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    1619: Beyond Reparations

    By Andrea Shorter–

    As a new school year has begun for most K–12, university undergrads and graduate students, American history lessons are likely to encompass, explore or at least acknowledge one of the major commemorative events of 2019 that has permeated nearly every social, economic, legal, and political pore of the American complexion.

    Earlier this year, we kicked off a universal commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the backbone event that spurred the latter 20th century’s gay liberation movement. Additionally, 2019 also marks the 50th Anniversary of the Woodstock Festival that brought over 500,000 young people during one of the most turbulent times in history—in the aftermath of the assassinations of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, and at the height of the Vietnam War—for a 3-day celebration of peace, love, and music.

    While there are certainly many other social, political, and cultural events of 50 years ago or earlier, or even later, to be commemorated alongside these transformative happenings, the event to which I am referencing occurred 400 years ago.

    It is recorded that in August 1619, the first West Africans were brought to North American shores to be enslaved. Thus began what is considered to be an original sin upon which American sovereignty was built. The slaughter of the continent’s indigenous peoples and seizure of their rightful lands is unequivocally the true original sin in the creation of a free nation of colonists seeking their own liberation from their oppressive native British homeland. Yet, the blood-soaked stains of slavery—the mere gut wrenching thought of it, the reckoning with its material and existential consequences—remain the longest quest for both material and existential exorcism from the American psyche.

    Four hundred years ago, no forefather or foremother of this nation—native born, immigrant, free by birthright, or enslaved—could have possibly foreseen the path towards the nation we have become today. No one could have imagined the deep and abiding implications beset by this common inheritance of the remnants of enslaving a race of people to build a free nation. No matter how and when we came to be members of this once new society, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, we are all bearers of the intrinsic social, economic, and political consequences of slavery.

    It’s been very interesting, if not just amusing, to witness how the reckoning with the vestiges of the vast enslavement of Africans seeps into the current campaigning for president by some candidates, and the embrace and call for reparations to descendants of slaves. Super extra-long-shot candidate and spiritual thought leader Marianne Williamson made her mark on the last primary debate stage by positing a well thought defense of, and formula for, reparations (to the tune of $500 billion, based on the compounded value and interests of the never delivered promise of 40 acres and a mule for freed families of four upon emancipation from slavery) for what she surmises is a long overdue “debt that is owed.”

    I do appreciate her and other advocates rather compelling rationale for reparations. She is correct: we do need a “deep truth telling” about race, and the giant gaping economic gap between black and white folks derived from the injustices of slavery.

    However, I am concerned that, while it is absolutely impossible to hold a constructive discussion about the merits of reparations, in monetary or other forms, divorced from the history and consequences of enslavement that rightful, well-intentioned discussion about reparations overshadows the depth and dimensions of the overall and fuller narrative about the history, journey, and vestiges of slavery upon this 400th year of the first slaves.

    This is not something that can be resolved through a singular material transaction. A singular material transaction will not absolve nor resolve the matter. In fact, it may never be fully or absolutely resolved with or without $500 billion.

    What can be done is to be more than just “woke” about the impacts of this cemented aspect of the American story. We can dedicate to learning and seeking a greater understanding about the deeper truths of how slavery and racism continue to build and shape how and why we relate to each other institutionally, culturally, and politically.

    To that end, The New York Times has unveiled “The 1619 Project.” It is an interactive project created by reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones that features storytelling, essays, poems, short fiction, and other commemorative presentations by various editors and collaborators, including the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

    As broadly noted by the project’s editors, “It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”

    As the academic year commences, it should be equally interesting to hear what students report about the history lessons exploring this 400th year of the start of slavery, and start of this nation. With The 1619 Project as a guide, I expect those reports to be quite enlightening.

    Andrea Shorter is a Commissioner and the former President of the historic San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. She is a longtime advocate for criminal and juvenile justice reform, voter rights and marriage equality. A Co-Founder of the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition, she was a 2009 David Bohnett LGBT Leadership Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.