Gazing at a map of the United States in her elementary school classroom, Kirsten Mullen was trying to answer a seemingly simple question: where are my ancestors from? Mullen, a folklorist and the founder of Artefactual, an arts-consulting practice, and Carolina Circuit Writers, thinks back to this moment and asks why “no one was talking about why I can’t place where I’m from?”
At the end of the lesson, her teacher asked the class to bring in a family crest. She sent the students home with instructions to ask family members for a story about which countries their ancestors immigrated from. Today, Mullen finds the assignment laughable — the notion that the disparate threads of American history can be so neatly woven into a family crest for every student is rooted in something she calls dismemory, “the systematic organized campaign of reordering and spreading misrepresentations of our joint history” — an assessment shared by her partner and co-author William A. Darity Jr., Samuel DuBois Cook Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at Duke University.
The humor Mullen and Darity find in this story from Mullen’s childhood is underwritten by a deep understanding of the historical blindspots this anecdote suggests. Why didn’t the curriculum account for the possibility of a fractured family tree in some students’ households? Should she have given voice to her misgivings about the feasibility of the assignment? Mullen noted how, at the time, “there’s no one confirming for you that there is a lot wrong with this picture.”
Together, Mullen and Darity have co-authored From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-first Century, a comprehensive, stirring, transformational book which not only confirms just how much is wrong with our American picture, but traces our bloody, unequal American history towards a robust reparations program which would begin to right those historic wrongs.
Why write this book?
For Mullen and Darity, From Here To Equality needed to be written in order for people to understand the need for Black reparations. Mullen and Darity initially balked at the scope of what they did not know about slavery as an institution, social mechanism and generational determiner.
“The impression we had gotten from literature about the 40 acres was that 40,000 black people were settled on 400,000 acres of land. But when we went back and looked at topography and specifics, it was actually 5.3 million acres that was assigned, and it was supposed to be the beginning of an allocation to all 4 million enslaved people,” Darity told us.
This kind of miseducation, he said, has a lot to do with why the reparations movement isn’t as well-known or widely supported as it should be. The vacuum of knowledge they experienced, and experienced by others, motivated them to write the book.
Remnants of the extraordinarily profitable U.S slave economy can be found everywhere we look, including our sites of higher education — responsible for teaching our country’s history. Mullen and Darity write, “America’s greatest universities also were connected closely to slavery and the slave trade.” Without the strength of the slave trade and the slave economy, universities like Harvard, the College of New Jersey, Rutgers University, and many others would not have the caliber of resources and prestige they enjoy today.
Many universities “employed” slave labor and bought and sold within the slave trade. Mullen and Darity write, “In 1838, Georgetown University avoided bankruptcy by selling 272 persons owned by the Jesuit priests who were seeking to secure the institution’s survival.” In April 2019, Georgetown students voted to add $54.50 to their annual fees, intended to go into a tuition fund for descendants of enslaved people.
Despite the glaring evidence of how slavery made wealth and prosperity possible for many white men and their families, Mullen and Darity pointed out that many citizens do not believe slavery affects the present day. In From Here to Equality, they cite several statistics illustrating an egregious gap in how the general population perceives the financial effects of systemic racism. Citing a Pew Research Center survey, they write “An astonishing 38 percent of blacks contended that blacks are at least as well off or better off financially than whites; among whites, the proportion sharing that opinion was 42 percent.” Meanwhile, “More than 60 percent of whites did not believe racial discrimination continues to be an important barrier to blacks “getting ahead,” yet, “66 percent of black respondents surveyed thought these factors significantly inhibit black achievement.”
Cultural determinism is often used to explain why Black people are financially disadvantaged. Pushing against these arguments, Mullen and Darity write “…positive effort, strong motivation, and high academic achievement never have been sufficient to eliminate disparities in racial economic well-being, security, and opportunity.”
In our interview, Darity posited that the reason for these misperceptions — why the Black and white wealth gap exists, and its severity — is a lack of education that could provide context for those who do not understand the ways in which slavery and systemic racism crippled the economic independence of the formerly enslaved and their descendants.
