Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Reparations in Nova Scotia

Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates, the fraught notion of reparations for African Americans is being discussed again. As well it should be. Do read the article.

Here's his conclusion:

Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced.

An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.

The special strength of Coates' article is that he introduces us to living African Americans who have suffered measurable damage to their economic life chances, as well as to their security and human dignity. Reparations aren't only about the past injustices of slavery, debt peonage, and Jim Crow law; the discussion is also about individuals and communities disadvantaged by white supremacy today.

In the context of absorbing Coates' historical and ethical tour de force, it is both encouraging and daunting to learn that, just this month, some African-descended Nova Scotians have finally received official recognition and some recompense for terrible past abuses. Their story is moving:

They say they are no longer orphaned children cowering from sexual predators, or body blows of switches, fists and boards.

On Tuesday, they became “equal citizens,” taking a step away from the “second-class” sphere they had inhabited for so long.

There will be a public inquiry -- pointedly described as "non-prosecutorial" -- into what happened to poor black orphans lodged at the Nova Scoita Home for Colored Children between 1921 and 1989. The abuse survivors, perhaps as many as 100, will share in a $29 million fund created by the provincial government.

“Right now I feel a sense of relief,” said Harriet Johnson, one of the lead plaintiffs in the class action.

“I’m very happy that all of us, all my brothers and sisters that were suffering with me, we can now start to put this behind us,” Johnson said in an interview from her Ontario home.

“We can start healing.”

In a series of interviews with The Chronicle Herald two years ago, she said that as a teen ward she had been raped by a former home staffer and forced into prostitution in Halifax.

“We proved to the black community that this was happening,” said Johnson. (Most of the home was staffed by African-Nova Scotians.)

“You did turn a blind eye,” she said, referring to that community.

“We had to go through all of this for you to see what was really going on.”

Johnson said she looks forward to a public inquiry.

“That’s where everything’s going to come out and that’s where the home and the province can no longer say it didn’t happen.”

In an irony that Coates would undoubtedly appreciate, the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children was a black community project according to a short history published by Solidarity Halifax.

In response to the racism in this province, and as an act of independence and self-sufficiency, the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children was conceived, built, funded and run by the Black community for African Nova Scotian children in need of care.

In 1921, when the Home was built, White home care institutions would not accept Black children in need. As Charles Saunders, author of a history of the home notes, this was not a case of the Black community wanting to create an institution that was “separate but equal” to White institutions.

This was, rather, a case of  “separate or nothing.”

But something went terribly wrong in the "refuge" that white exclusion forced black Nova Scotians to build. Leading plaintiffs in the class action suit brought to an end by the settlement reported they were beaten, forced to fight each other, as well as being sexually abused. At this link, you can watch a video clip and experience the dignified delight with which formerly abused adults greeted the legal agreement with the province.

Even small gestures of delayed justice can help to heal individuals; reparations is about healing the community as a whole.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

The economic base of our family was an FHA loan to my father so we could buy a house, and the GI bill made it possible for him to finish college. I understand that the FHA loans were not available to African American veterans, and perhaps they could not get GI bill loans for education either.
And as Ta Nehishi Coates makes clear, discrimination was systemic. I knew lots of middle class blacks, growing up the the Bay Area, but I also knew life was always harder for them because they were discriminated against.

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