Reparations to African Americans

July 6, 2014 § 1 Comment

I feel that one of the first steps we take in the New Lamb’s War should be to champion black reparations.

In its Fall Sessions in November 2013, New York Yearly Meeting approved an Apology to Afro-Descendants, which I have discussed in an earlier post. Now, in its June issue, The Atlantic has published “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. On page 61, the article mentions that Friends historically have supported the idea of reparations to African Americans:

“A heavy account lies against us as a civil society for oppressions committed against people who did not injure us,” wrote the Quaker John Woolman in 1769, “and that if the particular case of many individuals were fairly stated, it would appear that there was considerable due to them.”

As the historian Roy E. Finkenbine has documented, at the dawn of this country, black reparations were actively considered and often effected. Quakers in New York, New England, and Baltimore went so far as to make “membership contingent upon compensating one’s former slaves.” In 1782, the Quaker Robert Pleasants emancipated his 78 slaves, granted them 350 acres, and later built a school on their property and provided for their education. “The doing of this justice to the injured Africans,” wrote Pleasants, “would be an acceptable offering to him who ‘Rules in the kingdom of men.’”

As I describe in my earlier post, way opened to approval of the Apology in New York Yearly Meeting with some force applied to the hinges, what with some slamming and wrenching, though the frame seems undamaged. Some Friends exited out the door when it seemed it would not go forward. Not all Friends walked through that door in the end.

I approved the Apology in principle, though I wasn’t happy with its wording. Unlike the words of Robert Pleasants, and like many of our witness testimonies, it could have been written by almost any socially conscious secular community; it never mentions God and never presents a religious argument, only a generally moral one. It never mentions sin, repentance, or forgiveness; that’s not my natural language, either, but I do believe in sin, and these particular sins are grievous and have real victims, so now I feel we should ask for forgiveness, and also ask forgiveness for not asking for forgiveness.

Still, the Yearly Meeting has held to its commitment to continue laboring over the issue, and there is still opportunity to recover the “Religious” in the Religious Society of Friends in the matter. The Yearly Meeting has been collectively considering a series of queries drafted by its Ministry Coordinating Committee and some Friends are still actively working on further next steps.

There was talk at the time about reparations. I would not be surprised if the Yearly Meeting moved on to considering collective support of black reparations, at least in principle. I haven’t finished the Atlantic article yet, but its arguments so far are truly compelling to me. Just the lead-in on the front cover of the magazine is compelling (see below). And now we have no less a Quaker prophet than John Woolman urging us on.

And then there’s Jesus. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Debt, sin as debt, redemption as release from debt, these lie at the very center of the gospel of the Christ. In his inaugural statement of his ministry in Luke chapter four, Jesus defined his role as the Christ, the Messiah, as the one who would set free the slaves and bring relief to the poor. 

Jesus walked farther than any previous Hebrew prophet in this path, but it was already well-worn. Coates starts his article by quoting Deuteronomy 15, which is the covenantal foundation for dealing with debt and debt slavery in Torah, along with Leviticus 25; for Israel had been a debt slave nation itself and had been redeemed by its God at the Passover and in the Exodus. This is why so many African American spirituals, like “Samson and Delilah” and “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” tell stories of liberation from Hebrew Scripture; under the surface, they are anthems of release from slavery.

Insofar as Quakers follow Jesus, we must bend especially lithely toward economic justice and be extra mindful of our tradition’s stand against slavery—and never mind Paul.

Here’s the cover text of The Atlantic:

250 years of slavery.

90 years of Jim Crow.

60 years of separate but equal.

35 years of state-sanctioned redlining.

Until we reckon with the compounding moral debts of our ancestors,

America will never be whole.

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§ One Response to Reparations to African Americans

  • Thank you, Steven, for sharing all this with us, and for keeping Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” in the discussion. It is heartening that Coates’ quotes Woolman. I agree that Quakers and others owe reparations to African Americans.

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