“The goal we had in mind with this text was the belief that if you could give people a more accurate story it would change the way they think about reparations. That might be too optimistic but it’s an essential task because if the story remains unchallenged, we have no chance of reparations becoming reality,” he said.
Mullen and Darity point out that the history of reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans begins with those who were enslaved. They start the book by writing, “Just as enslaved Africans were the first abolitionists—liberating themselves and their families whenever possible—so, too, were black Americans the nation’s earliest architects of reparations”.
“Quite a bit surprised us,” Mullen admitted to us, “the ongoing nature of the struggle was quite amazing to see.”
In From Here to Equality, Darity and Mullen describe the life of one of the “earliest known reparations champions”, Callie D. House. She serves as the seminal example of the vital role Black activists have played in the reparations movement and the merciless precision of the federal government in weeding out grassroots reparations organizations. Formerly enslaved, House advocated to “improve the economic independence of ex-slaves.”
She joined forces with minister Isiah Dickerson in 1898 to create the grassroots National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. They created a “pension plan” for formerly enslaved modeled after the Civil War program that allocated reparative funds to “disabled veterans and families of deceased veterans”.
By 1915, the organization was suing the US Treasury Department on behalf of ex-slaves. Their claim was denied, and their 300,000-strong membership as well as substantial pool of membership dues made them a target to the federal government. The formerly enslaved and their descendants made tremendous gains for reparations throughout history, yet consistently faced fatal backlash from an antiblack government.
Darity emphasized to us, “[it is] imperative to be reminded how the activists we addressed were sidelined by the federal government.”
The reparations movement is not new, instead, Mullen and Darity illustrate how it has been repressed and erased from the record by an antiblack government and why we today need to understand the case for reparations.
“It’s about understanding our own histories and having real conversations about them.” Mullen concluded.
How did we get here?
Unfortunately, attempts to level the playing field between the formerly enslaved Black population and landowning white men were consistently thwarted by the U.S. government. In From Here to Equality, Darity and Mullen write about fumbled attempts towards financial equity for the formerly enslaved.
Three months before the end of the Civil War, General William T. Sherman and Secretary of War Edward Stanton introduced a bill called Special Field Orders No. 15, intended to redistribute landholdings abandoned by or taken from Southern Confederates to newly freed men.
Land ownership was the greatest concern of the formerly enslaved, who understood it to be the most secure way to achieve financial equity in both the immediate and long-term future. Darity and Mullen write that Sherman and Stanton initially issued an “expanse [of land] reaching thirty miles inland from the South Carolina Sea Islands to Florida” to 18,000 formerly enslaved families.
Speaking on Sherman’s orders, Darity pointed out, “The impression we had gotten from literature about the 40 acres was that 40,000 black people were settled on 400,000 acres of land. But when we went back and looked at topography and specifics, it was actually 5.3 million acres that was assigned, and it was supposed to be the beginning of an allocation to all 4 million enslaved people.”
Later, Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15 would be drafted into The Second Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, allocating 3 million acres of land in five states to the formerly enslaved.
What happened to the famed 40 acres and a mule? The bill would be vetoed by President Johnson in 1866.
Sherman’s Field Orders No. 15 was not the first attempt by the federal government to compensate the formerly enslaved and their descendants. The Port Royal Experiment, enacted over forty months in the middle of the Civil War, was another program designed to Blacks for generations of unpaid labor. The Union had just seized Port Royal Sound in South Carolina, home to 16,000 enslaved people. In 1861, federal agents embarked on a research and interview process in the Port Royal Black community. Many were suffering due to the evacuation of resources.
The government believed the agriculturally trained population could be a boon to the economy and decided to set up a “new system of economic cooperation…they believed could become a model for the country.” Like Sherman’s Orders, this government reparations plan proposed parceling out the vacated Port Royal Sound to the formerly enslaved. Federal agents agreed that improving the financial circumstances of the newly liberated would eventually turn a profit for the U.S.
