Robinson's new book asks "What is Owed to Blacks?"
by Jace Clayton
Randall Robinson's book of nonfiction, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (Dutton, 2000), is about remembering. Robinson wants equality. He wants to make the American dream possible for everyone, not just those with a long-standing historical advantage.
For 264 years, American men of European ancestry traveled to Africa, stole Africans, and brought them back to America to work until they died. These stolen men and women received no rights and no money and they could not leave. Centuries passed. When slavery was finally outlawed, the discrimination continued. Racist ideas sank deep into laws, attitudes, and assumptions. Many continue to this day.
A Whitewashed Past
The Debt opens in Washington D.C.'s famous Capitol building. Robinson stands among tourists looking in awe at the gigantic U.S. history fresco. Then he realizes that the impressive piece of government-funded art celebrating two centuries of American history has no black people on it. Everyone is white except three Native Americans fighting each other. In the grand gallery, there's only one image of a black man: a tiny bust of Martin Luther King looking downward. He's eclipsed by a large statue of slave-owner Thomas Jefferson, head high.
Unconvinced by these whitewashed images of America's past, Robinson seeks the real story: "Slaves were not only made to labor on the Capitol building but also to do much of the work. . . for the whole of the District of Columbia." With powerful, concrete examples, Debt illustrates how (white) America generated much of its wealth and grandeur by exploiting black slaves. Now's the time, says Robinson, for payment.
The idea of reparation—compensation for injuries against a nation or people—is nothing new. After the Holocaust, Germany paid individual Jews and the state of Israel. The U.S. successfully pressured German companies to give 1.7 billion dollars to Jews used as slave laborers. America demanded repayment for Jewish slavery, yet as Robinson states, "the United States government and white society generally have opted to deal with [black] debt by forgetting that it is owed."
During slavery, the profit from black work "went into others' pockets— plantation owners, northern entrepreneurs, state treasuries, the United States government." Where is it now? Robinson demonstrates that white Americans are richer than their black counterparts because of financial advantages that began with slavery and Jim Crow laws. This income gap means that blacks have less access to education, employment opportunities, health care, safe housing, and legal protection. The Debt seeks to settle the score.
To begin the healing, claims Robinson, America must recognize African-American achievements and the damages of slavery. Monuments and museums should be built; accurate history books should be written. Whites must confront their past and recognize that they still profit from slavery's unfair gains and the institutionalized racism that remains. Serious steps must be taken to give African-Americans educational and economic compensation for all injuries.
Engaging, Personal Style
A powerful, thought-provoking book, Robinson's argument may seem radical at first glance, but through his examples his opinions become more reasonable. Instead of relying solely on numbers and statistics, Robinson creates scenarios that give a face to the people profiled. In one chapter, Robinson looks at a black girl with learning difficulties. He examines her predicament from every angle: the cycles of poverty that began with her great-great grandfather who never received property, education, or money after a life of slave labor; her overworked single mother who can't help the child with homework; teachers with lowered expectations for African-Americans; the child's lack of cultural pride; and a dangerous ghetto caused by housing discrimination.
Robinson writes in an engaging, personal style. He mixes memoir with keen historical research. Whether uncovering hidden American history or contemplating future plans, The Debt is an exciting, sympathetic, and intelligent work.