The Case for Reparations


The latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly  just went live, and the feature story by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a monster. It’s about making the moral case for reparations, but it expands the conversation surrounding this topic in two ways. The first way it does this is by pointing out, in vivid detail, the way that the exploitation and mistreatment of blacks in the US is an inextricable part of our history and that it continues to this present day. The second way is by redefining just what reparations would require from us as a nation.

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans….

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

Go read the whole thing. It’s worth your time.

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →