When I was 11 years old, I stole my friend Chris’ basketball cards. I remember how old I was because this was ahead of the 1996 Olympics, held right here in Atlanta. The cards were of members of the Dream Team II, the American men’s basketball team that was stacked with superstars. They weren’t as famous or as good as the original Dream Team, but they had my favorite player, Shaquille O’Neal. Chris was at my house playing one afternoon, and when he went in the other room, I moved the cards for Shaq and Alonzo Mourning and Reggie Miller from his box into mine, without his noticing.
As I was preparing this sermon, I was thinking about Chris, and I decided that reaching out to him and apologizing was something I could do to repair a wrong in my own life. I decided I was going to send him a Facebook friend request and a Facebook message. It felt like a weird thing to do…but that’s never stopped me before. I planned to apologize to him and to ask if he wanted the cards back. It was utter anguish to even think about reaching out. I thought to myself, “what if he gets angry? What if it only makes him feel worse? What am I going to do if he wants the cards back, because I don’t know where they are now….”
This small experience was, for me, a microcosm of the difficulty of discussing and implementing slavery reparations in our country. It was so emotionally taxing, it made me so nervous to even think about writing that message. When I extrapolate that out to an entire national conversation about reparations it feels impossible. Even beginning with a conversation among a group of like-minded people on this topic feels fraught with tension and anxiety.
We recently celebrated Martin Luther King Day, and February is Black History Month, so there’s no better time to face that challenge directly. The best way to honor history is to work for a more just and equitable future.
The complexity of the question of guilt and reparations for slavery is evidenced in an editorial by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the New York Times. Many of you may remember him as the African-American Harvard professor who was arrested by the Cambridge police for trying to break into his own home after he forgot his keys. He is also host of the PBS show Finding Your Roots. His op-ed highlighted how historians estimate 90% of the slaves in Africa sold to European traders had been enslaved by Africans. He writes: “…slavery was a business, highly organized and lucrative for both European buyers and African sellers alike.” This was part of the reason Frederick Douglass and others opposed repatriation for African-Americans. African leaders have actually done more to acknowledge their countries’ roles in slavery than most Black OR White Americans; in 1999, the President of Benin, Mathieu Kerekou, dropped to his knees in front of an African-American congregation in Baltimore and begged their forgiveness for the “shameful” and “abominable” role Africans played in the slave trade. Other African leaders including Jerry Rawlings of Ghana followed his example. Gates credits much of our evolving understanding of the slave trade to Emory University historian David Eltis and his creation of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade Database, located at slavevoyages.org. I think it’s fair to ask what African nations might owe to African-Americans as reparations for their role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. But, as a White American of European descent, it’s probably not my role to dictate the answer.
A much more fruitful question for us as Americans to explore comes from looking at the overall slave trade numbers found in this database and others. The United States (and the colonies that were to become the United States) accounted for less than 3% of the overall Trans-Atlantic slave trade. How is it that we struggle with the legacies of slavery to a much greater degree than countries that traded many times more slaves? Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and France all accounted for far higher numbers of slaves being traded. It’s hard to compare racism between countries. But reported hate crimes in the US increased by 17% last year, the third consecutive year of such increases. Our President in 2017 said of a rally of murderous white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA where Heather Heyer was killed that it featured “good people.” It’s safe to say that the US accounts for more than 3% of the world’s anti-Black racism. In order to begin to properly make reparations, to begin to heal our nation’s broken and battered soul, we need to know why that is. Why have the leaders of African nations expressed more contrition than American leaders for their nations’ roles in the enslavement of African-Americans?
The short answer is that anti-Blackness was codified and systematized in the United States from before we began as a nation. One specific example of this is the fact that we changed our inheritance laws for the specific purpose of preserving a white supremacist hierarchy. You may remember Bree Newsome as the “artist and free black woman” who removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse in 2015. Newsome described the process of changing inheritance laws in colonial America in a series of tweets last year, writing:
“Chattel slavery was constructed around laws that legalized the raping of Black women and the selling of their children. Rape of BW was so pervasive that the prevalence of “mixed race” children posed a threat to white supremacy & the slave system. Were the children of white fathers and enslaved Black mothers slave or free? English law had traditionally held that children inherited status & titles from their fathers. This custom was specifically changed in America to accommodate the growth of slavery.”
Newsome is describing a 1662 Virginia Slave Law that made it so children born of enslaved mothers inherited their mothers’ slave status, regardless of if the father was a slave or, as was often the case, a free, white slave-owner. The law stated “Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or free, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother…”
This is what we mean when we talk about “intersectionality.” The legacy of slavery in America has been determined not only by laws targeting slaves of African ancestry, but by those targeting slave women of African ancestry in particular. If we focus only on the ethnic aspect of slavery’s legacy in America, we do not get as full a picture as if we account for exploitation based on sex, also. Bree Newsome brings a forceful analysis because she is writing not just as a Black person or as a woman, but as a Black woman.
