Reparations is not a word I use often. There were years when I neither heard nor said the word. Then in June 2014 Ta-Nahesi Coates wrote that exceptionally lengthy article, “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic. No way could I not think about reparations: the making of amends for wrongs, injury done, according to the dictionary. For many persons, especially those of African descent, “reparations” is the payment of 40 acres and a mule promised persons freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, Special Field Orders No. 15 by William T. Sherman, the Union Army general. About two years after Donald Trump became president, I heard a commentator say, “All Democrats have to do is continue talking about privilege and reparations, and they will lose in 2020.” Though the statement caught me off guard, it has since crossed my mind often. I’m in that group who believe though many sat out the 2016 election for assorted reasons, many others voted to teach the Democrats a lesson: no black person should be President of these United States—ever. Never should Barack H. Obama have been president. And there are those who will do everything in their power to prevent such an anomaly from repeating itself. Regardless of actions that helped many whites, especially those in lower-income brackets, Obama’s blackness was unwelcome and unwanted by a great many Americans. Composing this article makes me realize how I found myself thinking about reparations and the gentleman’s statement more often than I cared to. Surprisingly, the word continues to show up, come up. Not surprisingly, I agreed with the commentator although I cannot recall previously connecting the terms “privilege” and “reparations.”
I do not remember the first time I heard the word “reparations,” but I do recall the first time I went to Washington, D.C., 1967, and saw a glaring instance of inequity. I was a college student taking part in a conference at Howard University. Of course, we toured the highlights of the city. But what I remember most is all is the black persons at every site: in uniforms as guards. I’m sure I had never seen so many people in uniform, people who spent their days protecting the country’s invaluable wealth and directing tourist traffic. I remember being told that the first wealthy blacks were Pullman porters—they received good.
The November rejection of Washington State’s Referendum 88 and my first visit to the World War II Museum in New Orleans combined returned the term to my immediate consciousness. Leaving Seattle shortly after a bill the entire legislature supported was rejected by 50.56 % of the voters coupled with learning so much more about the role of African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, Native Americans in World War II triggered more thoughts of reparations. Never had I seen so much information, much of it a revelation, in one place!
Passage of Referendum 88 could have been a degree of reparations. Maybe volunteers who worked so hard to get it passed will be willing to undertake the task once more.
~Georgia S. McDade, Ph. D.
This article is the first of three on this issue.