One of the great writers of our time, Ta Nehisi Coates, released an incredible article in the Atlantic, titled “The Case for Reparations.” I cannot convey enough how important I believe this article is, and enthusiastically suggest you read it.
After the article, the thought that has stuck with me is that I don’t feel like white America has ever reckoned with its slavery history. We have moved on, simply to think of the past as another time, and not our problem. Coates even suggests this in his definition of reparations: “What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”
How do we reckon with tragedies? Inevitably, as time passes, new generations feel distance from historic events. Growing up in one era shapes a generation differently than the generations before it. When trying to teach history, particularly when trying to prevent certain events from happening again, it’s a fuzzy line between presenting the information as history, creating morals and a sense of never again, and creating a sense of guilt. The guilt, I would argue, is especially hard to swallow for generations who weren’t alive for the event.
Germany offers an interesting example for how it has attempted to reckon with the Holocaust. As Coates mentions, Germany eventually paid reparations to Israel, money that was crucial to get Israel’s economy off the ground. But how Germany attempts to remember the Holocaust is an interesting example. One artistic memorial of note is the “Stolpersteine” project. Stolpersteine translates into “stumbling stones.” Over 32,000 gold stones have been installed in the sidewalk in front of buildings and houses where Jews and other individuals were dispossessed and rounded up from. These stones are slightly elevated above the sidewalk, so a person literally stumbles when walking by them, causing them to look down and see the name of one or even dozens of people that used to live there.
In this way, the project sets to constantly remind people of the history and acts committed. Yet to the outsider (me) it seems like a remarkable project, it’s results within the country are more mixed. According to a 2009 article in the BBC, “[Some] object [to the stolpersteine] because they do not want to be constantly reminded of the past, part of the wider debate over collective German guilt and the correct balance between remembering and getting on with life.” To a visitor like myself, stumbling over a memorial was an almost exciting experience (though also very humbling), but to a native who stumbles everyday, the experience may seem overbearing. The stolpersteine project, though, continues to expand and cities like Berlin have set goals for when to have installed stones for every person taken from their homes.
I’m not aware of any memorials to slavery in the U.S. I did an online search and learned that the UN has created a memorial in New York for all slaves of the transatlantic slave trade, but otherwise a national slavery memorial does not exist. In 2003, a bill was filed in congress to construct a National Slave Memorial, but that proposal died and was replaced with a more generic Museum of African American History and Culture, currently under construction.
Maybe we’re in the process of building memorials. Maybe we’re getting closer to a day when reparations and reckoning will happen. I just feel like it hasn’t happened yet. I feel anger to learn about America’s full history through articles like Coates’, like someone deliberately took out the uncomfortable parts. It’s the same anger I felt when I moved away to college and found the real world to be far more diverse than the corner of it I was raised in. After reading in Coates’ article about events the occurred not just during my grandparents’ lifetime by my parents and my own, reparations and reckoning is something we need.
Robert Hemphill is in the midst of a year of service in Spokane. He is active in several non-profits creating community and building relationships for social change. He has worked as an organizer on several issue campaigns in the midwest, and hopes to continue a career in building community and developing voices.