Why me? Why this? Why now? The words below attempt to answer these questions. I invite your reactions. The question that is not answered is “What is the Ride for Reparations?” A sufficiently detailed answer to that question is incomplete at this time. I look forward generating that answer with your collaboration.
I am a black man who lives in white America. I am well educated, a master’s degree. I have never been unemployed and had decent jobs until I retired a few years ago.
I have never had an untoward experience with the police. Yet, until recently, I walked through stores with hands in pockets, to avoid being accused of shoplifting.
I see myself as calm, even tempered, and in control. Others seem to agree.
While that’s all true, it’s also true that, for as long as I can remember, I have been, and still am, moved by acts of heroism and/or a group acting in solidarity against an overpowering foe (and winning).I also wept silently in a group of neighbors as we watched election returns in November 2008.
Until recently I thought little about these characteristics. They are just part of what makes me who I am. Today, I think I have a better understanding of how I came to be who I am.
The understanding came in “chunks”. The first chunk happened in the spring/summer of 2018 and 2019 when two unrelated things happened:
One, in the spring of 2018, I rode in the MS150, a bike ride/fundraiser to fight Multiple Sclerosis.
The other, in the spring of 2019 was reading the Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book We Were Eight Years In Power, a compilation of essays he had written for The Atlantic magazine. In his 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations,” Mr. Coates makes a well-researched case that enslaved Africans were invaluable to the American, not just the southern, economy. “In 1860,” he writes, “slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together.”
Then Coates walks the reader through the 150-ish years since the end of the Civil War, including:
the 13th amendment to the Constitution which banned slavery except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted leaving open the door for southern white supremacists to invent crimes in order to convict blacks of trifling offences; think loitering, spitting, or not being adequately deferential to a white person.
The Reconstruction Era in which formerly enslaved people had, and used, the opportunity to vote, hold elected office, build businesses, etc.
The end of Reconstruction (which was enforced by Federal troops) loosing the white supremacists’ rage and allowed them to impose poll taxes, literacy tests, and, when those failed, murder and lynching to keep blacks “in their place”.
Private institutions, state, local, and federal government were officially complicit in the continuing oppression of black Americans. [(Think banks and the Federal Housing Authority red lining; think restrictive covenants, prohibiting the sale of property to blacks (and other undesirables) in certain neighborhoods; and think Social Security excluding farm workers (large numbers of whom were black.)]Excerpted from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years n Power
The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 respectively addressed many of these issues.
But recent voter suppression laws and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act has once again unleashed the dogs of white supremacy, paring back the rights of blacks to participate in the democratic process.
Also relevant is the reading and digesting of the August 18, 2019, edition of The New York Times Magazine, The 1619 Project, entirely dedicated to acknowledging the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans being brought to and sold in the Virginia Colony.
So, having ridden in a fund raising event to fight MS and subsequently having been moved by several readings detailing the ancient and current abuse (mistreatment) of blacks in America, I chose to marry the two and create an event that would pay homage to the long deceased, enslaved people who made America the great country it is today and to raise money to ameliorate the second class status blacks still have in America today. I call it Ride4Reparations.
The project moved along briskly from the fall into the winter of 2019. I talked to several people. All of them listened attentively. Some were encouraging, some skeptical. The administrative work – registration as a corporation with the state and the IRS, and the application (and granting) of 501c3 non-profit status – went quickly.
When I conceived of this organization, I imagined “people of good will” coming together to support black people and atone for a 400 year abusive relationship. Describing more completely the conversation that is the Ride, it became clear that it would not be “all sunshine and flowers.” A successful Ride would attract not only people who are sympathetic to the idea of reparations and those who want to learn about why they are important, but also those who think reparations are unimportant and impractical, and those who oppose giving blacks a fair shake.
A truly beneficial conversation about reparations could get quite heated, potentially arousing strong, unpleasant, emotions, on all sides (as there may be more than two). The idea of participating in, let alone organizing such a heated conversation scared me to the point of inaction. I avoided even starting to write this iteration for over two months. During that time, as I looked inward to understand what was stopping me from doing this thing that I told myself and others I wanted to do and that I thought was important, things began to percolate into my awareness.
The first to show up was rage, rage that scared me, though I never believed I would do anything irresponsible. Today I am aware that the even tempered person I described at the beginning of this missive was a guy who had suppressed his anger so effectively that he was unaware that it was there.
Then came conflict avoidance the short term for what I described two paragraphs above; I have never hit anyone in anger, never been in a fight, and rarely argue or even disagree with anyone. I seem to always find a way to see their point of view, or at least say that I do. Agreeing with someone avoids the friction that could become a conflict.
My brother, Johnnie, my cousin, Niles, and I had gone to a bar in Schenectady, N.Y. where we lived. We were in our early 20s. It was common knowledge that my brother was dating a white woman. Four white bar patrons overheard us talking. They must have known my brother and his car. As we were driving home the car lost its brakes. The brake line had been cut. The perpetrators had followed us and when Johnnie managed to stop the car, they pulled up behind us.
Per Niles’ telling, he and Johnnie went after them. There were four and when they wouldn’t get out of their car Johnnie “tried to recreate birth” by tugging at one of them through a partially open window. I, per Niles, tried to be rational and seek a better way of resolving the issue than beating up the perps. Apparently, all seven of us ended up at a police station where our dad met us. No arrests were made.
I am aware that one way to manage past traumatic incidents is to block them from memory, to suppress (repress?) them. Obviously that’s what happened here.
Another race related incident occurred in Holland, MI, where I was attending Hope College. Today this would be called a micro aggression.
Walking alone, probably returning to campus, I encountered two white guys about my same age. I don’t think I was punched, probably just deliberately bumped, shoulder to shoulder as they called me a nigger. I didn’t respond but kept walking, crossed the street and when I was out of their sight, around a building, began to cry uncontrollably. I was not physically injured. I’m satisfied that I was upset that I didn’t do more to “stick up for myself” and had let them get away with the insult.
In the preceding paragraphs, I hope to have explained both what moved me to “invent” Ride for Reparations, addressing the debt America still owes to enslaved people and the continuing subjugation their descendants still endure, and why it has taken so long to begin writing an exposition of what I expect the Ride to be.