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Kunta's Compensation

By Kathy Y. Wilson · September 12th, 2002 · Your Negro Tour Guide
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Cut to Kunta Kinte, Alex Haley's distant relative and icon for a generation. Kunta is making his way down Wall Street. The street and sidewalk are jammed with dark-suited, money-gittin' men and women, all yapping into cellular appendages.

Kunta's loincloth is replaced by a pinstriped, charcoal, custom-tailored Ralph Lauren suit. A raw silk necktie hangs where once a slave catcher's rope snatched at his neck. His spear is a two-way cell phone, and his watch and wedding band are platinum.

Off the backs of his foreparents, this Kunta Kinte is an Ivy League-educated, elegant and insanely successful young millionaire who doesn't go back to the 'hood much anymore.

Cut to reality: Reparations are us. Making reparation means making amends for a wrong or injury.

Since postmodern Kunta Kintes abound, isn't that reparation enough? Never.

You know how we Negroes can be. We're always in search of that leveled-off playing field.

Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a 36-year-old former law student, found evidence during the course of research that Aetna's corporate predecessor "insured human slave owners against the loss of their human chattel." FleetBoston Financial and CSX Railroad were named with Aetna in a lawsuit filed in March on behalf of 35 million African Americans, with promises to produce 100 more "guilty" corporations.

The suit claims conspiracy, human-rights violations and unjust wealth from slavery but doesn't seek specific damages. According to CNN, it estimates that slaves performed upwards of $40 million in unpaid labor between 1790 and 1860. By today's standard, that labor comes in at $1.4 trillion.

Besides re-igniting the ever-smoldering conversation about race in America, the lawsuit comes with a promise, albeit unspoken -- that despite whether slave reparations become a cashable reality check, we all must reconsider American history, America's legacy of the payback and the manifestation of the postmodern reparation.

Reparations will make victimologists of some Negroes, apologists of others and race traitors of still more. At least the debate might, once and for all, settle the upset stomach of Negroes constantly demanding ideal weather conditions before they play. Meanwhile, all around us, other teams play on during thunderstorms.

Larger unanswered questions, however, might be whether white neglect is responsible for racial disparity and whether the involvement of whites can alter the conditions of blacks.

I don't trust the American process of righting wrongs. We all know this country has participated in the 'R' word. Without the benefit of heavy-handed debate, committees, reports or rallies, the U.S. paid off ancestors of Native Americans and Japanese Americans.

This makes me think slavery is different and that implied guilt is attached to slavery payback. As it should be.

While Japanese Americans were interned in camps, Negroes died segregated deaths in World War II. Those names don't even turn up during Black History Month.

Further, black illiteracy, low test scores, fatherless black households, black teen mothers and Northern black ghettos are all direct descendants of the Transatlantic slave trade. Male slaves were ripped from their families to reproduce and work. Left alone, black women learned sex as survival -- givin' it up to Massa' equaled a longer life, but making too many babies put Kizzy out of commission in his fields.

During the Great Migration, millions of Negroes arrived in urban centers fresh off farms, camps and plantations, yet they never stabilized. Uneducated and unskilled, they choked factories with cheap labor. Like spirits in the material world, slave DNA is smeared today all over cities like Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, New York City and Washington, D.C.

Reading for slaves was a life-and-death choice, so Negroes haven't been reading (or educated, en masse) as long as our white counterparts. There's a direct correlation between our legacy as slaves and our devaluation of education; we were taught not to learn, and it stuck.

Black and white Americans crouch today at the crossroads of a cliché. Opponents of slave reparations know Negroes have it good.

Supporters know it, too. To many, the fish-are-jumpin'-and-the-cotton-is-high status has everything to do with the mythic slave heroes who made the rows easier to hoe.

Reparations manifest in black men marrying and dating white women; black CEOs with seven-figure incomes; historically black colleges; Tiger, Venus and Serena; Condoleeza and Colin; Oprah, Michael and Magic; black panhandlers; black homeownership; black voters; Martin Luther King Jr. Day; Farrakhan, Sharpton and Jackson; and black talk radio.

I know what you're thinking. If you want FleetBoston Financial, CSX, Aetna and the others to cut a check, that list doesn't amount to a hill of black-eyed peas. And if you think paying reparations is the worst idea since the end of slavery, you're thinking Negroes need to get over it, once and for all. After all, you didn't own slaves, and I'm not a slave, right?

Don't be narrow. Truth is, Negroes do need to get over it -- the shameful, self-loathing, genocidal, sacrificial and unproductive legacy wrought by slavery.

America still eats off the meal that slaves prepared. It's food grown by slaves from dirt worked by slave hands. America is morbidly obese off that food.

Don't skip out. Pay the tab.

Kunta and his 10 million or so shipmates thank you in advance.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

 
 
 
 

 

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