America's Moral Debt to African Americans

By Bunch, Lonnie,, III | Journal of Pan African Studies, August 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

America's Moral Debt to African Americans


Bunch, Lonnie,, III, Journal of Pan African Studies


Lonnie G. Bunch III is the founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture (http://nmaahc.si.edu). Previously he served as the president of the Chicago Historical Society, the associate director for curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, an education specialist with the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, and a curator of history for the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. He holds a master's and bachelor's degrees from American University in Washington, D.C. In 2005, Bunch was named one of the 100 most influential museum professionals of the 20th century by the American Association of Museums.

As a historian, I know slavery has left a deep scar on America. The reasons are many. I have found wisdom in the words of Cornelius Holmes, a former slave, interviewed in 1939, a man who saw brutality and separation of families. Holmes shared the dreams and melodies before freedom and then witnessed the reality of freedom.

One reason for my current retrospection is the fine essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the June issue of the Atlantic arguing that reparations are deserved and long overdue. He has gathered an amazing array of facts about racism, economics, violence and the role of the U.S. government, implicit and explicit. With pinpoint clarity, Coates has focused a scholarly light that shines into all the dark corners of this shameful chapter in our history.

The debate over reparations--a payment for slavery, segregation and unequal lives--has a beginning, but it seems no end. Our forefathers spoke of the promise of 40 acres and a mule. Our leaders cried out, few as eloquently as Rev. Martin L. King, Jr. more than 50 years ago: "Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check--a check that has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation."

While the conversation with scholars and ordinary citizens often centers on financial payment, I'm emphasizing that the moral debt is more important. While fairness would dictate that the descendants of the Tulsa Riots of 1921 to see the goal of their reparations campaign be finalized with some remunerations. Yet the moral debate is equally owed.

The current discussion of reparations has made me consider how relevant the question remains, given the success and prosperity of the 21st Century. Honestly, we are still grappling with one of the unsolved issues that started the day a handful of Africans stepped onto the shores of Jamestown in 1619. How can America repay those bent backs and calloused hands for their slave labor, and satisfy the descendants that all the chatteled years have value? …

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