By Anna Merlan
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Of the 35 million faceless African Americans, descendants of slaves and modern-day survivors of the centuries-long trade in human beings, over 110,000 live in my Brooklyn neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant. So when the nation heard the first whispers last winter of lawsuits seeking reparations for the damage done, I set out to gauge the reaction of people in this, the second-largest black community in the country and a mirror of urban black life. People in Bed-Stuy have dealt with violent crime and sorry schools and poor health care for generationsall the social ruins reparations seek to repair.
Past the projects surrounded by garbage, past the scattered crack vials on the street, past the kids hanging out when they should have been working or in school, I walked, stopping every young person in sight. Of the 325 people I spoke to, between the ages of 17 and 37the self-identified hip-hop generation to which I belongonly 91 had actually heard of reparations.
"If there's a reparations movement, it must be underground," said Paul, a guy who lives around the block from me, "because the people stuck here in these projects don't know about it. I'm well read and stay informed, so I know, but when's the last time you think any of them read a newspaper?"
Close by, five males were shooting craps, drinking a 40, and passing a blunt in front of the Louis Armstrong Houses on Marcy Avenue. An impromptu conversation revealed that they were all under 18, were high school dropouts, and had no idea what reparations meant, let alone that the movement proposes to repair them. "Nah, I never heard about it," confessed one, "but if it's gonna make my pockets phat, I'm down with it."
Corner after corner, one young mind after another, the conversations revealed that not only is the movement missing the street beat, but it is bypassing those who need it the most. People in the hip-hop generationwho make up 35 percent of the black populationwere so unaware of their history, and living in such a different world from the lawyers and academics who are bringing the suits, that only 25 could identify civil rights leader Marcus Garvey. But everyone knew hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and his record label, Def Jam.
Challenging big corporations in court may be cool for grabbing headlines, but it hasn't grabbed the hearts and minds of the people. In late March, attorney Roger Wareham filed a federal class-action suit in New York against Aetna, Fleet Boston, and CSX Railroads for profiting from the slave trade. This month another federal suit was filed in New Jersey. The issue has also moved beyond the courtroom and into legislative chambers. In February, City Councilman Charles Barron introduced the Queen Mother Moore reparations bill, which would create a commission to study the lasting effects of slavery on black New Yorkers. Simultaneously, State Assemblyman Roger Green of Brooklyn proposed a bill that would classify slavery as a crime against humanity, negating the statute of limitations and allowing blacks to sue for age-old wounds. At the grassroots level, there have been rallies throughout the boroughs, the latest on May 19 in Harlem. Organizers have a Millions for Reparations march planned for Washington, D.C., in August.
It's only natural that African Americans across the country are beginning to think seriously about reparations and what they mean both for individuals and for an entire race once enslaved. With class-action lawsuits being pelted at corporations quicker than lightning, reparations have stopped being just wishful thinking and have become a reality both welcomed and feared by the community. Those who believe it will empower the race are criticized by others who feel it can only stigmatize the race. For some, the very idea that blacks could force America to pay restitution for slavery is inconceivable by nature. Growing up in black, inner-city America leaves little room for that stretch of the imagination.
Now we're all potential plaintiffs in these suits, whether we want to be or not, and without anyone asking us. In theory I agree with the pursuit of reparations, but waging a war largely in the courts and legislative halls further denies the masses a voice of their own. If winning reparations for slavery is truly the final step toward our liberation, you have to wonder why so few people of my generation know the first thing about it. Just lend an ear to Mike, who's been in jail more than a few times and was standing in front of a corner bodega selling nickel bags of weed. His curiosity was piqued by the idea of reparations. "Yeah, we do need a lot of repairing," he said. "How come nobody comes around here to talk about it?"
Russell Simmons wants to know how come, too. The hip-hop mogul has pledged much of the proceeds from his Phat Classic sneakers to the underwriting of legal and research teams doing work on the issue. It is not clear just how much that will be. But his decision to back the legal actions underway is countered by the vibe that the masses have been ignored. "No one I know in the hip-hop community is really plugged into reparations, and I know a lot of people," Simmons says. "Something is very wrong with that. It is the responsibility of those of us who are informed to reach our young people in their language with this idea that is age-old, and has no chance of being achieved without their support."