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Reparations and why America’s past still shapes the present

A House subcommittee held hearings Wednesday morning to discuss paying reparations to African Americans for slavery. The idea is shaping up to be an issue with some of the candidates running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, too. Novelist Sarah Blake has considered why past attempts to secure reparations failed, and she shares her humble opinion on why this time is different.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier in the program, a congressional subcommittee held hearings on legislation that would pay reparations for slavery.

    The purpose of the hearing was to examine — quote — "the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, its continuing impact on the community and the path to restorative justice."

    Sarah Blake is a novelist who's been thinking about reparations and why past attempts have failed.

    In her Humble Opinion, this time is different.

  • Sarah Blake:

    How long is now?

    This question, graffitied high above my head on a blank wall near my apartment in Berlin, greeted me daily years ago. Anonymous and existential, the phrase captured the spirit of that city.

    But I have been thinking about it more and more lately, trying to make sense of what feels like a historical moment here, a moment when this country appears to be acknowledging a through line between our past and our present in a way I have never seen.

    I have spent the past eight years writing a multi-generational family novel that tries to understand why, as William Faulkner wrote and President Obama reminded us, the past isn't dead; it isn't even past.

    And I began to see how family memory is made of half-truths that become false myth, which echoes how this country's memory works as well, its history passed down as an open secret, half-told.

    The myth? Slavery is over. The past is past. The truth? Its consequences live on, ensuring that who we are and who we were have always been twin faces in our country's mirror, a mirror African-Americans have held up to the country for years, but a mirror which the collective white imagination has avoided, until now.

    Stories of voter suppression in Georgia, law enforcement unable to restrain white supremacy in Charlottesville, blackface in yearbooks.

    If you are looking for social justice, the system is broken, or maybe broken open for all, at last, to see.

    The serious, extensive discussion of reparations, from college campuses to presidential candidates, and the national reckoning with our public monuments suggests the white imagination is beginning to see beyond the veil we hung between then and now.

    Seeing that our collective racial past is and always has been present in our institutions. It never stopped, no matter what we told ourselves. How long, indeed, is now?

    If we agree that policy change is only possible when collective imaginations shift, then it is fitting that the talk of reparations now recalls the enormous shift asked of the country's imagination during Reconstruction.

    And the questions asked 150 years ago, who are we and who do we want to be as a country, are questions we are asking again.

    But what if, this time, we look at the truth in the mirror, and break now from then, making a truer now, one that doesn't forget the past, but confronts, acknowledges, reconstructs and so, we can hope, repairs?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Novelist Sarah Blake.

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