations should be paid.
The most prevalent question during the evening centered on who African Americans are. The opening presentation described the origins of the slaves who came from Africa, pointing out that they went from “Kings to Captives.” As Dr. Roberta Wilburn pointed out, “People were taken out of Africa and made into slaves.” Wilburn showcased the work of Dr. Joy DuGruy who, in her book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, gives a cogent argument for the idea that trauma resulting from slavery is passed from generation to generation. Wilburn also referenced Darrick Hamilton of Ohio State University, who posits that three areas of reparation need to be addressed: Acknowledgement, Restitution, and Reconciliation. While acknowledgement has begun in some circles, the panel and the attendants agreed that more must be done in this area. Restitution proves to be a logistical problem, though all agreed that it is necessary. As panel member Kiantha Duncan asserted, “America does not dismiss or excuse any other debt”; thus, this debt should not be excused either. Reconciliation seems to hinge on acknowledgement and restitution, but the problem remains: who decides what is enough, and how it should be done?
None of these things can happen without communication, but communication is impossible until African Americans know who they are. This question posits a real and important conflict; as an audience member named Yashair Jones, pointed out, young African Americans don’t know who they are. Jones asserts that they know who they’re supposed to be; “…being a rapper, gangster, womanizer, drug abuser—that’s what I see when I look in the mirror—who I’m supposed to be,” and that “becomes the norm.” African American youth cannot relate to religion, because in church they see characters—a white Jesus, for example. Religion and culture offer no answers; thus, as Jones asserted, “we don’t know who we are [or] our value.” This conflict permeates all of African American culture, affecting education, housing, banking systems, and criminal justice, among many other issues. Panel member James Wilburn illustrated this problem by pointing out what he called “the difference between ‘Billy’ and ‘Jamal’.” Children are taught from a Euro-centric perspective, which addresses Billy’s culture, but not Jamal’s. This disparity seeps into all aspects of life, leaving African American youth wondering who they are.
The question of “who we are” is only part of the problem, however. Among the panel members, while all agreed reparations should happen, the how and to whom became matters of contention. Several possible solutions were offered; for example, panel member Rosie Thurman suggested that those who made the money off the slave trade (e.g. tobacco companies, textile industries, etc.) should be taxed. Panel member Curtis Hampton, while holding that “this is not a one-prong issue,” and thus, not easy to answer, suggested that African American communities, not individuals, should receive the reparations, putting them into programs to help “make opportunities and strengthen families.” Hampton added that “People of color need to see people that look like them as teachers, police, and leaders.” Scott Ward, a history teacher at Ferris High School, suggested that reparations should involve a truth-seeking process, to include the correct telling of history and the removal of icons of the slave holders (which, in the broader conversation, will raise the question of free speech). Audience members also had suggestions; for example, Robert Lloyd suggested that the Gross National Product should be divided, and thirteen percent of that spent to advantage the Black population.
Reconciliation will be a long road. Everyone agreed that, until African Americans can come together, this will not happen. Two questions from the audience touched on this issue: “Why don’t Black people in Spokane speak to each other?” and “Was American slavery related to the Bible?” Audience member Bayaah Jones related these two questions, saying that the Bible has been misused to justify slavery, but it actually explains it. However, Jones asserts, we don’t read it in context; thus, we miss the truth. Jones added that people can be brought together by the truth. Kiantha Duncan pointed out that African Americans are divided because “we have to compete for small bits of meat—we’re trying to survive.” Those who must compete to survive will find it difficult, if not impossible, to stand together. As Bayaah Jones pointed out, “Those who get reparations are nations of people; we [that is, African Americans] do not identify as a nation.” Thus, reconciliation must begin within the African American community, and then spread to the diverse community.
In the evening’s final remarks, James Wilburn pointed out that the challenges are there; we need to know them and be prepared. Wilburn also said, “We need to teach our kids that they don’t come from slavery; they come from kings, mathematicians, philosophers, and leaders.” Wilburn’s statement echoed Kiantha Duncan’s, who suggested that practical solutions begin at home with ethnic studies—“teach your children.” Lastly, several of the panel members pointed out that one of the biggest tools available to bring about the needed changes is the vote, which includes education. Show up for these discussions, learn who represents you, and vote them in.
Roberta Wilburn is an Inclusion Practitioner with over 35 years of experience working in higher education, and as a consultant in public and private K-12 schools, government, non-profit and community based organizations. She has conducted diversity, equity, and inclusion training regionally, nationally, and internationally. She is the author of books, chapters, and journal articles. Her work has been recognized with local and national awards. Some of her awards include the 2017 Insight Into Diversity Giving Back Award for Administrators in Higher Education, the YWCA Women of Achievement Carl Maxey Racial and social Justice Award, and the Heartwood Award for Cultural Enrichment and Community Service.