By Herb Boyd
A replay on reparations is gathering a bit of traction nowadays thanks to the recent cover story in The Atlantic magazine by Ta-Nehisi Coates and a summary of a reparations conference at Chicago State University under the auspices of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century. The organization’s director of communications, Don Rojas’s summary of the conference was published by The Nation magazine and amplifies much of the argument posed by Coates.
There’s nothing new about the push for reparations, and both Coates and Rojas are wonderfully aware of the history and the obstacles the issue has encountered since it was first launched in the nineteenth century, though neither writer expends much attention on the pioneering efforts of Callie House and Rev. Isaiah Dickerson who established the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association of the United States in 1894. What Ms. House and Rev. Dickerson set in motion has been given a modern gloss by the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), which was founded in 1987.
All of this said to contextualize the discussion on reparations, and reading Coates and Rojas articles, along with experiencing the wide-ranging presentation of Sir Hilary Beckles at the conference in Chicago (it can be seen on YouTube and at the IBW21stCentury website) is to be excited by the new energy being given to this time-worm subject that Congressman John Conyers of Detroit has taken to the chambers of Congress to the fresh interpretation and angle arising from CARICOM ( the Caribbean Community and Common Market), particularly the insight put forth by Ralph Gonsalves, the Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Renewing the discussion is vital and veteran activists who attended the World Conference Against Racism confab in Durban, South Africa in 2001 should be exhilarated knowing their demands is getting some resonance these many years later. At that UN sponsored conference the 400 delegates from the U.S. demanded that the international slave trade be condemned as a crime against humanity and that the victims be compensated for their enslavement. The first part of the demand was honored but, as we know so well, getting the second part continues to be a struggle that will probably persist right into the distant future.
Waiting for reparations is almost akin to waiting for Godot. There was a smidgen of hope for the issue with the election of Barack Obama but the word reparations is apparently not part of his vocabulary. He’ll probably say “A Salamu Alaikum” before he utters the word reparations.
But the beat goes on—and so it must. As long as we have the struggle for reparations carried from one generation to the next, there’s always the possibility that one day we’ll get the forces in power to get a portion of it applied, and as the proponents have stressed—it ain’t about money—as much as it is about how resources can be earmarked to deal with social, political, and economic issues that continue to plague the African American community.
Yes, the discussion is back on the agenda in the same way Professor Charles Ogletree tried to make it stick in Chicago a few years ago with Tulsa Riot approach but as Johnita Scott-Obadele said in her essay a few years ago, quoting James Baldwin:
“I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least one can demand—and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general and American history in particular, for it testified to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”
And as Billie Holiday once sang: “The difficult I’ll do right now, the impossible will take a little while.”