Kelley Speaks About Reparations

8 February 2002

By Stentor Danielson
Managing Editor

Professor of History and Africana Studies at New York University, Robin D. G. Kelley, spoke about reparations for black Americans in Love Auditorium yesterday. His talk, titled "A Day of Reckoning: Black Dreams of Reparations," was this year’s W.E.B. and Shirley DuBois Lecture.

Kelley said that he was especially happy to be giving the DuBois lecture because the topic of reparations is "in the spirit of DuBois," as well as the theme of this year’s Black History Month. Associate Professor of History Pete Banner-Haley said that, after being injured in a car accident, Kelley canceled all of his speaking appointments for this year except yesterday’s lecture.

Reparations should not be about paying individuals, Kelley said. Instead, the reparations movement should be about creating a social movement to transform society. He said he would talk not about the specifics of any of the many plans for reparations that have been offered, but rather about "the historical vision that has animated this movement for reparations."

"A successful reparations campaign has the potential of benefiting the entire nation," Kelley said. "The white working class suffered from slavery" and racial segregation in the form of depressed wages. Because the reparations movement would transform society and correct the problems of the capitalist system, "anyone who’s a working person for Enron should support reparations."

"I liked how he was applying it to all people -- it was a step forward to uniting communities," sophomore Bev Villegas said.

Kelley used music at several points during his lecture. He opened with a 1964 tune by Oscar Brown Jr., who sang "Ain’t nobody paid for slavery yet -- when do I get my goddamned 40 acres and a mule?"

Later, Kelley played Abbie Lincoln’s 1961 song "Retribution." "Let the retribution match the contribution," Kelley explained. "This is a very simple story."

The theme of reparations as a social movement seemed to make the biggest impact on those in attendance.

"I've always thought about it as a handout to individual people. I never thought about it as a public program," first-year Michael Barragan said.

Kelley said that America’s wealth was built on labor, but laborers, including slaves and lower class people of all races, have not received the benefits. Junior Kaleb Berhane said, "when he showed how black people were paying taxes for white schools, I was like, 'Wow.'"

The reparations movement gained steam after World War II, when black leaders could cite the example of the $58 million paid by Germany to Holocaust victims. More recently, reparations have been paid for the internment of Japanese Americans during the second World War and settlements of land and money for native Alaskans, Kelley said.

Much of the lecture was spent in describing the development of the reparations movement from demands for back wages for slaves following the Civil War through pension petitions at the turn of the century up to the present-day reparations movement.

"One of the tragedies of the discussion of reparations is the idea that it came out of nowhere," Kelley said.

Kelley quoted from a letter sent by a former slave named Jordan to his former master, Col. P.H. Anderson, when Anderson offered to hire Jordan after the Civil War. Jordan demanded that Anderson pay him for the years he labored as a slave. "Just imagine what that means for a slave to write his master and basically ask for his back wages," Kelley said.

"The point is not 'I'm taking a collection. All you white people give me my reparations,'" Kelley said. Instead, reparations should be about "the larger question -- how to reconstruct society."

Kelley spoke at length about the 1969 Black Manifesto, which he called the first fully articulated plan for reparations. It asked for $500 million -- a small sum, according to Kelley -- from white Christian churches (and later synagogues). This money was not to be handed out to individual blacks. Rather, it was to be used as seed money for a new social movement that would strengthen black communities, buy land and education.

According to Kelley, many reparations proposals call for the creation of a black nation based on more equitable principles.

"You know this dream from the Bible. It’s Exodus," Kelly said. The story of Exodus is "not just about leaving, but about creating a new land."

"I thought he did a good job of answering the kind of questions we get in our classes -- of not seeing your personal group responsible," Assistant Professor of Anthropology Paula Davis said.

Kelley’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Office of the President, the Dean of the Faculty, the Center for Ethics and World Societies, the Divisions of University Studies, Humanities and Social Sciences, CORE Cultures, the Peace Studies Program, the ALANA Cultural Center, the departments of English, Geography, Interdisciplinary Writing, Philosophy and Religion, Art and Art History, Education, History, Sociology and Anthropology and Political Science.

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