My, my, my what do we have here. I committed myself to studying black history in high school, when I realized there was an extreme fear that would shudder across the faces of my teachers when I wanted to know more about the little bit that was written about the subject matter in my school books. When it came time to apply for college, I only applied to universities that had a program and/or department for Black and/or African American studies. I minored in Black Studies. It’s a pretty big deal to me. What Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his 10-part piece, “The Case for Reparations” is part journalism, part history, and a whole lot of problems that we have forgotten to discuss or solve, and how much those same problems, scores before our existence, affect how we think, live and breathe.
Below are my takeaways, written in no particular order.
- Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage.
- But black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it.
- We believe white dominance to be a fact of the inert past, a delinquent debt that can be made to disappear if only we don’t look.
- One hundred years later, the idea of slaves and poor whites joining forces would shock the senses, but in the early days of the English colonies, the two groups had much in common. English visitors to Virginia found that its masters “abuse their servantes with intollerable oppression and hard usage.” White servants were flogged, tricked into serving beyond their contracts, and traded in much the same manner as slaves.
- This “hard usage” originated in a simple fact of the New World—land was boundless but cheap labor was limited. As life spans increased in the colony, the Virginia planters found in the enslaved Africans an even more efficient source of cheap labor. Whereas indentured servants were still legal subjects of the English crown and thus entitled to certain protections, African slaves entered the colonies as aliens. Exempted from the protections of the crown, they became early America’s indispensable working class—fit for maximum exploitation, capable of only minimal resistance.
- For the next 250 years, American law worked to reduce black people to a class of untouchables and raise all white men to the level of citizens. In 1650, Virginia mandated that “all persons except Negroes” were to carry arms. In 1664, Maryland mandated that any Englishwoman who married a slave must live as a slave of her husband’s master. In 1705, the Virginia assembly passed a law allowing for the dismemberment of unruly slaves—but forbidding masters from whipping “a Christian white servant naked, without an order from a justice of the peace.” In that same law, the colony mandated that “all horses, cattle, and hogs, now belonging, or that hereafter shall belong to any slave” be seized and sold off by the local church, the profits used to support “the poor of the said parish.” At that time, there would have still been people alive who could remember blacks and whites joining to burn down Jamestown only 29 years before. But at the beginning of the 18th century, two primary classes were enshrined in America.
- The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.