What a sensitive subject the idea of reparations has become! Related to the transatlantic slave trade, making amends for imposing slavery is a concept that embroils class, race, and involves social, political, and economic issues across the board. Suddenly conversations become emotionally charged. People who reject the concept outright line themselves against those demanding repayment. The different approaches can be bitter and deep – and even among those who think reparations should be made — the “who, what, how, where and when” are just as adamantly considered.

Many questions fly back and forth — should reparations be tied exclusively to slavery in the Americas or to the effects of loss of population in Africa also? Do the “new” African émigrés count in the pool? Will there have to be a burden of proof and heritage as the US Bureau of Indian Affairs now requires for tribal membership? Does the designation then automatically qualify victimized people for reparation? If you or your family have successfully “made it” in America, should you be recompensed for past family contributions or could this serve as a “rain check” against potential future hard times?

Historically, attempts and pronouncements have been made to address the results of the transatlantic slave trade including the promise of “40 acres and a mule;” African debt relief; colonization of Sierra Leone and Liberia; and affirmative action, the US open door policy that was touted as a means to guarantee access and diversity.

Since 1989, Congressman John Conyers of Michigan has annually introduced HR 40, an act that would create a Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans. So far that bill has not been enacted. It is designed to do the following:

1. Acknowledge the fundamental injustice and inhumanity of slavery;

2. Establish a commission to study slavery, and its resulting racial and economic discrimination against freed slaves;

3. Study the impact of those forces on today’s living African Americans; and

4. After Commission study, to recommend appropriate Congressional remedies to address the harm inflicted on living African Americans.

None of these appears threatening unless taken seriously.

Learning from the past, we know this action of repairing damage done to the enslaved was taken seriously once before, immediately after the Civil War. The Reconstruction Period, which technically enacted no permanent reforms, might easily be the least known segment of US American history. Most people associate Reconstruction with carpetbaggers, the loss of the good old days of “Gone with the Wind,” or the efforts at healing a divided nation as its major features. What is little known are the tremendous strides that freed slaves made for themselves and the transformation of this nation during that short time – definition of citizenship, voting rights, public education, land grant colleges, legal representation, establishment of Black businesses and the Freedman’s Bureau, just to name a few. It happened so quickly, and in turn was challenged and destroyed so easily, that it was as if the 25 years following the Civil War never happened. In the official story, this country went right to “the Redemption,” the resurrection of White superiority and the legal stripping away of all rights for African Americans.

Generally among people of African descent, there are three responses to current consideration of reparations – 1) it will never happen; 2) I’m/we’re owed; 3) repatriation and/or investment should be made in Africa to take skills/resources acquired in the Diaspora back to the “Motherland.”

The guiding principle and motivation for reparations is literally “to repair.” Reparations cannot be applied across the board and cannot be infinite or indefinite. Ultimately reparations would not be equal or fair; that is a given. Could they be applied for a generation (25 years)? Some suggest that in making reparations, the assistance should be one “in-kind primary service” per person – for example, housing, education, employment, or health care – that each person needing assistance would select.

There is no way to compensate for generations of slavery and discrimination, but modeled after the World War II GI Bill, reparations could empower a majority of African Americans to move into the middle class, just as special programs have for White Americans for generations. It would be the jump start that African Americans earned for their families’ service without pay or recompense prior to 1865. Cash money would not be involved, but in-kind service is actually a concept this nation does really well. We could view it simply as years of credit finally being repaid; not a gift, but a mediated collection of debt, an inheritance finally settled.