“[Black Americans] have been taught to labor…They have been taught Christian civilization and to speak the noble English language instead of some African Gibberish. The account is square with the ex-slaves”.
- Chicago Tribune Editorial, 1891 taken from Ta- Nehisi Coates essay, “The Case for Reparations”
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on [it’s] promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring [her] sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
- Dr. Martin Luther King, from “I Have A Dream”
“There are some things I just can’t tell you about, honey. There are some things I just can’t tell you about.”
- Matana Roberts, from her album COIN COIN Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile
THERE ARE SOME THINGS I just can’t tell you about. I can’t tell you who my grandfather’s father was. I can’t tell you how my black ancestors ended up on the tropical island of Jamaica (I can guess that it was in the belly of a slave galley, but then again, I can’t be sure). I won’t be able to talk of the emotional weight I carry with me every day about New York, Cleveland and Ferguson.
I can never claim to occupy some distant position on issues of race and justice in America, and, I would argue, neither can you. As an educated black man, I occupy a very specific subject position. From this position, I am intimately familiar with the issue about which I’m going to speak.
I do not write this hoping to make you feel comfortable. If you’re able to read this and feel comfortable, whether you are black, white, or something entirely different, I feel as though I have not done what I have set out to do in writing this in the first place.
Recently, friends and family have been asking me to tell them what I think about the events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere. Here’s a sample of questions I’ve been getting:
- “I watched the interview with Officer Wilson. What more could he have done?”
- “Did the police really leave Brown’s body in the street for four hours? Wouldn’t that be illegal?”
- Why are people rioting when it’s clear that Brown brought this on himself by attacking a police officer?”
I try to avoid answering these questions. Asking questions is good, but these questions are fundamentally flawed. They are evidence that the asker simply doesn’t understand what’s going on.
What’s happening in Ferguson isn’t about Michael Brown per se.
I don’t mean to say Michael Brown’s death doesn’t matter. It does. A human being was alive and is now dead; this should grieve us all. What I mean is that this isn’t solely about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. Anyone who wants to treat what happened in Ferguson as an isolated incident is, frankly, deluding themselves.
All the anger you see in the streets comes from a place that is much deeper, much more expansive than a single incident on a single day in the particular town of Ferguson, Missouri. What’s happening in the streets is about all the things I cannot tell you; the words I cannot say.
Ferguson, Cleveland, New York — these are just the latest moments in a long history of state-sponsored racial violence. This isn’t just a reference to 250 years of state-sanctioned free labor on the backs of enslaved Africans. I’m also not just talking about the 50 or so years of State-sanctioned terrorism perpetrated on black communities in both the North and the South through the noose and the torch.
The American state was supposedly founded on, as Dr. King said, the “unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but its systematic pillaging and plundering of the black community has left it in debt. That debt was inherited from America’s European ancestors and to this day remains unpaid. It has been handed down from one generation to the other, since this country was founded, inherited over and over again. It is a debt that goes back generations, dripping in the red andwould take the lifetime of a nation resolve.
Much is said about inherited privilege in this country. Not enough is said about inherited debt. It’s an apt metaphor when considering North America’s struggle over race and racism, because so often our conversations on race are focused on fault, and history: slavery ended generations ago, right? Why should today’s government pay for the sins of those made generations past? Whenever I hear this it’s hard for me to know where to start. No one is saying that it’s anyone’s individual fault that this debt has been incurred. But just like the wealth that has been passed down generationally, so too has the debt. Debt is not absolved with death. When parents die, debts don’t disappear; children become responsible for those debts whether they incurred them or not.
This debt is the backstory of every single protest we see today, of the rage each black person who has ever been profiled, or beat, feels every day. The debt owed to black people has been outstanding for far too long. But this isn’t about a blank check. It’s about, as Ta-Nehisi Coates argues, acknowledgement that we don’t live in a post-racial society just because we have a biracial president.
We’ve all inherited, as Americans, a civic responsibility for this debt, regardless of political party, ethnicity or class. We’ve all inherited the paradox of the Founding Father’s ownership of slaves, just as we have inherited our representative system of government. It’s therefore our responsibility to deal with our national debt, and figure out how this can be repaired. We must all become, in a sense, debt collectors; we must call the house phone of the state and incessantly leave messages on the answering machine until the debt is resolved.
What we should be focusing on in Ferguson is not the details of the grand jury’s decision. Rather, what we should be talking about is the fact that what happened to Michael Brown does matter to a lot of people of all races, shapes and sizes, whether you think it should or not. It matters so much that these people are willing to be arrested, put their bodies in front of burning cars, police trucks, and tear gas, to make their point.
There are generational wounds that were open and bleeding before the death of Michael Brown. These wounds continue to bleed. Indicting Darren Wilson would not have staunched the flow. To heal this wound in the collective American psyche — to take responsibility for its provenance, and what each one of us can and must do to resolve it — should be the utmost priority of this country, its leaders, and its citizenry.
Justin Campbell is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, CA. He is the winner of the 2013 Hurston/Wright Award for African-American Writers.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This essay owes its existence to a constellation of influences. I am deeply indebted in particular to “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and “A Product of This Town” by J. Malcolm Garcia.