The question of Reparations for the historical crime of slavery is not primarily about money. Rather it is about spiritual cleansing and healing. It is about recognizing the fact that systemic physical and mental torture have long hands that stretch out across time and space. It is about acknowledging the attempted physical and spiritual destruction of a people and the prolonged pain and suffering that followed in its wake. It is time that the question of Reparations be put in its proper light; the light of recognition, forgiveness, and making whole.
When my grandmother received “compensation” from the German government for her time spent in a labor camp she didn’t claim the relatively small amount given to her purely out of financial need (although that too played a part). No, she claimed it as a recognition of the part played by the German people in her own personal story of extreme suffering and human degradation. She claimed her small monthly check as a symbol that great wrongs were committed and that they should be publicly acknowledged as such. No amount of money could dilute her individual experience of the camps and the loss of her parents, but the fact of symbolic redress by those, who even though they might not have been directly responsible for her anguish, was a significant act of historical and spiritual closure.
The money given to her was a complex exchange of memory, truthfulness, expiation, and guilt. It was a testament that what was done to her and her family members was outside the arc of common humanity and needed to begin to be set straight. And so it is too with the descendants of slaves in America.
Reparations shall serve as a symbol of setting straight the crooked, hypocritical, and evil path of the imperfect history of American democracy. Of a path littered with millions of bodies and souls who served as tools rather than women and men to be respected as such. It is an act that will symbolically negate the actualness of history with something more powerful: the moral imagination of the present.
We can never bring back the lives of the tortured and the terrified. We can never give them the joys, pleasures, and freedom of life that we know today is the birthright of every human being. But that is not the point; for what we can do today is bring forth some sort of collective forgiveness from every side, both for the descendants of perpetrators and of persecuted alike. For it is not only ex-slaves that are in need of forgiveness here; a nation stands perpetually bent over a dark stain which consequences haunt and hurt till the present day. In giving reparations we both give to those who once were and bequeath to those who are the sweet righteousness of a thing well done.
The Germans have spent more than three generations agonizing over their guilt and examining ways to create new humane paths in the world and this is to their credit and rightly so. The Americans, both in the case of the Native American Genocide and African Slavery, have examined their conscience to a lesser degree and committed far less resources to the causes of redress and redemption. It is never too late to do a gracious act. It is never too little to commit something presently valuable to correct past wrongs, no matter how distant. It is never too humiliating for a great nation to get on its knees and say “Forgive me”.