Slavery Reparations: Don’t Follow the Morals. Follow the Money.

cover-bigAs you recall, the last time I came back to blogging, it was for an ancestral moment.  So here I am again. It’s something about those ancestors that just keep bringing me back here.

But I plan to stay for a while this time. Y’all know me. I’ve saved up all the stories. And you know you want to hear them all.

Anyway, I think by now that everyone has either heard about or read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s very long and incredibly interesting, if very flawed—yes I said it—article in The Atlantic concerning Reparations for past discrimination against African Americans.  (Not just slavery, but also, Jim Crow.)

Don’t worry. I’ve no intention of writing 15,000 words. You can relax.

I have very strong opinions about the article, not the least of which are that he presented a trailer for the article, which is a clear “I said it and now, I’ve dropped the Slavery Mic”  signal if ever there was one. But, hey, we writers are arrogant. I cannot say that I, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, do not stand in my mirror and recite my poetry over and over with dramatic pauses and profound facial expressions and whatnot. So, look, let Brother Coates have his article trailer.

But there are some things that I should—nay, must—point out.

First, Brother Coates started an article discussing Reparations—a term which is associated with slavery, even if he claimed that he wasn’t writing about slavery, despite his mentioning at least one former slave in the article—with a quote by John Locke, who was a financial investor in the Royal African Company.

Do y’all know what the Royal African Company was? It was a slave trading enterprise.

Y’all know I was making the Old Black Church Lady sound: “Um. Um. Um.” 

And in addition, I kept saying, “Dang, Brother Coates. John Locke in a Reparations Article? JOHN LOCKE IN A REPARATIONS ARTICLE?!” all while I was reading the article.  I was thinking, if I really admired the work of a philosopher as Brother Coates has said he admires John Locke, I’d do more than a Wikipedia search. I might actually read up on him. And it’s not like this information on Locke is hidden. All one has to do is Google “John Locke and Slavery”—and it pops right on up.

The second thing is, Brother Coates mentioned land that was stolen from African Americans as part of past discrimination. This is a tricky one, too. Now, it seems like this is a horrible thing, to take the land from someone who has paid for it. And it is, in theory.

But consider the fact that the land—which was in North America—was initially stolen from Native/Indigenous peoples before it got to the black people, and it starts to get a little dicey there. Because the second theft was after the first theft. And if we are talking moral issues, can you really reimburse somebody for land that was stolen in the first place?

I mean, check it: suppose somebody comes by your house while you and your friends are playing spades (and drinking brown liquor) on a Saturday evening, and wants to sell some stolen goods he or she boosted.

I know that would never, ever, in a million years happen in the African American community on a Saturday night. I mean, God forbid. I’m getting outraged just thinking about it.

So anyway, in this completely hypothetical, outrageous situation, you buy something—accidentally—that kinda might be stolen. Like a purse. And then, one day while you are at the store, you forget and leave your purse in your unlocked car, and somebody reaches in and grabs your purse. But guess what? You can’t report the purse as stolen to the police because it was stolen in the first place.

Kind of like African Americans expecting to get reimbursed for land that originally was stolen from the Muskogee, the Creeks, the Seminoles, the Cherokee, and the Choctaw by white Americans, right?

But here’s my biggest problem with not only Brother Coates’s article, but with a lot of the Reparations work already done by, say, Randall Robinson, or the Republic of New Africa organization, Queen Mother Moore, and many others.

Get ready again.

The traditional argument for Reparations—or “case,” as Brother Coates put it—is based upon past cruelty done to African Americans. And that is not a sturdy foundation.

I hear a collective shouting from my readers. Because how dare I say that the pain that African American suffering is not worthy of Reparations? But I’m not saying that in the least.

Look: I’m descended on both sides from enslaved people. I have the sad family stories and I do historical research on the Transatlantic slave trade and North American slavery, in both the south and north. I write much of my creative work on the issue of slavery. I’ve lain awake at night literally screaming, after a day of reading and writing on slavery. I’m not playing with you. I would not lie about something like that.

Therefore, does my heart, spirit and ancestral memory tell me that, morally, current African Americans are owed monetary Reparations of some kind—such as forgiveness of student loans—after what our ancestors went through and the current humiliations, cruelties and physical threats that many of us still go through?

In the words of my grandmother, “You darn tooting.”

But are we going to get Reparations based on moral reasoning? Again, no, we are not. I don’t care that Brother Coates wrote in his article—which I had issues with, yes, but which had some very beautiful moments. (The brother does have a very elegant way with words. I got to give him that.)

“White folks were mean to my people” is not going to carry the day.  Moral outrage is not going to carry the day. Tears are not going to carry the day. Talking about Racial Apartheid is not going to carry the day.  This is not the emotional crescendo portion of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I had a dream speech” that gives you chills—and that speech wasn’t even supposed to be about his dream, okay? The speech used to be called the “bad check speech.”

But members of the Republican Party can’t get a fake, emotional catharsis from referring to a hot check. A Hot Check Treatise could not be used by the GOP to chide us colored folks that we aren’t living up to Dr. King’s standard.

What might win the day and some moolah—and that’s a big, fat, might, because the fight for Reparations has been going on for a couple of hundred years, at least— is a discussion about what actually happened to all that money made off the slave trade. Just where did all that money go?

I was planning to get back to blogging anyway, but this specific blog post came as a result of a discussion I had online last evening concerning slave trade money. It was something that I’d been thinking about for a while, and I actually had thought—or hoped—that Brother Coates would bring up the issue.

And here’s what I realized—and what other, far more learned folks than I already had realized: Slavery money is not clean money. It’s like any other kind of money earned from ill-gotten gains. Like organized crime money, which, when you think of it, is a perfect metaphor for slavery. It was an organized crime against humanity, involving generations of families, the government, and financial institutions.

