Time to Pay the Price for Slavery

The brutality of 12 Years a Slave is a reminder that America's debt remains unpaid and largely overlooked.

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Still of 12 Years a Slave (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

(The Root) -- The film 12 Years a Slave is a virtuosic and unrelenting depiction of pre-Civil War American slavery as seen through the eyes of a free black man lured into human trafficking at best, and damnation at the very least. To some, it's one superlative art form -- Solomon Northup's literary masterpiece of the same name -- masterfully molded into director Steve McQueen's most superior cinematic feat to date. Hopefully for others it's all of the above, as well as a glaring reminder that America hasn't levied proper reparations for the brutality it legalized and sustained for generations. 

Knowing that scenes from the film were purged of their viciousness in order to meet motion picture guidelines, one can only imagine what slaves around the globe endured. The recent New York Times article "Caribbean Nations to Seek Reparations, Putting Price on Damage of Slavery" poses the oft-cited dilemma in seeking reparations: Is it possible for a nation to put a value on centuries of human desecration, mass murder, kidnapping, rape and forced servitude? And if these island nations believe historical wrongs have resulted in modern-day inequities for which reparations are due, why hasn't America -- a purported beacon of democracy and equality -- offered ancestors of African-American slaves any redress?

How can a country compensate for denying an entire race its human liberties and decencies? And what should be given to the descendants of those souls who were ferried across their very own River Acheron to a life -- if it can be called such -- in the underworld that would make Dante's Inferno seem like a holiday sojourn?

For centuries, black men and women could be bought and sold. Today the question remains: What's a crushed spirit worth? And shall it be multiplied if that one lost soul then begat a generation and more of the same? Could 40 acres and a mule ever serve as proper penance for the untold millions of Africans who died during the transatlantic slave trade, their bodies left to litter the ocean floor? What does one pay another for lives shaped by an antebellum South that led 19th-century social observer Edward King to conclude in 1875 (pdf) that "as a social factor he [the negro] is intended to be as purely zero as the brute at the other end of his plowline"?

As 14 Caribbean nations seek an apology and reparations for "lasting damage" from slavery at the hands of former colonial powers Britain, France and the Netherlands, one can only wonder if theirs is a flight of fancy. Historically, seeking material benefits has been a futile effort. But if Britain already paid reparations to slaveholders in the early 19th century and not the slaves, what's one more payout? And if Israel and West Germany agreed on a financial settlement in 1952 over cruelties committed during the Holocaust, why can't blacks worldwide seek the same?

While slavery is largely outlawed the world over, the lasting insults, implications and limitations persist. And while the actual tallying of losses remains a difficult task, it's a necessary step in mending wounds that have been left wide open for too long. America, take heed: If man cannot mature without repenting for his misdeeds and having faith in the evidence of things not seen, a nation cannot fully prosper by ignoring its past sins simply because the width and depth seem too daunting to scale. Choose another means of measurement. But to deny the previously damned amends is to cut off your nose to spite your face.

The stains from slavery -- the notion that one group is beholden to another based solely in the prejudicial mindset of the majority -- remain in both modern-day America and the Caribbean. History is not linear. It's very much cyclical, and so to ensure that the haunts of yesteryear do not repeat themselves, a society must confront its history even if it's painful and ongoing. And while some say slavery was born solely out of economic necessity, perhaps financial atonement would serve as a reminder that if you profit from others' subjugation, your descendants may very well have to pay for the evils of their fathers.

Granted, you cannot pay the dead, nor levy fines on the progeny of slaveholders, even if they continue to benefit from their families' past deeds. But America, and other nations, could curtail wasteful government spending and redistribute those funds for those who have been put at unfair advantage simply because their hair is kinky and their noses wide.

African Americans have contributed greatly to their respective communities, from serving in a segregated military to helping to shape our nation's political ideals. America is great for what she isn't: divisive, bigoted and unremarkable. Further, our nation is only as strong as the weakest among us. To embolden a wronged group that has suffered on the perimeter of our nation for centuries, unwelcome and loathed by many, is a priceless gesture that strengthens the whole.  

In 1970, venerated author Ralph Ellison wrote, in the now classic essay "What America Would Be Like Without Blacks," that "materially, psychologically and culturally, part of the nation's [America's] heritage is Negro American, and whatever it becomes will be shaped in part by the Negro's presence. Which is fortunate, for today it is the black American who puts pressure upon the nation to live up to its ideals."