Ta-Nehisi Coates was absolutely right to take chide Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for his ignorance of America’s actual heritage of collective moral responsibility. “We are American citizens and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach.” Reparations, Coates observed, are “a dilemma of inheritance.” McConnell’s evasive cop-out has the distinct odor of putrefaction in a Congress that has abandoned—whether from calculated cynicism or hopeless idealism—its traditional legislative function of representing the interests and welfare of all Americans, citizens and non-citizens. Congress has decided that they prefer to exercise the prerogatives of the executive and judiciary branches of government since Donald Trump has chosen to do to the American People (what Harvey Weinstein did to a myriad of young Hollywood starlets), simply going through the motions of playing President while enriching himself.
Mr. Coates may have been wise to focus on making an economic argument for the United States government owing reparation to the African-American constituency—though I doubt it. White Americans made a lot of money out of the chattel enslavement of blacks who were forcibly, cruelly and brutally dragged from their homelands across oceans. I don’t know why Mr. Coates references “250 years” as significant. Even if we accept 1865 as an official end of the practice in the United States, America has suffered from the institution of chattel slavery and its effects for 400 years. Chattel slavery began in America in 1619, when the Dutch brought twenty African slaves to Jamestown. (For the purpose of determining a dollar amount for reparations, economists can perhaps decide when the profits really began rolling in, if it matters,)
While I am not entirely comfortable with seeking moral guidance from Hallmark Hall of Fame movies, there is one such of which I am particularly fond. Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story is a powerful allegory about the entire history of Western chattel slavery that bears critically on this very question of reparations. In the Hallmark version, 391 years ago the first Jack Robinson climbs the beanstalk to Giantland, a place of harmony and riches, a paradise overflowing with all manner of good things. There Jack is befriended by a peaceful giant, wins the love of the giant’s adopted daughter (an orphan and not a giant), and repays his innocent host by stealing the goose that lays golden eggs and the harp which gets the goose in the mood. Jack escapes down the beanstalk, which he chops down, the giant is killed, and Jack lives happily ever after as a plutocrat. Unfortunately for Giantland, without the harp and the goose, which are the sources of their harmony and prosperity, their world withers: nothing will grow, starvation, no more spring, mass starvation, utter blight—you get the idea. Unfortunately for the Robinson lineague, the first Jack’s theft and murder triggers a curse: he and all his male descendants die before they reach age forty.
Fast forward 391 years: the current Jack Robinson is the head of a huge lucrative corporation, but he hasn’t a clue as to the source of his family’s wealth. The giant’s adopted daughter Ondine (time is different in Giantland: for every year in our time, only a single day passes there!) hunts down the current Jack to escort him back to Giantland where he is to stand trial for the crimes of his ancestor. Through a strange sequence of events, this Jack Robinson is brought to trial. When he makes the McConnell argument (“How can I be held responsible for something I didn’t do, when I wasn’t even born yet?”), the Giant Magog (“eldest and most wise”) says: “Surely, in your world, if you benefit from the crimes of your fathers, you inherit the obligation to right the wrong. If you do not, then who shall?”
Let me make a suggestion to Mr. Coates and all the advocates of paying reparations to African-Americans. Instead of paying reparations—writing all those checks and making all those electronic deposits—why don’t we simply exempt African Americans from the obligation to pay taxes for the next 400 years? Republicans are always excitable about eliminating taxes. They should really go for this.