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 generations—all 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 37—the self-identified hip-hop generation to which I belong—only 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 generation—who make up 35 percent of the black population—were 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.”
Lately, Bed-Stuy has been transformed by the upper and middle classes into what appears to be another neighborhood gentrifying and on the rise. But for those who suffered silently when it was still considered Little Beirut, it’s the same old do-or-die Bed-Stuy. Anyone seeking to recover damages based on the claim that slavery caused the unilateral suffering evident today need look no further. My brothers and I were lucky; having politically conscious parents pounding black power into our heads ensured that we stayed afloat instead of succumbing to the streets like many of our friends. But for remaining black youth being raised ghetto-fabulously across the country, life remains as dark as ever.
Distinguished African American scholars, historians, attorneys, and civil rights activists have left no stone unturned in their efforts to put America on notice that the debt for slavery and racism is currently up for collection. Last March, in a New York Times op-ed piece entitled “Litigating the Legacy of Slavery,” Charles Ogletree Jr.—a Harvard law professor and co-chair of the Reparations Coordinating Committee—laid out the case on behalf of blacks and touched on what leaders are calling the true essence of the movement. “The legacy of slavery and racial discrimination in America is seen in well-documented racial disparities in access to education, health care, housing, insurance, employment and other social goods,” he wrote. “The reparations movement must therefore focus on the poorest of the poor.”
Chances that the “poorest of the poor” read his plea and were as equally enlightened as the mostly white, well-to-do readership of the Times are slim. Closer to the street a vibe has surfaced that organizers have yet to reach those they claim to be fighting for, casting doubt on the true focus of the movement.
Eighty-two-year-old Kitty McClain, the granddaughter of a slave, has witnessed firsthand the social devastation created by slavery, but is most heartbroken by the way people who have escaped the ghetto abandoned those who remain. “Until those of us who have made it make a serious commitment to come back and strengthen whence they came from,” she says, “no one will give us reparations because we haven’t given it to ourselves.”
From emancipation to desegregation, history has proven that social change comes about when those who have been wounded the most are encouraged to band together and holler the loudest. As expected, there are many critics of the movement who see reparations as a scam, the work of a few “Ivy League blacks who can’t get over the civil rights era” and are now trying to exploit slavery for another buck.
But organizers are holding on tight to their message, insisting that the idea is not to hand out cash to each black person but to improve the overall quality of life by putting the money into education, housing, and other areas traditionally short-changed. “Reparations is not about a check,” says Adjoa Aiyetoro, co-spokesperson for the Reparations Coordinating Committee, a group gearing up to sue corporations and the U.S. government for their roles in upholding slavery. “It has to be about more than that.”
Litigation is a necessary component, but alone it cannot win reparations. “The crime against blacks was committed collectively on behalf of white folks,” says Wareham, who filed the New York suit. “We were victimized and continue to suffer collectively; therefore we have to fight collectively. The masses must lead the way.”
Though leaders haven’t hit the streets with that message, they claim to be committed to getting the people involved. “We aren’t doing the door-to-door thing, but we are going to hold town hall meetings and community forums around the issue of reparations until everyone is informed,” says Councilman Barron, an ex- Black Panther. Others are looking to universities and the media. According to former NAACP president Dr. Benjamim Muhammed, who is now the president of Russell Simmons’s Hip Hop Summit Action Network, “Reparations is hot on all the college campuses. There is a grassroots movement building; it’s just a matter of linking all the angles.”
Apparently the angles are hiding, because only 50 or so people showed up for a rally proclaiming March 21 Reparations Awareness Day in New York City. African American politicians like Barron and Green stood proudly with veteran civil rights activists from the Durban 400, the December 12th Movement, and the Black United Front. They celebrated the recent introduction of reparations bills on the city and state level, and discussed the overall progress of the cause. “I have all confidence that we will win the fight for reparations,” Perkins said from the podium.
It was a coming together of the minds and a solid show of unity between politicians and grassroots organizers working together to achieve what one activist called “the true liberation of our people.” When revolutionary Viola Plummer raised a clenched fist and declared, “Make no mistake my brothas and sistas, we are at war!” a nostalgic sense of black pride seemed to radiate from the group. I can honestly say that for the first time in my 31 years, I wanted to be a baby boomer instead of a hip-hop baby. That feeling lasted for only a hot minute because the noticeable absence of the masses, my peers, made real to me who the movement was speaking to. That scene—of Ivy Leaguers and comfortable activists talking to each other—would be replayed at reparations forums around the city.