By March of 1862, the experiment was well underway. Blacks who enrolled were granted one and a half acres of land and government rations. Darity and Mullen quote the National Anti- Slavery Standard, “‘Here, within the protection of the arms of the United States, might a new experiment of tropical culture by free labor be tried.’”
Unfortunately, Washington didn’t hold up their end of the deal. The plan was barely executed, with rations disappearing by the end of 1862. Few liberated people ever received payment for their work. White settlers regularly terrorized the Black Port Royal residents. The U.S military participated in the pillaging, stealing their land and crops under the auspices of military raids. Without any effort to protect the Black population or quell the growing influence of white supremacy, the Port Royal experiment, a model to the country, quickly fell apart.
At the same time, the Homestead Act, passed on May 20th, 1862, provided “any adult citizen or intended citizen” 160 acres of public land, provided they could pay for their land and ensure its improvement. Enacted on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation, Black people were regularly barred from securing land grants through the Homestead Act. Darity and Mullen write, “a mere 4,000 to 5,500 African American claimants ever received federal land patents from the Southern Homestead Act enacted in 1866.” Comparatively, more than 1.6 million “native and immigrant” white families were granted land under the Homestead Act.
This would have devastating consequences for the descendants of enslaved Black people. According to Mullen and Darity, children who are born into positive wealth are more likely to “retain and build on their wealth over their own lifetimes.” Excluding the formerly enslaved from participating in the Homestead Act interrupted the Black American journey towards inter- generational wealth and has contributed to the depressed socioeconomic of the descendants of enslaved Black people today.
If we had a clear idea as to why the formerly enslaved were entitled to reparations why is there still contention about whether descendants of the enslaved “deserve” reparations? For Mullen and Darity, it comes back to Mullen’s term “Dismemory” — our country’s habit of rewriting history to make enslavement and the Confederacy more palatable, even acceptable.
As Mullen pointed out in our interview, “If everyone was so content with their circumstances, why’d you need a fugitive slave act?”
We’ve all encountered depictions of smiling slaves on beautiful plantations, heavily implying enslaved Black people were content in their circumstances. Many of us were taught that very few Southern planters actually owned slaves. On the contrary, Darity pointed out to us that middle and working-class families bought and sold on the slave trade, just at a lower “volume”. Much of the research only accounts for large slaveholding institutions.
“They’ll say, ‘This family only owned three slaves.’” Darity said with disbelief.
Where do these historical discrepancies around slavery, reconstruction and reparations attempts stem from?
In recent years, protests across the country have sparked conversations about what it means to commemorate former leaders of the Confederacy. Confederate statues are one “monumental” example of the phenomenon. Mullen and Darity pin the lionization of Confederate soldiers, in part, on the centuries of misrepresentation and sanitization from the Daughters of the Confederacy. According to Memphis Local 24, “their lasting impact is in how ‘their’ narrative of the Civil War and the years following unfolded.”
Founded in 1894, The Daughters of the Confederacy consisted of the female counterparts of confederate veterans. They sought to humanize the soldiers and their families, “to fundraise for Confederate veterans to provide them with pensions, veterans’ homes, and putting up monuments in their honor so their service would not be forgotten.”
These advocates were determined to take control of the historical narrative, positioning their ancestors as heroic, sympathetic figures. They were disgusted by the political and socioeconomic gains Black people made during Reconstruction. Feeling threatened by the idea of giving up their power, The Daughters of the Confederacy started a campaign to glorify the horrors of the Confederacy and the legacy of slavery, an alternate history that still grips many Americans today.
What about H.R. 40?
While Mullen and Darity regard individual and collective efforts to reexamine our country’s history as an important component of reparations activism, the most crucial element of achieving reparations in the U.S. is “the elimination of the Black-white wealth gap.” The fight to eliminate this resource gap has resulted in H.R. 40 — named after Sherman’s field order requiring 40 acres and a mule be granted to the formerly enslaved — a bill which would set up a federal “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans,” a feature it revives from Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15.
When asked about ways young people, who may be more open to the idea of reparations for Black Americans than previous generations, could organize to help usher H.R. 40 through congress, Mullen and Darity offered a surprising rebuke of the bill.