Dirty money leaves some kind of trail. And what is dirtier than slavery money?

When certain white folks—and, it must be said, black folks, too— start talking about “that was then” they conveniently don’t get that, if wealth is handled efficiently, it generates more wealth. And that wealth is passed down from generation to generation which makes more wealth and so on and so forth. And though some of the proof for that wealth from slavery money has disappeared a lot of it is still around.

So, if “slavery was then and this is now,” how come that slavery money didn’t end “then”? How come that “in the past” money is still buying triple shot lattes now–all day, every day, today?

For example, certain insurance companies issued insurance policies for slaves, such as Aetna, New York Life, and others.

Banks have made money off of slavery. Wachovia admitted it.

Nearly all the Ivy League universities in New England and some prestigious universities in the south were financed with slave money. Here’s the link for you to order Craig Stephen Wilder’s book, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.

Also, here is the exhaustive self-study done by Brown University on the very close ties of the founders of the university to slave traders. Brown is in Rhode Island, by the way. The whole state was slave trading and horror central.

Here is an article written by the authors of a book on the roots of slavery with American capitalism. And here’s a book written on that same subject by Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

How did I find out about these books and articles, which are just a few of the very well-researched discussions of the financial roots of current American economics? I asked my historian friends. Everyone should know or be friendly with an historian. It comes in quite handy. A sister wouldn’t lie to you.

And what about all those houses, like the Royall House that still stands, built by a slaveholder? Belinda Royall was mentioned in Brother Coates’ article.  (The former Poet Laureate Rita Dove wrote a poem for her a while back.)  Isaac Royall was Miss Belinda’s master, a Loyalist who fled to England during the Revolutionary War. His house was seized. Today, it is not a private house; it is owned by the state of Massachusetts and the house and the slave quarters constitute a museum. 

How much is that state-owned house worth now?

What about all those other Big Houses, bought with slave money, up and down the Eastern Seaboard that now belong to other state government organizations and preserved? Unless all those houses are suffering from extensive termite damage, those houses—built with slave labor and slave money—are worth a lot of cash.  Is that not present slavery money?

What about those universities that still have endowments in the billions, endowments supported by slave trade money? Is that not present slavery money?

What is my point? Well, I am not trying to hate on Brother Coates, so please understand that.

What I am doing, as one scholar to another, is pointing out that whenever one makes an argument—a case, if you will—one must anticipate the holes someone is going to poke in that argument even before the argument is put to paper. This is why right now, anti-Reparations Trolls are busy being hostile and putting Brother Coates in corners. Trolls don’t care about meanness that happened two hundred years ago. They don’t care about meanness that happened two weeks. That’s why they are Trolls.

But if we—and by “we” I mean those of us who support Reparations, which I definitely do—begin to do the hard and years-long work—to follow the money trail that has never disappeared, we might have a change. It is time for the concerted effort of many, many learned supporters of Reparations to address this issue from all sides and do the research.

Brother Coates needs to be reaching out to a bunch of historians who know far more about this subject—certainly far more than I do, so let me make that clear as well—and quoting from them and asking for their advice. Because despite his article trailer, this ancient fight is nowhere near over.

I know that it is hard for us black folks to look at this issue in a calm, clear-eyed manner, without clenching hearts. It’s extremely difficult for me. I couldn’t sleep well tonight—I’ve haven’t slept at all—after reading tidbits from the Brown University report.  But it is time for us to understand that in order to be prepared for the ugliness that comes when discussing Reparations, we need to be prepared to set aside emotion and go straight for the jugular: the contemporary American wallet that is still fat with the unpaid wages of our ancestors.

3 thoughts on “Slavery Reparations: Don’t Follow the Morals. Follow the Money.

  1. I read Coates’ article, and I am not offended by the idea of reparations. African-Americans were not the only people to suffer in the conquest of North America by Europeans and their descendants, but they suffered a unique injury compared to most groups. To me, the question is not so much about history, however, as about how to help those today who need help because of sorry past history. Is a “cash” payout a necessary part of the solution? It will be impossible to implement perfectly, of course. It may not be politically feasible, of course.

    I am not sure about the point of much of the criticism of Coates in this post. Did not Huey Newton say that terrible, racist people are sometimes right and help in the fight? He and many others have also pointed out that the Founders (and those who the Founders built upon) served their class and racial and gender interests with their ideas but their ideas turned out to have a life of their own. John Locke is just an example.

    Finally, I would recommend reading Chief Justice John Marshall’s reasoning in the Cherokee cases where he essentially throws up his hands and says: Our basic law is unfair to Native Americans in theory and practice, but what can I do about it in an imperfect world. He did try to ameliorate it, but he has been harshly criticized for his choice ever since. I would suggest the times have changed enough that perhaps we can do something for African-Americans and Native Americans.

  2. Hi,

    I remember TNC saying in an interview that his case is exclusively about reparations for African Americans. If there are other groups i.e. Chicanos, Native Americans whose wealth has been plundered by the US. government, then those cases need to be researched and put forward as well.

    In a way he’s calling on these groups, telling them that their grievances are valid and are worthy of being heard. His article could very well inspire these groups to begin having these discussions. Indeed this is a HUGE undertaking, but I believe it’s necessary.

  3. Loved loved loved the point about the institutions that profited from slavery that are still around now.

    Did not like the ‘twice stolen’ land argument. It’s not like buying stolen goods out of the trunk of a car, it’s like buying stolen goods at A LICENSED LEGAL STORE. That store owes you and the people it stole from originally.

    Wonderful read. Thank you.

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