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Reparations redux

Herb Boyd | 5/29/2014, 5:13 p.m.

A potential replay on reparations is gathering a bit of traction lately, thanks to the recent cover story in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates and the publication of a summary from a reparations conference at Chicago State University in The Nation. The conference was held by the Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW), and the organization’s director of communications, Don Rojas, summarized the conference in The Nation, amplifying many of the points argued by Coates.

There’s nothing new about the push for reparations, and both Coates and Rojas are wonderfully aware of the history and the obstacles the issue has encountered since it arose in the 19th century—though neither writer expends any attention on the pioneering efforts of Callie House and the Rev. Isaiah Dickerson, who established the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association of the United States in 1894. The work that House and Dickerson set in motion has been given a modern spin by the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, which was founded in 1987.

All of this offers further context for the discussion on reparations, and Coates’ and Rojas’ articles, along with the wide-ranging presentation of Sir Hilary Beckles at the conference in Chicago (which can be seen on YouTube and the IBW website) bring new energy to the time-worn subject. Rep. John Conyers of Detroit has taken the matter to the chambers of Congress and a fresh interpretation of the issue has arisen from Caricom through the insights of Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Renewing the discussion is vital, and veteran activists who attended the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 should be exhilarated to know that their demands are gaining resonance these many years later. At that U.N.- sponsored conference, the 400 delegates from the U.S. demanded that the international slave trade be condemned as a crime against humanity and that the victims be compensated for their enslavement. The first demand was honored, but, as is well-known, the second continues to be a struggle that will likely persist into the distant future.

The wait for reparations is almost akin to the wait for Godot. There was a slight hope for the issue with the election of Barack Obama, but the word “reparations” is apparently not part of his vocabulary. He’ll probably say “As-salaam-alaikum” before he utters the word “reparations.”

But the beat goes on—and so it must. As long as the struggle for reparations is carried from one generation to the next, there’s always the possibility that one day we’ll get the forces in power to apply a portion of it, and as the proponents have stressed, it isn’t about money so much as about how resources can be earmarked to deal with social, political and economic issues that continue to plague the African-American community.

Yes, the discussion is back on the agenda, as it was when professor Charles Ogletree tried to make it stick in Chicago a few years ago with the Tulsa Riot approach, but as Johnita Scott-Obadele said in her essay a few years ago, quoting James Baldwin, “I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least one can demand—and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general and American history in particular, for it testified to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”

And as Billie Holiday once sang: “The difficult I’ll do right now, the impossible will take a little while.”