“H.R. 40 should be revised or scrapped because we don’t think it will deliver true reparations,” they asserted.
For Mullen and Darity, the shortcomings of H.R. 40 — as it is currently written— come down to three crucial criteria: the bill does not designate African-Americans as the sole beneficiaries of its passage; the bill does not target the Black-white wealth gap; the bill does not propose to pay eligible Americans directly.
In two recent op-eds — one co-authored in The Boston Globe, the other by Darity in actify press — Mullen and Darity address their objections to H.R. 40. In their Boston Globe piece, the two point out that “only Black American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States have borne the cumulative, multi-generational burden of the effects of slavery, the Jim Crow era, and atrocities such as mass incarceration after the civil rights era.” For this reason, and the key caveat that “the Black immigrants who have come to the United States since  did not have their wealth position forged by America’s process of economic development,” they contend H.R. 40’s backers must meet their first stipulation.
Their second concern grows out of their first; if two groups with distinct reparations claims are treated as one, it “dilutes the precision of the debt claim made by the descendants of the newly emancipated, who never received the promised 40 acres in restitution for their years of bondage,” Darity argues.
“This is a claim made by their descendants who have borne the full burden of the multiplicative impacts of slavery, the century-long Jim Crow period, and ongoing discrimination, police brutality, and over-incarceration. It is a claim directed squarely at the United States government, the culpable party for supporting and sanctioning the atrocities inflicted on black Americans since the founding of the Republic.”
Mullen and Darity addressed their third objection with us, reiterating that “Payments should be made directly to those eligible.” Mullen continued: “Looking at reparations policies around the world makes clear direct payments are the way to go.”
In their joint op-ed, Mullen and Darity remind legislators that there is strong precedent for direct payments “in four major reparations projects executed over the past 70 years: German restitution for Holocaust survivors; US government restitution for wrongfully interning Japanese Americans during World War II; the fund for victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and relatives; and the fund for families who lost children during the Sandy Hook massacre.” The US government was not responsible for the terrorist attacks on 9/11, or the Sandy Hook massacre, yet victims (rightly) still received compensation.
“Why is it when the direct recipients of reparations are Black Americans do people start saying the program has to involve third parties?” Mullen added.
COVID-19 and what you can do
There’s no question the need for reparations burns fiercely today as centuries worth of discrimination and wage-theft has resulted in Black and Brown communities disproportionately suffering economic setbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as the U.S. economy begins to slowly grow, many Black workers feel left out of the rebound.
When it comes to contracting COVID, According to the CDC, “Race and ethnicity are risk markers for other underlying conditions that affect health including socioeconomic status, access to health care, and exposure to the virus related to occupation, e.g., frontline, essential, and critical infrastructure workers.”
Black, Non-Hispanic Americans have developed one-and-a-half as many cases as white Americans, are hospitalized nearly four times as frequently as white Americans, and are dying nearly triple the rate of white Americans since the onset of the pandemic. This data is self- reported by states, and likely underestimates the true toll of the virus on Black Americans.
Now, as America continues vaccinating its population, even liberal cities like New York are having trouble vaccinating Black Americans at a rate commensurate with their population share.
Given last summer’s racial justice protests, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s public support for such legislation, and the Biden administration’s tepid support for H.R. 40, many see this Democratic Congress as a rare opportunity to address Black reparations. Just this Wednesday, the Congressional subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held a hearing concerning H.R. 40, after which representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas and the bill’s lead sponsor told ABC news, “we’re determined to take this through markup…and then to the floor, and then we want to get into the United States Senate.”
Even with their objections to H.R. 40, Mullen and Darity remained optimistic about what grassroots reparations organizing could achieve.
“We advocate that individuals and groups actively lobby and petition congress for a full scale national reparations program,” Mullen said. “A larger number of reparations petitions reaching congress would make a difference.”
At the local level, Darity suggested “every city or cultural institution could pass a resolution advocating for a national reparations program,” essentially a formal call to action aimed at the federal government.
No matter how they champion reparations, Mullen and Darity were resolute about this: “One person can do a lot.”