RANDALL ROBINSON is an internationally respected advocate for human rights and democracy. In his latest book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (Dutton 2000) Robinson argues that slavery robbed an entire people of its history , its sense of place and belonging in the world
He believes that this historical identity crisis is at the heart of African American problems today. Part of what America owes to blacks, says Robinson, is to reopen that ugly chapter, to recognize that slavery’s effects are still very much at work, and to celebrate the history (including the rich pre-slave trade history) of one of America’s dominant peoples those of African descent.
Here Robinson explains the debt that he explores in great depth in his book.
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A MERICA OWES AFRICAN- AMERICANS A DEBT.
IT IS AN OLD DEBT. IT HAS LAIN AROUND IN EDGY DISREGARD FOR A CENTURY AND A HALF.
Long-term neglect of it has aggravated exponentially its original consequence, itself being staggering . Its compounded interest can be measured in the social disrepair of its contemporary victims: black youth who menace one another and society in general; black mothers, weary and solitary beneath the burden of bleak prospect; black fathers, shorn of manhood before becoming man-like.
These, the heirs of slavery’s destructive promise lag economically far behind whites as a group in American society. Almost no one, black or white, expects blacks to close this gap in the foreseeable future,
So small is any such expectation that the very question of it occurs only to a statistically insignificant number of people, black or white. About as motionless as China’s ancient terra cotta Qin Dynasty soldiers, the two groups have known since Jamestown of 1609 where to find each other on the American economic ladder, whites at the top, blacks at the bottom. We’ve all, in America, been pretty much left to figure out for ourselves why this static verticality is so. Whites, no doubt (even liberals privately) ascribe it to their innate superiority.
Most blacks attribute it to contemporary racial discrimination, although more than a few would harbor a lurking doubt or two about their relative worth. Some blacks have simply come to hate themselves. It is the price of long-term unexplained socio-economic bottomness.
Almost never discussed in America is the seminal cause of wha t long ago cleaved us into two unequal mutually hostile racial societies.
It is not that slavery is never discussed or publicly acknowledged, but simply that when slavery is discussed, its story is told to us as an academic recollection of a closed American chapter, as if the 246-year episode could be cordoned off in a blameless rubric of America’s sanitized version of itself.
Slavery was, and remains, America’s holocaust.
It lasted 20 times as long as the Nazi holocaust. It killed at least in times as many people. It extinguished on three continents and a necklace of vegetal isles a great people’s sustaining sense of selfhood. It eviscerated whole cultures: languages, religions, mores, ctistoms.
It plundered. It raped. It commodified human beings. It mercilessly crushed African social and economic institutions in order to capitalize its own (Such an example is Brown University, endowed by the Brown brothers who made their fortune building slave ships and investing in the slave trade).
It psychologically hulled empty its victims. It wrenched from them their history, their memory of what they had once meant to the world and to themselves, and replaced their estimable story of their people with another, alien and reproachful. All of this accomplished on a scale of human cruelty the world theretofore had never witnessed.
And when this monstrous institution finally drained of energy a mere 135 years ago, the United States government (which had for two and a half centuries hosted, facilitated, and materially benefited from the forced labors of millions of uncompensated human beings) would embrace for the next hundred years racial segregation and de jure racial discrimination, leaving a disproportionate number
of American descendants of slaves bottom-stuck in debilitating poverty.
And then, rubble stilled, dust settled, silence. Even as around the world restitution for less heinous crimes of shorter duration had been made to Koreans, Poles, Aborigines, First Canadians. Even as the United States government made restitution to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. Silence. Even as U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat labored to induce 16 German companies to compensate Jews used as slave laborers during the Nazi era. Silence.
Slaves had built the U.S. Capitol, casted and hoisted the statue of Freedom atop its dome, cleared the forest between the Capitol and irs co-symbol of American democracy, the White House. Silence.
Construction of the National Museum of the American Indian will begin soon on the National Mall. Plans have been laid to build near the mall a Japanese memorial park to commemorate Japanese American victims of World War II internment. Daily, Americans queue in long lines to enter the Jewish Holocaust Museum where the Nazi terror is remembered in wrenching detail.
But nowhere on the mall can anything be found — monument, memorial, or stone tablet —to commemorate the hundreds of millions of victims of the American holocaust! While urging other nations to publicly atone for past misdeeds, America schizophrenically has repressed its own.
The American government for hundreds of years played a major role in deconstructing Africa and millions of her issue, It abused them as beasts of burden and released them uncompensated into a racial environment certain to hold them fast in perpetuity to the economic bottom of American society.
It is now America’s turn to atone. To pay its debt. To materially compensate slavery’s living victims. And to commemorate in its public architecture those tortured souls who can no longer hear a simple apology.
INSIDE BORDERS Magazine
February 2000. (Pg. 13)
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