Time to pay reparations and replace the National Anthem

Time to pay reparations and replace the National Anthem

By Ellen Ratner   
A slave market in Atlanta in 1824. (George N. Barnard/Library of Congress [Public domain])

NEW YORK — I was asked over the weekend if I approved of monetary reparations for descendants of slaves. Yes, this liberal does — and I am not the only one.

The New York Times had an article on Saturday about Georgetown University students making a recommendation to the trustees for increasing tuition so that the money could be used to offset costs for families of former slaves. The students are setting this up themselves, and that is what I love about the younger folks now; they take activism into their own hands. The article was titled ”Students vote to support reparations.”

It seems as if the Jesuits who founded Georgetown University were cash-strapped in 1838 and sold their slaves to keep Georgetown alive.

From the records, it looks like they sold 272 slaves, and now the students voted to charge $27.20 per semester in a tuition fund that would go toward health care and education for the descendants of those former slave families.

I don’t understand why this is such a big deal. We approve of reparations paid for descendants of Holocaust victims. In fact, much of Holocaust victims’ found artwork is being repatriated to their descendants even if the artwork is currently in a museum and is worth a ton of money. It belonged to their family members, and now it belongs to their descendants.

What is the difference between families of the slaves and descendants of families killed or imprisoned by the Nazis? Perhaps a hundred years or more, but as President Obama once said, you can’t erase racism on the cheap — meaning we could elect a black president, but that would not eliminate racism.

What the reparations fight can teach us is that we do a have a long way to go.

Whitney Houston sang the first verse of the Star Spangled Banner — but African Americans have had some difficulties with the later verses of the song, and they should.

New York Times editorial writer Brent Staples wrote a piece in 2018 about the anthem. He says “that many of American blacks had abandoned the national anthem once they were old enough to grasp what Martin Luther King Jr. meant what he said that the country had defaulted on the promises embodied in the Declaration of Independence, and had written people of color a bad check that had come back stamped ‘insufficient funds.’ ”

He goes on to write, “It was an everyday occurrence to see groups of African Americans (and whites as well) occasionally even athletes and cheerleaders — remaining defiantly seated at sporting events as the audience rose dutifully to its feet for ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ ” Staples continues, “W.E.B. Du Bois termed ‘double consciousness’ the feeling of being part of the American Polity yet not fully of it.”

It turns out that Francis Scott Key was a slave owner. The song may seem innocuous enough — until one considers that it tightened its grip on the country during the height of the lynching eras in the South and became popular at baseball games where African Americans players were barred and that the song was referred to in the black press as the “Caucasian National Anthem.”

Then there was the discovery of the third verse, which says, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave for the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”

It may be time to think about not only reparations but also redoing some of what many of us whites have been taught to treasure, our national anthem. Interviewing classmates from our class (1969), it was shocking to find out that although our small city of Shaker Heights in Ohio had promoted integration, some of the teachers hid the college catalogs from some of the African American students. That, even taking place 50 years ago, also is shocking.

Reparations need to be made, and not just in monetary ways; it is time we look at our entire culture: the way we speak to each other, the songs we sing and opportunities in education for all. It is horrifying what we are learning about what rich parents have done to get their kids into good colleges.

We need to have a conversation as well as making real changes in our society about what we need to change. That might mean changing our national anthem; it might mean a way to pay reparations; it might mean making sure that college admissions are fairer; and it might mean making opportunities available to all, including people who don’t have the resources or even those who were brought to this country without knowing where they were going (Dreamers).

It is time that we opened ourselves to the reality that we are truly multicultural and multi-racial society — and that makes us stronger, not weaker.

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