The obvious disconnect between the old civil rights guard and the reigning hip-hop generation seems to be the reason why, for the first time in civil rights history, the masses aren’t down with the cause. Closer examination of the generation that by all rights should be leading the first civil rights movement of their lifetime reveals that mobilizing them could be a task well beyond the current leaders’ reach.
It cannot be denied that we have aided in our stereotyping as the race’s black-sheep generation. The people who came before us were lulled to sleep by the civil rights victories of the 1960s, and they left us to our own devices. Ignored by society, the latchkey kids grew into the untamed hip-hop nation. To our elders’ dismay, we have created a music that legitimized so-called Ebonics, made words like nigga, bitch, and ‘ho expressions of ghetto love. Worst of all, we have glorified thug life and managed to kill each other at a rate not even Osama could top. Many parents have given up on the offspring, and if current trends continue, half the males of the hip-hop generation will be behind bars by the year 2010.
But others keep the faith, recognizing the true revolutionary strength of this group, who defiantly used their voices to transform the day-to-day suffering of black youth into the multibillion-dollar cultural phenomenon that hip-hop is today. Able to see past the psychological damage done to a generation by all kinds of ills, from NYPD-occupied schools to racial profiling and police brutality, these parents challenge themselves to reach their children before it’s too late.
After one of the rallies, I rapped with such a parent. Ciscely Johnson stared out the window of her Bed-Stuy apartment at a half-dozen boys violently arguing on the corner. Guns in waistbands and fashionably adorned red bandannas indicated members of the Bloods street gang were having beef with some neighborhood kids. Ciscely’s anger was apparent as the familiar sound of gunshots filled the air. “You kids don’t value your lives,” she screamed frantically. “Your ancestors didn’t have the luxury of dying for a cause as stupid as yours.”
The 46-year-old mother of two teenage sons surveyed her neighborhood, and tears trickled down her cheeks. Ciscely is well known in the community for, as one neighbor put it, “always trying to save these kids, who can’t be saved.” She has known many of the boys since infancy and struggles to accept their outcome. “As hard as I try I can’t totally blame them; they lack pride in self. Look around,” she said. “Everything negative in this world is stuck in these neighborhoods.”
Ciscely glanced over to the Atlantic Avenue Armory shelter on the corner of Bedford Avenue, which houses hundreds of ex-cons, drug addicts, and others deemed socially unfit. She points to a busy crack spot, with deadheads smoked up and zombied out scattering up and down the steps of the abandoned brownstone. “Society at large has turned a blind eye to these people and has coldheartedly stood by and let them fester in this sewer. As a result, their children have paid the price.”
Ciscely, a product of the civil rights era, is not satisfied that leaders of the reparations campaign have made sufficient efforts to empower the people. “I’m not used to this kind of media-driven movement. I come from a time when our leaders were in the trenches dealing directly with us, preaching and teaching every day till they went hoarse. If you had a needle in your arm, they pulled it out and got you high on the movement. If you were selling drugs, they dumped it and made you sell newsletters for the cause instead.
“As a people we are destroyed,” she went on. “We’ve been promised a better quality of life by so many, yet conditions remain the same. Now they’re just supposed to pop out of the darkness and care about reparations.”
Who could make them care? Russell Simmons doesn’t think it would useful now to have establishment types like Charles Ogletree try to reach the hip-hop community. “They listen to Ludacris, not him,” Simmons says. “They understand that they have been wronged as a people. The details of reparations will unfold naturally, and they’ll spread it.” He wants to roll out a campaign based on the theme of “40 Acres and a Bentley,” using radio spots and magazine ads. “[The Bentley] has become the highest American aspiration for this generation, unfortunately, so we have to use that to engage them.”
A champion at engaging the youth, Malcolm X once said, “If you give people a thorough understanding of what confronts them, and the causes that produce it, they’ll create the program.” There is no Malcolm X now, no one voice of strength and encouragement to guide the youth through this movement. For the last 37 years, hip-hop and street life have been our mentors and providers. Prisons have made us better criminals, public schools have ensured our inadequate education, so fighting for a cause does not come naturally to many. If reparations are all about repairing the present so the future can be brighter, the lawyers and academics will have to roll up their sleeves, kick off their expensive shoes, and get their feet dirty walking the streets, looking for a way to bridge the divide.