quotes ranting

Know your history, but don’t be a slave to it

History isn’t some static set of facts. … We are connected to history today.

Nick Sheedy, quoted in She sued her enslaver for reparations and won. Her descendants never knew, [] from The Washington Post

This is from an interesting article in the Washington Post about the rediscovery of one families matriarch, Henrietta Woods, and her legal battle for reparations from the people who kidnapped her and sold her back into slavery. Spoiler: she won. It reminded me of one of the plot lines in Lovecraft Country [] about the family matriarch who kept a record book of the debt she was owed by her former slave masters, with interest. I wonder if the author was familiar with this story.

It will be interesting to see how the current discussions about reparations [] go in the US. This article seems to be making an argument, without blatantly stating it, that the long term success and attitude of Henrietta Woods descendants owes something to the reparations she won, not only the cash but to the fact of the reparations.

For myself, I’m not sure where I stand. I’m not outright opposed to reparations, I can see an argument that the descendants of enslaved peoples still suffer from the effects of slavery. I would like to see more debate and understand what sort of format reparations would take. How will it work? Direct payments (the Forbes article reference a poll sighting only 20% of American support direct payments)? Or targeted programs? The Forbes article also says most serious models … have been focused on reparative community-based programs. It’s a hard question. I know there are proposals out there, have been for a long time, but until there is a proper public debate it’s hard to tell what we are actually talking about. And given the mixed success of programs designed to address racial inequality, like Affirmative Action, how will a more focuses program succeed?

On the other hand, I can see how holding the entire current generation of America accountable for the sins of the fathers, through payments using tax money, will be… controversial, to say the least. Even an official apology, without reparations, would be fuel on the fire for way too many people. People who have been more and more vocal about their racism in the past few years. I hope that the more visible and vocal racism in the US over the past decade or so has been the result of a changing of attitudes in the majority of Americans, becoming less racist and less accepting of racism, pressuring an increasingly small minority of racists into a corner and causing them to lash out… but I’m not sure I have that much faith in America, or the world, these days.

As for sins of the my own fathers, as far as I know there is no history of slave owning in my family. Everyone in my mothers known family tree immigrated to the Midwest in the second half of the 1800’s well after the Missouri Compromise, so slave owning was never a real possibility. So nothing there. On my dad’s side there is nothing in the known tree, but there is a person, so far unlinked, with the last name Beggerly in an Alabama “Slave Census” in 1855 [] who owned 5 people… there is another record from Tennessee in the 1846 census [] listing two Beggerly’s, also unlinked, one of which is taxed for two slaves… my fathers family tree is much less well known than my mothers, they lived in various places around the South in the 1800’s and the name is not very common, so it’s very possible there is a link to one or both of these slave owners. So I can’t confirm my family is innocent. And of course that is only talking about Pre-Civil War slavery, not considering Jim Crow.

Reading the article triggered a vague memory about public apologies for slavery. I did some searching and it seems the House of Representatives did pass a bill apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow [] in 2008. I was not living in the US but I don’t recall much of a public backlash at that time (though maybe it galvanised the hate that lead to Nazis in my hometown [] and the rise (or at least, much more visible,) white supremacy movement that is trying to normalise its views once again, and having an uncomfortable about of apparent success. The apology came with conditions that it could not be used as a basis for reparations.

So we have no official apology and the legacy of slavery lives on… not that an apology would change it, people are as racist as ever. Would paying reparations move us forward? Who knows, but let’s have some proper debate. We have been failing to live up to our founding creed, that all men are created equal for our entire history, it’s time to take another step towards it.

While looking for news articles on the 2008 House apology I can across an opinion piece in the New York Times from 2015 [], saying Obama should apologise officially (it didn’t go over well, it’s a touchy subject and apologies and reparations have a lot of symbolism). Anyway, about halfway down is this line:

[Obama] could also elevate the current discussion on race, which swirled earlier this week around the serial liar Rachel Dolezal, and the race-baiting billionaire vanity blimp of Donald Trump.

Timothy Egan, in Apologize for Slavery [], published by The New York Times. Emphasis mine.

In hindsight, yea, that was a bit of foreshadowing, dark foreshadowing.