The above video shows a talk that journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates gave at Washington University in St. Louis on Wednesday, February 18. I had the distinct privilege of attending the talk (although finding my way through campus was a chore. I can’t believe I got my car through without running into a person, car, or other object). The talk covered a wide range of topics that included reparations, slavery, segregation, police brutality, democracy, white supremacy, and history. It was simultaneously incredible, inspiring, thought-provoking, and saddening. Those familiar with Coates’s work will not be surprised when I say that I really enjoyed the entire experience.
I could write an article-length piece sharing my thoughts on the talk, but for now I want to make but one brief point.
One of Coates’s central arguments, regardless of topic, is that Americans have yet to reckon with the wrongs of their history, and that they may very well never do so. As I listened to the talk I thought about an argument that Edward Baptist made in the introduction of his recent publication The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism that gels nicely with Coates’s. Too often, Baptist argues, we view slavery’s wrongs only in terms of citizenship and legal rights. We see things like voter disenfranchisement, the inability to testify in court and face one’s accuser, and exclusionary restrictions against freedom of worship, speech, and assembly as the primary wrongdoings of slavery. Thus we still run into people who attempt to argue that while slavery was unfortunate and wrong from a legal perspective, it had its social and economic “advantages” for both black and white people in the years before the Civil War. “America,” says Pat Buchanan, “has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people . . . were introduced to Christian salvation [what does Frederick Douglass have to say about religious slaveholders?], and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.”
But Baptist points out (and Coates might agree) that if slavery was wrong simply because of its abridgment of citizenship rights, then shouldn’t the extension of those rights to African Americans be a sufficient resolution for correcting past wrongdoings? Does it suffice to elect a black president and say we now live in a “post-racial” society? Or might there be more work ahead for us to overcome our past?
Coates–both in writing and in this talk–comes out in favor of reparations to African Americans. What would these reparations look like in terms of finances, recipients, and regulations? I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone knows. But what I do know is that both Coates and Baptist are right when they point out the sheer violence of our past. Slavery and Jim Crow did more than abridge citizenship rights: they plundered the fruits of black peoples’ labors through the use of democratic state violence and a legal system that allowed for the buying and selling of people during slavery and the threat of lynching and mob violence against blacks well into the 1950s. One group benefited from legalized violence against another and used the false logic of “race” (among other false logics) to justify the plunder. And the Civil Rights movement didn’t magically eradicate this history or make our country immune to any future wrongdoings after 1968.
This is our history, our burden, and our legacy. We all share a part in it. As I’ve stated time and again, history is there whether or not we acknowledge it. If we acknowledge the wrongs of the past, we put ourselves in a position to more precisely define them, critique them, understand them, and reckon with them. If we can’t talk honestly about the past, how can we say that we are talking honestly about the present?