Colonial laws like this were how chattel slavery, slavery where a person is owned forever, and their children and their children’s children are owned forever, became inextricably woven into the fabric of American history. And, lest we categorize codification of racial discrimination as a colonial artifact, let’s not forget that redlining was not outlawed until 51 years ago. Writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in a 2014 piece for the Atlantic:
“…it was the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, not a private trade association, that pioneered the practice of redlining, selectively granting loans and insisting that any property it insured be covered by a restrictive covenant—a clause in the deed forbidding the sale of the property to anyone other than whites. Millions of dollars flowed from tax coffers into segregated white neighborhoods…Redlining was not officially outlawed until 1968, by the Fair Housing Act. By then the damage was done—and reports of redlining by banks have continued.”
If you want to see the effects of redlining in Atlanta, just Google “redlining map Atlanta” and you can see the areas of our city designated as having different desirability ratings.
Why dwell on this in a sermon about reparations? Well, the reparations debate is picking up again this year, and we cannot be good faith participants or partners in this debate without a proper historical context. 2020 Presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker unveiled a plan last October that would give “baby bonds” to all children in America, bonds which children would accumulate in inverse proportion to their family’s wealth; the less wealth your family has, the more bonds you get between birth and age 18. A 2018 study by Naomi Zewde of the Center for Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University found that such a policy would decrease the racial wealth gap between Black and White young adult Americans by a factor of over ten times. Whether or not one thinks it is fair for the government to create a policy that has a disproportionately positive impact on Black young adults as it does on White ones probably depends on whether or not you are aware that the current wealth gap is a product of our laws as well, over the course of nearly four centuries. That is the case in the United States. Many countries engaged in the slave trade between 1500 and 1800, as I mentioned. Great Britain outlawed the international slave trade in 1807, and the United States followed suit the year after. Unlike in other nations, however, the US continued to have a booming domestic slave trade, due in large part to its chattel slavery laws.
It’s important to remember our country’s racial history not just because it’s Black History Month, but because examining that shameful history holds a powerful spiritual lesson for all of us. I was raised as a Unitarian Universalist. As such, I was taught that I was defined as a person not by the conditions I was born into, but by my actions and my decisions and how I lived my life. None of us chose to be born into a country with a barbaric and exploitative racial history. I’m fairly certain no one in this room who is an immigrant came here because of an affinity for the Slave Laws of the Virginia Colony. But we each get to make a choice, every day, about how we are going to confront that reality. And as Unitarian Universalists, our choices and our actions determine who we are, not the conditions we were born into. Our theological forebears taught the world that damnation or salvation were not pre-ordained at birth, and that in fact eternal damnation was not anyone’s fate. Instead, they affirmed we are all bound for a common destination; that we are co-creators in the building of that destination, not passive inheritors. None of us was born bad or evil because of the color of our skin or the policies of our nation. But neither are we free to ignore the moral obligations that come with them. We are called to continually act for justice and equity.
If you’re not sure what that looks like, my advice is to start small. Focus locally, on the lessons you teach your family, the politics you advocate for, and the voices you make room for in your life. Follow Bree Newsome or Ava Duvernay on Twitter and ask yourself why they are saying what they are saying, especially if you disagree. Seek out writings and media produced by people who do not share your social identities. Have conversations about race without the primary question in your mind being “how do I avoid making White people uncomfortable.” Work up from there and keep challenging yourself as you go. None of us is a bad person because of the situation we were born into, but we have to do everything we can in this life to make things more just and equitable.
I heard back from my friend Chris who I stole the basketball cards from. He laughed it off and I was very relieved. I found out that he now struggles with drug addiction. We chose to re-create our previous bond so that we could repair it, at least a little. There’s no choice about confronting the bonds of racism in America, we are here regardless.
I am asking for your help in the work of racial justice not on behalf of African Americans, or Indigenous Americans, or any of the many other groups who have been systematically harmed and exploited by the laws and policies of the United States. I’m asking for myself. Please. I need your help. Please join me in the work of racial justice. I can’t not do this. This is the work of a lifetime for me. Heather Heyer, the young woman killed at the rally in Charlottesville, she and I were born five days apart. It could very easily have been me that day in Virginia. Don’t do this work because it’s a nice thing to do, do it because your salvation and mine depend on its success. None of us were the ones to make discriminatory laws in 1662, but we can’t ignore their effects on our world today. As a minister, a person of conscience, someone aware of our country’s history, I support reparations for slavery. I hope that you will join me, because I love you, and I cannot do this work alone.
May it be so, and may we be the ones to make it so.
Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation
February 3, 2019
© Rev. Jonathan Rogers