(I am taking a short break from my multi-part Minnesota story to share with you my thoughts on today's vote by the Senate regarding slavery)
Today the United States Senate, on the eve of Juneteenth, passed a resolution apologizing to African-Americans and descendants of slaves for slavery and Jim Crow segregation. The resolution now moves to the House, where it is likely to pass.
I think I am going to pass on this apology too.
Juneteenth, the largely invisible holiday celebrated by few outside of the black community, is a celebration of the actual end of slavery. Slavery ended in the United States on 19 June 1865 when the last blacks held in bondage, in Galveston, Texas, received word that they were free. On that day no man could call another man property. Unfortunately, abject poverty, degradation, wage slavery, and violent subjugation were to continue, with state sanction and complicity, for another century. And anyone that has been pulled over for driving while black, been called a nigger, or been denied employment or housing because of their race, knows that while physical lynchings may be over, spiritual lynchings continue without regard to who may be sleeping in the White House.
Though this resolution, passed 143 years and 364 days after the actual end of slavery, is long overdue, the rider on the resolution clearly stating that it does not in any way support or condone or authorize reparation payments to the descendants of slaves invalidates the sentiment and marks the difference between an apology and an amends. I am not interested in apologies. An apology acknowledges action without the assumption of responsibility or obligation to repair what was broken. An amends is the assumption of responsibility for the results of ones actions and doing the work necessary to repair what was done.
The words of a body that once stood firm against human rights for black folks and continues to stand in the way of the liberation of queer folks is worth about as much as my total worth. Roughly -$46,000 or so…depending on the current amount of interest I owe on my student loans.
It is beyond time for apologies. In 1988, Congress voted to pay the 60,000 survivors of Japanese internment camps $20,000 each to help ameliorate their pain and suffering. That, my friends, is an amends.
I am no fool. There is a very real reason why the Japanese received remuneration for four horrible years in concentration camps while black folks received nothing for 400 years of free labor and horrific abuse. The 1980s saw a meteoric rise in Japanese international cache. Japan was an economic powerhouse and American business wanted to do it doggie style with Japanese businesses, and $1.2 billion dollars was a small price to pay for the return on their investments.
Most people of African descent have no idea from whence they were stolen. And, even if we did know, there is no African economic powerhouse that American businesses want to exploit. The natural resources of Africa are in the hands and control of Western business interests. The only reason to pay substantial reparations to U.S. descendants of slaves would be justice. The business of the U.S. government is business and investing in justice, though it pays great moral dividends, rarely creates capital gains.
So, I say, respectfully, keep your apology. It is meaningless. The wealth of this nation does not exist separate from the hundreds of years of free labor that created it. For some, this is an abstract concept, for me it is a reality. The family that owned mine was the Nickels family of Greenbrier County, West Virginia.
My family still lives in the town where we were slaves. My Father went to school and grew up with the descendants of the family that owned us. The economic privileges of that family, a century after my great-great grandfather was freed, were still apparent.
Our family records date back to 1709, for more than a century the Nickels and others before them earned wealth on my grandparent’s backs. No apology will free their spirits. No apology will remove the wealth from those that exploited them and put it in their hands or in the hands of their descendants.
In America, we value the ability to pass on wealth from one generation to the next. Parents pass as much wealth to their children as possible in order that their children will need to work less than, perhaps, they did. My ancestors did not have that option. Their wealth, the fruit of their hands, and their labor was compelled from them and their products taken from them to benefit those that did nothing to earn it except be born with white skin.
Keep your apology. I don’t want it. But I will take a check, and one for my brothers and sisters, parents, and grandparents, and every other descendant of slaves in this nation, children of those that built this nation. It is our due. You have been drawing from our spiritual and labor account for too long. I am marking your apology NSF: Insufficient funds. You will be charged a penalty.