On Reparations, the Question Isn’t If, but When and How

Zenobia Jeffries Warfield for YES! Magazine | 6/23/2019, 8:53 a.m.
For nearly 250 years, enslaved Africans and their descendants toiled on the land and in the homes of white enslavers ...
Ta-Nehisi Coates YouTube/House Judiciary Committee Hearings

For nearly 250 years, enslaved Africans and their descendants toiled on the land and in the homes of white enslavers in the United States.

They planted, fed, weeded, mowed, and harvested crops that were not theirs; cared for and fed children they did not birth; and cleaned homes and tended lands they did not own.

We’re all familiar with this uncomfortable but sanitized image of U.S. slavery.

The harsh reality is that too many of the more than 300,000 African men, women, and children who were brought to this land for the sole purpose of providing free labor—and their children and their children’s children, and so on—were brutalized and terrorized to continue the cycle for centuries to come.

It’s estimated that over 4 million Africans and their descendants free-labored under the legal institution of slavery—and not just in the South, but also in the North, East, and West.

Having no agency over their own bodies or minds—not to mention not owning land or having property—they were property. Many lived in the most inhumane conditions. They were beaten, raped, starved, and in some cases worked to death—literally. They were forced to breed children to increase the numbers of the enslaved. Their children were often stolen from them and sold away. Furthering the torment, many of the women were forced to nurse their enslavers’ children, care for them, tend to them, raise them.

It is that 250 years of “sun-up to sun-down” menial free labor that this country was built upon. It is the 200-plus years of free labor that is the foundation of this country’s wealth and the capitalist system that has prospered globally, exploiting us all.

And it didn’t end there.

If slavery is the foundation, then Black Codes and Jim Crow laws that followed emancipation are the walls; housing discrimination and redlining the roof, and mass incarceration the windows of the house America built.

A house that is starting to crumble.

This year we observe the 400th anniversary of the first captive Africans brought to what is now the United States of America, and this month we observe Juneteenth, the celebration of freedom for all U.S. enslaved Black people.

But we will also observe another monumental moment in U.S. history.

On June 19, Juneteenth, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will hold a slavery reparations hearing. It is the first of its kind in decades. And the first time ever the issue has garnered as much attention and support, including a declaration from the United Nations. The purpose of the hearing is “to examine, through open and constructive discourse, the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, its continuing impact on the community and the path to restorative justice.”

While the topic of reparations has made its way to the forefront of mainstream discourse, this hearing is the result of centuries of work. The push for reparations did not just come into being with current presidential candidates purporting their support of some kind of reparations. It didn’t just come about as a reaction to the divisive leadership of Donald Trump. And it didn’t come into being, as some have reported, with the excellent reporting of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 piece in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.”