Utopian Experiments: On Katherine Franke’s “Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition”

By Sabrina AlliJanuary 15, 2020

Utopian Experiments: On Katherine Franke’s “Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition”

Repair by Katherine Franke

IN JULY 2019, on a stage cluttered with nine other Democratic presidential candidates, Marianne Williamson broke with her normal jargon of cosmos to present a plan for reparations to black Americans. After translating 40 acres and a mule into a modern-day equivalent, she proposed between $200 billion and $500 billion for reparations programs, along with some “deep truth telling” in America. Her reference to “truth telling” likely refers to this nation’s deep and long history of racial inequality. The liberal media exploded with praise over Williamson’s rare and sobering policy talk in this moment. Though she will not be president in 2020, her call for reparations revealed a larger national conversation reignited by a variety of contributing factors, notwithstanding Donald Trump’s unabashed racism.

In June 2019, Congress held a hearing on reparations with testimony from activists and experts in support of a bill (HR 40) to establish a bipartisan commission to study and develop reparation proposals. The last Congressional hearing on reparations was in 2007 when former Representative John Conyers introduced the bill in the House to no avail. Twelve years later, with Representative Sheila Jackson Lee’s sponsorship, the bill got another chance. Ta-Nehisi Coates delivered a blistering speech, acknowledging an unresolved past, stating, “We recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as inheritance, and the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that: a dilemma of inheritance. It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery.” Meanwhile Mitch McConnell commented, “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea.”

The biggest challenges to establishing a modern reparations program has been the dilemma over who will receive them given how much time has passed since slavery’s abolition, how they will be funded, and whether or not they are “a good idea.” Proposals like Williamson’s may seem like a pipe dream, but she touches on why a discussion of reparations is still relevant and urgent today. The nation’s failure to deliver reparations to black Americans is more than a stain on the past. One hundred and fifty-six years after abolition, black people are incarcerated at a rate nearly six times that of whites, and in 2013 the median wealth of white households was 13 times greater than that of black households. Nothing in history is a coincidence, and these disparities, accruing over generations, are the result of structural racism and white supremacy that can be traced back to the institution of slavery in America.

If reparations were to be fulfilled, what should they look like today? Should they be a cash payout to individuals or something that benefits specific communities? And which communities? Columbia professor and feminist legal scholar Katherine Franke’s book Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Reparations proposes answers to these questions. Rather than engaging in an abstracted discussion on the moral exigencies of reparations, Franke provides a historical record in which reparations were almost made possible in the antebellum and postbellum South, and therefore not the subject of mere folklore. “Forty acres and a mule” was a watered-down promise never fulfilled because Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, chose to instead provide amnesty, by returning confiscated and abandoned plantation land, to the rebel Confederates — the losing side.

Franke recreates a narrative from archival research of two emancipated communities in the South during the Civil War. In both cases, white plantation owners fled because their land had been confiscated by Northern troops during the war. The enslaved people, newly freed from their masters, knew the land intimately and stayed to continue to farm or create other paths toward their own self-sufficiency. Franke refers to these freed communities as “utopian experiments in Black emancipation.” Northern generals overseeing the transition of plantation lands to freed people — specifically freed black men — understood that granting property ownership, a right bestowed exclusively to free white men, was at the heart of citizenship and therefore emancipation. Franke’s references to these emancipated communities as “experiments” and “utopian” suggest what could have been, but also an impossibility.

In Port Charles, part of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton assumed governorship in 1862. He supported plans to reallocate land to the newly freed population, and orchestrated a system in which freed people would have access to purchase designated land at lower market values. According to Franke, Northern whites were also looking to score big in the global cotton market. Empire building was in the works, and the benevolent whites wanted a committed, knowledgeable labor force. Quoting Saxton, Franke writes:

Their attachment to place is a marked trait in the negro character and in my humble opinion the enforcement of a law of this kind would be the means of establishing them in permanent homes, would secure the careful cultivation of the lands allotted to them, and consequently their own independence; and in addition would furnish a large supply of willing laborers, who could be hired to cultivate the purchased lands[.] 

Saxton’s plan arguably may not have been utopian or radical regarding the debt owed for slavery, but he did propose a plan “breaking up the old plantations that would serve as a model for the rest of the South.” He convinced Lincoln to instruct South Carolina tax commissioners

to put up for auction the 60,000-odd acres that they had reserved […] with the instructions that those who had resided on the land for the last six months or were currently cultivating the land had a preferred right to purchase up to forty acres of land at a price of one dollar and twenty-five cents per acre. 

The tax commissioners’ office, however, did not agree with Saxton or Lincoln and did not respect freed peoples’ land purchases and claims. Ultimately, the two land auctions resulted in majority purchases from Northern land sharks, ensnaring many freed people in a contract labor system. Once Johnson entered the presidency, he stole the land that freed people were able to purchase to provide amnesty to rebel Confederates.

