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.

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.”

Whether those Caribbean nations prevail in their civil lawsuit is of only some consequence. What is paramount is that other nations affected by slavery continue to push for reparations owed.

Kim Lute is a Peabody and duPont Award-winning journalist formerly at CNN. She is a patient-rights advocate and writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She blogs for the Huffington Post and is currently at work on her first nonfiction book.