400 Years Blog #9 – Douglass, Property, and Reparations

Posted in: Leader's Blog
How can we possibly pay back descendants of Africa treated as property for centuries? This overwhelming question derails discussion of potential reparations, yet we somehow managed to maintain a system of race-based oppression for 400 years. Given the lengths our country went to in order to create and justify such oppression, shouldn’t we at least talk about it? Call your representative and ask them to support Representative Shelia Jackson Lee’s bill H.R. 40 to create a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans. We need a national conversation on reparations to help heal the wounds of slavery.
Frederick Douglass did not use the term “reparations,” but he understood the growing debt this country was incurring through slavery. While people of African descent brought to Virginia in 1619 were originally considered “indentured servants,” slave codes transformed them legally into “property.” Beginning in the 1660’s, Maryland and Virginia defined them as “slaves for life,” chattel without rights. Treating enslaved people as chattel property inflated estimates of national wealth. Historian David Blight noted that, “In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together.” Some estimate that cotton picked by enslaved laborers produced more tax revenue than all other American exports combined!
Frederick Douglass preached about the logical inconsistencies of slavery, like the fact that owners denied enslaved people legal standing unless they were accused and tried for stealing other property. Enslaved people who ran away were tried for stealing themselves! Besides, Douglass didn’t think it was “stealing” if you simply moved property within the sphere of the master’s domain, from kitchen cupboard to the stomach of and enslaved laborer. In addition, it was about survival: “As society has marked me out as privileged plunder, on the principle of self-preservation, I am justified in plundering in turn.” (58)
Even when emancipated people were freed, their limited resources and land were plundered. They were not given the promised “40 Acres and a mule.” Their land titles were stripped away, transferring up to 24,000 acres according to a 2001 AP study. Given such twisted logic and blatant robbery, we demand a serious study of potential forms of reparations. Support HR 40!
Lesson #26: We need to talk about reparations.
Lesson #27: Enslaved people, treated as property, became our greatest national asset.
Lesson #28: The only time when enslaved people were counted legally as persons was when it was to their disadvantage.
Lesson #29: Self-preservation in an unjust system justifies “plunder.”
Lesson #30: We need legislation to fund this national conversation.
Further recommended sources:
Randall Robinson’s The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. This work is the touchstone for contemporary discussions of reparations.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, The Case for Reparations. One of my favorite writers, Coates, does a great job of covering a lot of ground about reparations in this relatively concise article.
For more information on HR40, check out congress.gov. This website is your best avenue to explore all legislation in the current legislative session.
Todd Lewan and Dolores Barclay. ‘When They Steal Your Land, They Steal Your Future.’ This article refers to a recent AP study about land taken from Black Americans which documents 107 cases where, through intimidation, violence, and legal maneuverings, land was stolen.
Next blog: Ain’t I a Woman?: Sojourner Truth
[For Women’s History Month, all of my blogs will center on women fighting for racial justice.]
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About this project:
This particular year-long commitment – which I am calling “400 Years” – is aimed mainly at people like me: people who identify as white, accept that racism gives them privileges, and want to confront systemic racism more consistently and constructively. Of course anyone can support the project, but my main hope is to encourage self-identifying whites who want to increase their efforts to confront racism and deconstruct white supremacy. I don’t intend on spending time trying to convince people who resist anti-racism activism. I want to help those who want to practice anti-racism to do it more often and more effectively.
This project will focus mainly on how racism in the United States has hurt Africans and their descendants. While non-whites from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East are often brutal victims of racism, I have been taught most by victims who happen to be black.
So when white people wanting to be more active in anti-racism ask me, “Where do I start?”, I often say, “Start with the history. People of color have already shared their wisdom in countless writings from slave narratives to peer reviewed articles to award winning historical works.” The weight of 400 years of race-based oppression fuels my commitment. Perhaps it will help you with your own efforts to deconstruct white supremacy.
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