A few Tuesdays ago, on a foggy side street in Clinton Hill, thirty-five New Yorkers — black and brown and white — sat in a wide circle inside JACK, a nonprofit community arts theater. On the agenda was a conversation about reparations for black Americans, part of a year-long series called Reparations365 hosted by JACK co-directors Alec Duffy and DeeArah Wright.
With Jeff Sessions’s anti–civil rights agenda now guiding our nation’s courts, it’s an unusual time to explore this long-controversial concept. But the staff at JACK says progressive Americans’ renewed faith in the power of collective action and a national reckoning with the flaws of our government make 2017 as good a time as any for the conversation. Inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 Atlantic cover story on reparations, the theater will host monthly events through next January centered on whether and how America should repay those black citizens whose ancestors were enslaved here. The calendar includes talks, forums, and dance performances, plus a pop-up think tank to record the findings.
Wright says the series is about “pushing this idea of making amends within a system that is no longer working for us. We want people to be exploring what creative ways we can approach reparations and deciding as a collective of people how we’re even defining it. What does it really mean to heal?”
Led by JACK fellow Jillian Walker, a Columbia MFA student who grew up in Detroit and Chicago, the group began the conversation by offering one-word answers to such questions as “Why reparations?” and “Why haven’t there been reparations?”
Among the answers: accountability, transparency, and equity. Shame, denial, delusion. Walker asked the group, “Why now?”
An older woman named Debbie didn’t hesitate. “Overdue,” she said, with force.
Indeed, reparations are an old idea. Remunerating black Americans for their enslavement has garnered support as far back as the Civil War, most famously with General William Tecumseh Sherman’s 1865 directive to grant every survivor forty acres of Southern land (it was rescinded later that year by President Andrew Johnson, a former slaveholder). But support for restitution to descendants of the enslaved declined as Jim Crow and various other state-sanctioned disenfranchisement tactics replaced slavery as the mechanism for black oppression.
The civil rights movement brought the issue back to the fore. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke frequently about restitution, most famously touching on the debt owed to African Americans in his “I Have a Dream” speech. And in a 1968 speech to a Mississippi church, he specifically referenced government compensation, concluding an oration on the hypocrisy of having provided assistance to white settlers — while denying reparations for black people — with this: “When we come to Washington in this campaign, we’re coming to get our check.”
The issue has come up again and again in American politics, never becoming any less controversial. In every congressional session since 1989, Michigan Democrat John Conyers Jr. has introduced a bill to determine whether reparations are owed; the measure has never survived committee. The idea continues to be framed as a far-left pipe dream, divisive even among black people and opposed at all times by conservatives.
American views of reparations as a broader concept are more varied, though. Japanese-American activism resulted in the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, which formally apologized for the WWII internment of Japanese Americans and granted survivors $20,000 apiece.
Less successful has been a 1921-founded land trust to return Hawaiian land to Native Hawaiians. Mismanagement has resulted in some grantees dying before receiving their acreage, and dubious interpretation has handed over some land to non-Hawaiians; the program’s problems — indeed, its very existence — remain largely unknown across the continental U.S.
More recently, the State Department in 2014 brokered a deal with the French government to help distribute up to $60 million to Holocaust survivors and their descendants living in the U.S., in recognition of the French railway system having deported Jews to Nazi concentration camps. Chuck Schumer was an outspoken supporter of the measure.
Reparations are not always monetary. Following an explosive New York Times report last year on the 1838 sale of 272 enslaved people by Georgetown University, the school took the unprecedented step of granting admissions preference to their descendants and formally apologized for its participation in slavery. In January, Columbia University followed suit with a report on its ties to slavery, creating an educational website with its findings.
Back at JACK, debate about what form reparations, if they ever come, should take garnered mixed results. Brittany Williams, a criminal justice reform activist, quipped that all this talk reminded her of her student loan bills — specifically, the pipe dream of paying them off with monetary reparations.
Others said that reparations must address many pathologies, and that a solution to such challenges doesn’t have to come in the form of a check. They’re “a social-justice issue,” said A.J. Muhammad, a producer at African-American theater festival The Fire This Time. “It’s housing, [the right of] people not to be gentrified, access to education. These are issues that could be a form of reparations.”
Nia Austin-Edwards, 28, remarked that her father taught her reparations are “seven-generation work — something done over [so many] years is going to take time to undo,” she said. “My reparations look like being able to see people close to me thriving, whether that means my friends paying their rent or my sister making it through college.”
Though the issue remains politically controversial, at least some New York politicians support conversations on the subject. Governor Andrew Cuomo is listed as a supporter on the Reparations365 website, although his office did not respond to a request for comment on the nature of his support. Duffy, the JACK co-director, said State Assemblyman Walter T. Mosley has reached out looking for ways to get involved in the project.
No one in the room that Tuesday was happy with Donald Trump’s presidency. But his success during the election could turn out to be an asset for those hoping to persuade skeptics that the conversation is still worth having.
“When people say reparations would be impossible, it’s easy to point to” the supposed impossibility of Trump’s getting elected, Duffy said. “Now, suddenly, a lot is on the table.”