Reparations Anyone?

By Kimberley Jane Wilson
Featured Rightgrrl May 1999
September 10, 2001

In 1989, I was a college student in Washington DC. On my campus, probably like most campuses around the country we had a group of upper classmen who seemed to spend all of their time in the yard talking and occasionally ranting about the social issues of the day. This is how I first heard about the reparations movement. One fellow—I’ll call him Martin, was a Political Science major and a budding orator. On this particular day as I passed by him on my way to the library he was loudly saying that America owed black people a cash settlement for slavery.

Our ancestors, he reasoned, never got their forty acres and a mule as compensation for their bondage. Instead they and their descendents faced the Ku Klux Klan and the Jim Crow laws which were set up for the sole purpose of keeping them down. Martin proclaimed that black people have never had a fair deal in this country and thus, we all deserved a check.

I stopped to listen. Martin was known to be connoisseur of beer and I assumed he’d found himself a whole keg that morning. Some of the kids who listened to him giggled and made jokes but others nodded and looked serious.. I dismissed Martin’s idea as a pie-in-the-sky fantasy and continued on my way. It just seemed inconceivable that the United States government would ever send out checks to every black person with an apology note. Today I’ve come to believe that it could really happen.

Back in 1989, the only people talking seriously about reparations were students like Martin and a few fringe groups that were so small and so radical that no-one, black or white took them seriously. That has all changed. Randall Robinson, author, activist, and columnist wrote a book called The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks that boldly embraced the reparations idea. As a result of Mr. Robinson’s work, the reparations movement really took off. A new article on the subject appears in some magazine or newspaper every week now. Radio and news programs have been devoted to the topic and just recently a major, mainstream newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an editorial in support of reparations. The reparations movement has come of age. Even those who oppose it must take it seriously.

American slavery was a sin. There’s no getting around that. The principles of liberty, justice and equality didn't apply to the millions of Africans brought to America against their will which is why our history is full of racial ironies. When Thomas Jefferson wrote “All men are created equal,” he was the owner of 187 slaves. Patrick Henry owned over 90 slaves when he shouted the famous words, “Give me liberty or give me death!” Union General Ulysses S. Grant fought the Confederacy but didn't free his own slaves until the Emancipation Proclamation. Even after slavery ended America, the land that was a beacon of freedom to people all over the world still treated black Americans with indignity and on occasion, savage cruelty.

Having said this I also must point out that not every white person in America owned slaves. Most Southerners couldn’t even afford one. About half of all the white people walking around America today are descended from people who came to this country after slavery ended. Even if you believe in the concept of blood guilt it is unfair to ask these people to pay for the sins of someone else’s fathers.

On a side note, does anybody have a clear idea of how the payment will be worked out? Will every black person who can prove that he or she is a descendent of slaves get a check? Will we all get a tax credit? Will every black child get a scholarship to the college of their choice? How black do you have to be to get reparations? If one of your parents, or grand parents is white are you still eligible? What about whites who are descended from black people who chose to “pass” for white? If they’re willing to admit their black ancestry will they get a payment?

It’s a little discussed piece of history but whites were not the only ones to make a profit from slavery. Can we expect an apology from the governments of West Africa and the Arab nations? Both Arabs and Africans played a vital part in the business end of the slave trade. Will we be getting a reparations payment from Great Britain? After all colonial America belonged to England when slavery was introduced here in 1619. Do Native Americans owe us reparations? Some tribes took an active part in owning slaves. In fact, there were even free blacks who purchased slaves of their own. Do the descendents of these people owe reparations?

Frankly this all sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare. No amount of apologies and no amount of cash can wash the sin of slavery away. Giving me a check as “compensation” for the agony of my ancestors trivializes their suffering and I feel uneasy at the thought of making a profit from that suffering.

Every American slave owner is dead and the debt that they owe can only be paid on Judgement Day. If reparations do become a reality the only concrete thing I see happening afterwards is a worsening of relations between black and white people. Judging by the opinion polls most whites don’t like the reparations concept and I suspect that black people ages 45 and up who remember what life under Jim Crow was like will find the gesture hollow anyway. Get ready, folks. We are in for some interesting times.

Kimberley Lindsay Wilson is the author of Eleven Things Mama Should Have Told You About Men (African American Images, September 2000, ISBN: 0913543691, $12.95). She can be found at

Copyright 2001 by Kimberley Jane Wilson. Not to be reproduced in any fashion, in whole or in part, without written consent from the author. All rights reserved.