We Could Start by Apologizing, and Go From There

Originally published by The Guy Code on September 3, 2000.

Now that the Republican Party sees inclusiveness as a valid goal, perhaps American society is ready to consider something for which it’s never seemed quite ready: paying reparations for slavery.

Decades after the U.S. had wrongfully detained Japanese-Americans in World War II concentration camps because of their ancestry, the victims got money, and an apology, for their trouble. More recently, the government of Germany and companies like Siemens have agreed to pay billions of dollars to Jews whose labor they exploited during the Holocaust.

Genuine monetary damages are going to people for actions that are 50 years old. Why not 150?

Does it seem too far back? Does it seem as though it would be too complicated, since we are talking about compensating descendants rather than direct victims? Does it sound like a task that would simply be too massive, bureaucratic and unpleasant?

Maybe so. Slavery itself was certainly massive, bureaucratic and unpleasant, from its beginnings here in Jamestown in 1619 on until the end of the Civil War in 1865 finally put a stop to it. Two hundred and forty-six years of owning and controlling human beings, in a manner sanctioned and enforced by U.S. law.

I think we can all be clear on one thing: Stopping the commission of a crime is not the same as making restitution. If someone takes away your wallet, and then your watch, it is not enough for them to simply stop stealing. At some point, before you can easily look them in the eye, they have to look like they regret what they did, and they have to give your stuff back.

The U.S. can never give back what its people took from Africa. The people of the U.S. can never restore to the descendants of slaves what was ripped away from them all those years ago — we can never return them to their homelands and families and restore their heritage and cultural traditions, let alone return to them their freedom and dignity. But we can certainly say we’re sorry, and we can certainly do better than we have done in making reparations.

The country grew on slave labor

The U.S. economy benefited a great deal from the cheap, forced labor of slaves. If you doubt that, take another look at how hard the states that fostered slavery fought to hold on to that “right.”

Because of television footage and movies, it is relatively easy for Americans today to comprehend the carnage in Vietnam. Nor does anyone who has seen “Saving Private Ryan” have trouble imagining the losses this country suffered during the Second World War. But you’d have to multiply America’s casualties in Vietnam by ten to get an idea of what was lost in the War Between the States.

Now, it’s certainly simplistic to say that the war was fought to free the slaves. The North was never that altruistic. But it’s also simplistic to deny the centrality of slavery to that conflict. “States’ Rights,” to the South, meant the right to buy, sell and control human beings. Georgia did not suffer the burning of Atlanta simply because its people liked the look of confederate money.

Maybe because of the rivers of blood that were shed in that war, and the bad blood that still remains – take the recent fight over the flying of the confederate flag over South Carolina for example – the issue of making restitution to slaves and their descendants has never really gotten off the ground.

Maybe Americans would still prefer to believe that atrocities happen elsewhere.

To cure themselves of this, maybe all of America should visit the Schomburg Center in Harlem.

It’s a good deal smaller than the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and in some ways more difficult to take. But the message is similar: Here is the evidence of evil, made to seem ordinary by its frequency. Here is the evidence that an entire society went about its business while atrocities took place daily. Here is the evidence that people with bodies and brains no different from our own can do horrible things, and tolerate horrible things, without even breaking a sweat. It’s tough to look.

The Holocaust Museum in Washington confronts you with the horror of what humans have done – overseas. If you grew up anywhere but Europe, the revulsion and sorrow you feel are almost pure, in this sense: You feel no personal guilt. You feel little need to deny what you see, because you can tell yourself that your own people did not do this. The U.S. did not acquit itself admirably while the Holocaust was going on; her borders did not open to embrace those Jews who fled. But border policy is a governmental abstraction, one that removes us from the deeds; “visas were denied by the government” is easier on the conscience than “my own family allowed refugees to die.”

At the Holocaust Museum, we see that the Nazi deeds were not inspired by sudden passion. They were premeditated — imagined in advance – and methodically organized. The Nazis carried out their program over a period of years, with great efficiency. They devoted energy and money to extermination that could have helped their military hold off the Allied powers. They killed Jews young and old, day and night, in a way that came to seem ordinary. So ordinary that towns near the concentration camps went about their business, buying and selling and making love and raising children amid the ashes that rose up out of nearby chimneys.

It is the ordinariness of the Holocaust that takes our breath away – the piles of victims’ hair, the collections of childrens’ shoes. It is the organized nature of that horror that makes us feel that some organization must pay.

So, too, with slavery.

A fitting memorial

The Schomburg Center presents Americans with a different problem. Here are the leg irons and the shipping logs; here are the signs demanding the return of “gentle Negroes” who had suddenly stopped coming when they were called.

African slavery has had no “Schindler’s List,” even though the director of that movie tried twice to supply one (with “The Color Purple” and “Amistad”). The African-American community does not resound with cries of “Never again” – perhaps because slavery seems less likely to recur, in our industrial age, than genocide does. A lot of Americans watched “Roots,” and that was pretty good.

But few of us have seen the leg irons up close, have seen the way grown men were clamped together in the bottom of a dank boat, no porta-johns nearby, tied next to men and women from other tribes, carrying diseases against which they had built no immunity. Few have really tried to understand the impact of the Middle Passage on the only American immigrants who did not choose to come here. Or the life that ensued on these shores — generations upon generations of families torn apart, men whipped for trying to see the women they were not allowed to marry, children kept apart from too much learning.

Perhaps because few have seen the evidence of these things, Claremont Professor Elazar Barkan describes slavery in “The Guilt of Nations” as “the most glaring example of an undressed historical injustice in the United States.”

It’s time we addressed it, folks. It’s time we demanded more from the United States, the land that was not always of the free.

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