Reparations Starts With Recovering History

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[Black History: Commentary]

February is always an emotional month for me.

I find myself in tears more times than I care to admit as I watch a variety of programs aired in honor of Black History Month.

Seeing the stories of living and historical figures, what they were forced to endure, how the weight of bigotry crushed some, while many overcame and prospered, is an emotional and educational experience that many Americans have been cheated out of. I always find myself hoping that the television ratings for these shows will rival those of American Idol, or CBS’ Big Brother. Of course, that’s just wishful thinking.

I imagine the impact that shows such as African American Lives, the documentary by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. would have on a generation of Black youth that seems to be trying to find itself. Gates and his researchers use genealogical research and DNA analysis to trace the history of a few well known African Americans such as Oprah Winfrey, comedian Chris Rock, radio show personality Tom Joyner and neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, to name a few.

Watching these celebrities as Gates revealed information he had uncovered regarding the hardships, adversities and triumphs of their ancestors tells you all you need to know about the power of knowing your family history. Almost all of the celebrities found themselves in tears as their history was revealed to them for the first time. In some cases, Gates was even able to trace celebrities’ roots back to the African tribe of their descendants.
The personal history of Gates’ subjects touched me in a place so deep that I was hardly able to control my tears. I wondered if some of my white friends and co-workers would have understood my reaction. Many of them can easily recite their paternal and maternal family history, including the country and town of origin on both sides. I wondered if they understand the sense of self that knowing your genealogy gives a person, or do they take it for granted.

I was having a conversation about the power of some of the shows being aired during Black History Month with a close friend of mine. He was also affected by the stories, old and new, that were being aired. It was during this conversation that my friend made one of those comments that stop you in your tracks. “There’s been lots of talk about reparations for Black people. If you want to give me anything, give me my history back. Help me find out where I’m from”, he said.

It’s been said that he who controls history, controls the future. African Americans are a unique people in that unlike slaves that were transported to the Caribbean, slave owners in the U.S. went out of their way to ensure that they didn’t purchase multiple slaves from the same ethnic groups or individuals who spoke the same language. They didn’t want the slaves to have the ability to plot against them.

Due to the expense of importing slaves to the United States, U.S. slave owners also invested in pre-natal care to protect their investments. Many born into slavery were raised thinking that their slave owners were their parents—and some were. The result of these two practices is the birth of the African American. By removing the ability of the slaves to verbally transmit their history and culture, the slave owners stole their slaves past, which enabled them to control their futures.

I want my history back. When American history is being recounted, I want an accurate, historical reflection of African American’s contributions to the growth and success of America. I want to know where I came from. When my white friends speak of their German or Irish ancestry, I want to be able to talk about the region of Africa that my ancestors are from.

Thanks to the work of my older brother, I do know that I am part Irish. I’m even curious about those Irish roots. If I ever met members of my Irish ancestors, would I see some of myself in them? Since many African Americans have some European ancestry in their bloodline, imagine what the knowledge of their past would do for race relations? Imagine African Americans and European Americans finding commonality in their ancestry.

This is a particularly important time in history to consider reparations in the form of genealogical and historical research. African Americans that participated in the civil rights movements are now senior citizens.

When they pass on, many stories about our past go will with them. While their sacrifices have enabled their children to have unprecedented access into the middle-class (at 46, I am among them), I believe that subsequent generations have lost touch with their history.

I am concerned that our children see the struggles of the civil rights movement as ancient history, no different than George Washington and the Declaration of Independence. I am afraid that when my parent’s generation is gone, so goes the annual return to the south to gather with family and hear the stories of generations past. One of the reasons it’s so easy for some young Black men to express disdain for their brothers and sisters through their music, is their lack of connection to their past.

While I understand the desire and argument for reparations to compensate African Americans for slave labor, I’m not sure that’s a fight worth fighting. America has not yet taken accountability for the horrors of slavery. Think back to what you were taught about slavery in school. It was and continues to be a “watered-down” version of the truth. The history we were taught in school was designed to maintain a sense of national pride, while hesitantly admitting to past “misjudgments”. 

Other arguments I see for reparations for slave labor are, how do you decide who and how much a descendant should get? How does America deal with the inevitable white outrage that would follow? An already deep separation between the races would only deepen.

My solution is that we establish federally funded genealogical/historical research centers at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Members of the African American community can access these centers, free of charge, to assist them in recovering their family history. By setting aside a fund and hiring researchers to assist African Americans in tracing their ancestry, America creates an opportunity to heal old wounds.

I believe that knowing the trials and sacrifices of one’s ancestors would create an increased sense of belonging, thus also creating better citizens. Uncovering one’s roots to Africa and/or Europe could help see the world not through the eyes of a minority, but through the eyes of a people who have contributed and continue to make important contributions to society. The data gathered will also go a long way to correct the historical record as it pertains to slavery, as well as the African American’s contribution to American history.

Pay African Americans the reparations of returning our history and all of America will receive the dividends.


Black Star News columnist Stephens can be reached via [email protected]

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