I cannot remember how old I was the first time I heard “40 acres and a mule.” When experiences or expressions are so common in our lives, we often don’t remember ever not knowing them. My current memory tells me that I’ve know the phrase and what it meant for the vast majority of my reading life. But while I don’t remember when I first heard it, I do remember my mother explaining the significance and origins of the saying to me.
I guess, no, I know, that the conversation of reparations is one that I’ve been having since before I was old enough to understand what exactly America was supposed to be repairing. And my experience observing and cataloging, from an early age, the ways in which chattel slavery and all of the systems derived from it mandated this country to make amends to Black people in the only way that it understands, the transfer of assets, is not a unique one. Black people, even Black children, whether we are cognizant of it or not, and whether we have the intellectual capacity and resources to articulate it or not, are always involved in conversations about reparations. Some idea of the debt we are owed and an unequivocal understanding of the debtors is paramount to navigating our existence in this anti-Black world.
So while white and Black-but-white-aligned politicians, liberals and institutions believe that conversations about America paying restitution for its perpetual crimes against Black people as if it is a new topic, or as if Black people’s claim to payment as the capital in the American capitalism are negotiable, I’m tired of talking. Conversation without any clear and direct path to resolution is worthless. America collectively is stalling and pandering, pretending that the logistics are difficult to figure out or that there must be some consensus or that cash payments to the descendants of the enslaved Africans whose hands built America are unrealistic or that the debtors and not the Black people they owe are the appropriate deciders of what reparations looks like.
And there is no better exemplifier of just how America, specifically white liberal America which avoids indication in its complicity in and profiting from the prolific racism it purports to fight, is prepared to have fruitless conversation about reparations for as long as Black people can be lulled by it than Georgetown University. Three years ago, the university admitted that it exists today as a renowned educational institution because of the 1838 sale of 272 enslaved Africans. The sale was organized and sanctioned by “two of Georgetown’s early presidents, both Jesuit priests.” Prior to the sale, the school “relied on Jesuit plantations in Maryland to help finance its operations.” Plainly, Georgetown began, sustained itself as and remains an institution of slavery.
There is definitive, verifiable, archived evidence that the inflated $3.3 million the sale brought in saved the university from financial ruin and logically, closure. But for the irony of priests facilitating the morally reprehensible sale of human beings, the university not only would never have achieved the prominence it now does boasting graduates such as former President Bill Clinton, former SCOTUS Justice Antonin Scalia, the CEO of JP Morgan and a host of other capitalists groomed there, it would not be at all. Georgetown quite literally owes its existence directly to the institution of slavery.
Here there is no need for debate. A roll of each person sold exists along with the amount profited collectively and individually. Georgetown’s administration has fully admitted that the sale happened and that the profits went to pay off the school’s debts. The university has even issued an apology with a promise to atone.
And still, three full trips around the sun after the admission and verbal acceptance of responsibility, Georgetown has not remunerated the people of the people whose suffering and labor are responsible for their existence. Instead, it met the demands of a group of Black students by having students vote on a $27 per semester tuition increasewhich would go to the descendants of those sold in the sale. The students 58% vote in favor of the increase may be an optical win, perhaps an indication that a majority of the student body is willing to endure minimal sacrifice in the name of what is right, but it is no win when the university still has to mull over whether $27 is too much for nearly two century’s worth of principal and interest on Black bodies.
“With this strong indication from our students, I will engage key leaders in our Georgetown, Descendant, and Jesuit communities and our faculty, board, and student leadership to chart a path forward,” the university’s President’s statementreads. The statement concludes, “Through our work together, with members of our campus community, with Descendants, and with the Society of Jesus, may we find the moral imagination to respond in the best way in which we are capable.”
So then, why was the vote necessary? If Georgetown will only pay reparations and make any plan for those reparations as its administration and gatekeepers see fit, why mimic the American political process and pretend to give the people a say? Why pacify Black students with “engagement” that leads nowhere? What “moral imagination” is required to pay what you owe? When does Georgetown enter collaborative discussions and negotiations with the students, staff and Jesuits to decide whether it should pay its utilities bills or invoices for its office supplies or the salaries of its professors?
It is only when the conversation turns to the obligation to pay for its crimes of dealing in the flesh of Africans that votes, conversations and diplomacy become essential. Only when descendants of those sold are not satisfied with the legacy admission offered as pseudo indemnification – Never mind the fact that telling the descendants of people you sold to save your school that they may enroll and engage in the same capitalist, elitist, racist system that makes reparations necessary in the first place is not reparation! – and expect to be compensated with cash does the university see meetings to deepen “relationships, listen, and seek together a path forward towards reconciliation” fair payment.
America seems to believe that its acknowledgement of slavery and how it forged an economic empire from it is reparations. Black people are neither enriched nor redeemed by America conceding to what we already know. Reparation is only the transfer of the tangible assets and resources America hoards as a part of its legacy and afterlife of chattel slavery.
Conversations are for friends, or at least between parties with mutual intentions. Black people and America wholly but white America explicitly and especially ain’t never been friends. And we’ve been having conversations about collecting all 40 acres and our mules since Reconstruction. We don’t want to talk no more.
Cut the check.