In Davis Bend, Mississippi, Franke considers another “utopian experiment in Black emancipation.” Unlike Port Charles, the freed people of Davis Bend did not have to answer to any white overloads. They had more direct control because Northern troops didn’t have the capacity for oversight, and Admiral David Porter thought it best for the plantation to become an “independent Black colony.” Franke expresses awe over the self-governance achieved by this community. They had their own court system, the Freedmen’s Court, that she describes as “unique and remarkable.” This court system replicated white courtrooms except that they were free of whites. In Davis Bend, Franke sees a radical experiment in racial segregation and in the potential for freedom where black people self-govern contingent on being completely free of white people.

Reading Franke’s account of the past is important and exhilarating. In looking back at these radical, utopian experiments in American history, she places black people as central players in the Civil War, emancipation, and American empire. She refuses a reductive characterization in which black people are relegated to either the vanquished or the victors. This dichotomy reinforces a mythology that this nation relies on to refuse black people the same humanity as white people; the same mythology that refuses to acknowledge and imagine black people beyond slaves then and beyond a surplus population today. The freed people Franke writes about were farmers — women, children, and men. They were yoked, like all Americans, to a rapacious capitalist empire that exceptionalized the rights of property-owning white men. Their paths to a more complete freedom after emancipation were compromised by white supremacy. In Franke’s retelling of this past, black people are negotiating in complex ways their own paths to self-sufficiency and autonomy in the wake of a war that equipped them with nothing but the status of freedom.

Franke writes, “Crimes against humanity should not have a statute of limitations.” The lessons learned from Port Charles and Davis Bend are not just about the past possibilities of reparations that were once a reality, but about the possibilities to develop a plan for today, to finally redress what Franke refers to as “the failed, or incomplete abolition of slavery.” For 156 years after abolition, black people have not had equal access to property ownership — a wealth generator — and a basic human right — housing. Freedom is an abstraction if you don’t have the basic material conditions necessary to live. Franke writes:

As Dr. King’s Poor People’s campaign made clear a hundred years later, fighting only for a right to be equal under the law is a mere reform movement. Radical change must include a demand for the redistribution of resources. Most rights are meaningless if you are too poor to exercise them, so in important respects in the space between being freed and being free lies economic justice.

Franke proposes a reparations program that would give working-class black communities control over their housing through community land trusts, limited equity cooperatives, resident-owned communities, and community benefits agreements. In her view, property ownership is “the central right on which all others rest.” To imagine a solution that de-commodifies housing, giving rights to tenant owners rather than real estate developers, does not seem radical, ambitious, or impossible. It’s easy to think this is the right thing to do considering real estate’s well-documented racist history. It’s hard to say, though, if it’s the best thing to do. Collectivized land ownership has potential shortcomings. Regardless, Franke’s focus on property ownership and housing pushes beyond standard calls for affirmative action and education as wholesale solutions to racialized poverty in the United States.

Franke’s approach in how we will fund these reparations is compelling, calling on one generation to relinquish some of its inherited wealth. For Franke, baby boomers and their beneficiaries are easy targets because of the racial inequality of real estate from which baby boomers reaped the benefits. She cites an “estimated $59 trillion […] will be transferred from 93.6 million American estates from 2007 to 2061, in the greatest wealth transfer in US history,” and argues that the beneficiaries, her generation, “ought to renounce some of this racially tainted land and fortune and redirect this bounty to the cause of racial justice in our communities.” In short, this generation would pay for her proposed housing plan with money from estate taxes that would be transferred into a trust. In justifying this proposal she identifies the “white innocence” this nation has relied on to protect the privileges and gains of white people at the expense of black people. White innocence — white peoples’ denial of their privilege, and the distance they wish to take from former plantation owners — has foreclosed conversations about how we establish who owes what to whom for slavery’s damage.

A modest housing plan will not likely persuade Mitch McConnell, and others who don’t see the value in reparations, any more than Marianne Williamson’s $500 billion plan would. Their rejection has never managed to silence the perennial national conversation that some form of reparation is due. Whether or not Franke offers the best approach, especially compared to other plans, is worth a deeper investigation than this book provides. She acknowledges her housing plan would be a first step in a long process necessary to repair the damage caused by slavery. In spite of this, the implications of Repair are far reaching. First, Franke’s engagement with the archive challenges historical amnesia and ignorance. Reparations are not the topic of folklore. They are an unfulfilled promise that could have been actualized during Lincoln’s presidency if not prematurely terminated. The conversation on reparations has yet to be resolved. Second, Franke argues for a platform of economic justice where housing is a human right and at the heart of inequality. For Franke, housing means access to home ownership, which would establish protection from displacement and a “source of wealth creation.”

After reading Repair, one is left to believe that denial is at the core of this nation’s failure to deliver reparations. We selectively embrace some history and discard the rest; we’ll extoll the Founding Fathers but forget settler colonialism. Franke’s clear-eyed vision momentarily suspends the noise from political roadblocks. A collectivized land ownership program could be the beginning of completing the incomplete abolition of slavery. Property ownership was once foundational to reparations and “the utopian experiments” that Franke gloriously resurrects in Repair, so why not now? Isn’t it time black emancipation move beyond mere utopia?


Sabrina Alli is a writer, activist, and educator living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been published in The New Inquiry and Guernica.

LARB Contributor

Sabrina Alli is a writer, activist, and educator living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been published in The New Inquiry and Guernica.


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