A few years ago I hired a couple of guys, Joe and Jerry, to move some office furniture and files from Watertown, Massachusetts to Dover, New Hampshire. Joe, the driver of their truck, was Black, while Jerry was White, or is it white. They followed my car.
Shortly after crossing the state line, Jerry called to say there was a problem: the New Hampshire cops were pulling the truck over, directing them off I-95 onto a side road. The call ended when I heard a voice in the background say “You’ll need to hang up that phone. Now!”
Naturally I wondered what I had gotten into. Was the truck stolen? Am I going to get my stuff back?
By the time I got to an exit and doubled back, the area was ablaze with blue flashing lights. I pulled over, got out, walked toward the truck, and was stopped by a New Hampshire state trooper. I explained that it was my stuff in the truck, that I needed to know what was going on.
They claimed that it was a non-functioning brake light. However, 1) upon testing, both brake lights were working, and 2) Joe had not been using the brakes while driving in a straight line down an Interstate highway.
It was clear to everyone that the real charge was Driving Into New Hampshire While Black, showing one reason why you find so few people of color in the Granite State. Anyone passing the scene would have assumed that a Black guy had been caught with a truckload of drugs. That of course was the impression the cops intended to make. This around 2015.
After the George Floyd murder, “Black Lives Matter” signs had sprouted in front yards around New Hampshire. I suspect that none of those yards belonged to a cop.
I am a white, or White, male.
I say that while at the same time recalling an episode of Henry Louis Gates’s excellent show Finding Your Roots, where his guest, none other than blond and pale Richard Branson, is shown that he is partly Black. Sooo… who the hell knows? It’s entirely likely that there are Blacks in my ancestry. Slaves perhaps.
How can one get their head around American slavery? Theft of human beings, transporting them across the Atlantic in conditions so bad that many died… Ownership of people. Sale of those human beings. Casually ripping families apart when mother and father were sold to different plantation owners.
Someone is guilty of a crime of unimaginable proportions.
Is it me?
Well, let’s start with that small but likely percentage of me that is Black. Presumably that part of me, if it exists, is off the hook.
That leaves the rest of me. My paternal grandparents immigrated from Germany in the 1890s, so they had nothing to do with American slavery. And my mother came from a long line of New England abolitionist Methodist clergy, one of whom was an activist with a major role in the fight against the Fugitive Slave Act. So not most of Mom’s side either.
But I’ll hold off on the not guilty plea for a bit. A character in a story I’m writing is a properly abolitionist 1850’s Boston Brahmin who took a break from protesting the arrest of fugitive slave Anthony Burns to tend to his shipping company’s paperwork. Part of that company’s cargo was – you guessed it – stolen Africans.
The hypocritical abolitionist slave shipper might also have been an ancestor of mine.
So who bears the guilt?
How about everyone in mankind’s collective ancestry who found it acceptable to enslave people. Abdulazizi Lodhi, Emeritus Professor of Swahili and African Linguistics at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, notes that slavery was part of different African cultures "When it came to exports, tribal Africans themselves were the main actors...”
But it’s not just Africa. Slavery could be found all over the world.
The study of world history tends to focus on kings and nations and wars, because the ugly fact of ongoing atrocities such as slavery is that they simply weren’t all that eventful. Just, you know, business as usual. Grab a bunch of human beings, keeping in mind that half of them will die in transport so you need to consider that in pricing the survivors in order to keep your profit margins at the level you find acceptable. Hey, it’s just business, nothing eventful to write about there.
Having said all this, I am told that as a white or White person, especially as a White or white male, I am guilty and must pay reparations. If I’m woke I will enthusiastically support that notion. And as a white or White person, especially a male, I am not entitled to an opinion about it.
I have an opinion about it. The opinion is: no reparations. And I will express that opinion.
I guess I’m not woke. Which is fine with me.
But then who is guilty? Who should pay those reparations?
Does anyone have a realistic clue about an answer to that?
In The Case For Reparations, a well written 2014 article in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a strong case for reparations. The only question he doesn’t really answer is: who should pay? If it’s the United States Treasury, then Black Americans would be among those paying. If you polled those same Black Americans with the question “Shall we raise your taxes in order to pay you reparations?” the whole idea would be dissed away pretty quickly.
Should we seek out white/White racists to pay? Well, to make a sweeping generalization backed only by some obviousness, those are not exactly the ones with the deep pockets, y’know?
Anyway, dwelling on recriminations for one’s wounds is a sure way to ensure an unhealthy and unproductive frame of mind. One must find a way to move on.
Consider the groups that were victimized by genocide: what must it be like for people whose family members died at the hands of their neighbors. They live among the perpetrators, seeing them every day in the community, finding a way to stay focused on today’s needs rather than the ugly past.
As Buddy Hackett notes, “I've had a few arguments with people, but I never carry a grudge. You know why? While you're carrying a grudge, they're out dancing.”
American racists just love to hear about reparations for slavery. It’s perfect fuel for expletive-laden rants in cheap bars and police union halls. Gives them a cause and a sense of vindication. They’d dance about it if they knew how to dance. Do we really want to give racists an occasion for a celebratory dance?
Barack Obama understood that the reparations cause was doomed. Much better to redirect that energy and attention to eliminate the remnants of slavery from today’s world – and to ensure that it never comes back.
Having said all that, I did find I needed to apologize to Joe the truck driver for the transgressions of my race. In accepting my apology and brushing off the incident, Joe was much more gracious than he needed to be. He explained that this sort of thing happens to him all the time, especially when police are involved.
If I were Joe I would have been fuming. As a shining example for me and for anyone else, Joe is right up there with Buddy Hackett.