Coates On Slavery: It Was 150 Years Ago and It Was Right Now

Sculpture by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama

A day of drama as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and other advocates offered searing, eloquent testimony at a House hearing on proposed reparations to black Americans on Juneteenth, the day in 1865 that U.S. slavery finally ended when it was abolished in Texas. “We know that it’s not just white men that built this country," declared Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a co-sponsor with Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of H.R. 40. "In fact, we know that black Americans built it for free.” It's the reality that U.S. capitalism was founded on the enslavement of black people - by emancipation, slaves comprised the largest single economic asset in America, and a Mississippi overseer confided "the whip was as important to making cotton grow as sunshine and rain" - that lies behind the reparations proposal, along with the enduring injustices visited upon black people simply trying to be equal citizens of this country. Government has a role to play in helping repair those longstanding wrongs, says Pressley, because, "We have yet to enjoy the full measure of freedom as black Americans.” As part of that unprecedented accounting, H.R. 40 also calls for a formal apology from the U.S. government “for the perpetration of gross human rights violations" against black Americans - violations that relentlessly continue. Just in recent days, see here, here, and here.

 Perhaps the most compelling expression of those grievances came from Coates, whose earlier piece in The Atlantic,“The Case for Reparations,” helped set the stage for Wednesday's hearing. "Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy," read its sub-title. "Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole." In his impassioned testimony, Coates pointedly called out Mitch McConnell, who the day before had airily dismissed slavery as “something that happened 150 years ago.” It is "tempting" to divorce then from now, said Coates, but the damage resonates. For a century after the Civil War, "Black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror (that) extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell," that continued to "disenfranchise, subjugate, and oppress black Americans," that shaped the poverty, violence and incarceration endured by too many today. "That is the thing about (McConnell’s) 'something' - it was 150 years ago and it was right now," said Coates. "The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also (a) chance to say that a nation is both its credits and its debts. That if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings. Because the question really is, not whether we will be tied to the 'somethings' of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them."

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