Disrupting the Reparations Timeline

What is Black America owed? Why reparations? Why now? Inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ prolific Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations,” time-travel across the history of reparations and anti-Black violence to gain a new understanding of the relationship between the past and the present.

What is the relationship between the past and the present?

It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered. The robbery of time is not measured in lifespans but in moments. It is the last bottle of wine that you have just uncorked but do not have time to drink. It is the kiss that you do not have time to share, before she walks out of your life. It is the raft of second chances for them, and twenty-three-hour days for us.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

This digital timeline covers hundreds of years of history related to the significance of Black reparations and the history of anti-Black violence in the United States. What is so special about this timeline?

Disrupting the Reparations Timeline does not follow a chronological/linear sensibility. Instead, this timeline is non-chronological and out of “order” based on what one might typically expect. At the heart of this project lies the question: what is the relationship between the past and present? The answer directly impacts how you respond to the next question: what is Black America owed?

Ta-Nehisi Coates took up these questions in his June 2014 Atlantic article titled: “The Case for Reparations.” The publication of the essay sparked a national conversation about reparations not seen in over a decade. According to the New York Times, “the current debate over reparations was fueled in part by the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates.” The 16,000-word long-form essay set a single day traffic record on the Atlantic website.

TheAtlantic · The Case for Reparations – The Atlantic – Ta-Nehisi Coates

Disrupting the Reparations Timeline is meant to be a tool to engage with Coates’ prolific essay in order to gain a better sense of how Coates uses time, and our understanding of the past and the present, as a resource to open up our understanding of Black reparations. “The Case for Reparations” is the central inspiration for this digital project. The non-chronological order in this timeline mirrors the non-chronological order of historical events Coates uses in his essay. I encourage you to read the article and use this timeline as a tool to dig into the history of reparations. Now, for a little background about why this timeline is significant.

“None of Us Currently Alive Are Responsible”

The debate over Black reparations follows a familiar rhythm. Take for example the first Congressional hearing about reparations in over a decade. On June 19th of 2019, Ta-Nehisi Coates testified before Congress on bill H.R. 40, legislation that would allow for a federally funded study to determine the potential for reparations. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s argued, “America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, since none of us currently alive are responsible.” McConnell’s comments construct the past and present as distant and distinct. Slavery, and its consequences, occurred so long ago, it is impossible to reconcile their effects in the present. The march of time has an inverse relationship with responsibility. In other words, the longer ago an event occurred, the less responsible we are in the present. To protect contemporary white innocence from the consequences of slavery, he deploys responsibility as the key frame to ensure the past and present remain disconnected. As a result, McConnell suspends anti-Black violence as a relic of yesteryear while assuaging white guilt.

Coates replied, “the question really is not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.” The validity and timeliness of distributing monetary compensation to those impacted by the afterlives of slavery, and other structures of racial terrorism, remains a pressing issue and largely stalled by misinformed understandings of the significance and consequences of historical racial violence.

One major roadblock in public discussions about reparations involves the relationship between the past and present. How do the consequences of the past manifest in the present? How do we reconcile the effects of the past in the present? McConnell’s anxiety about who should take responsibility for the racial atrocities of the past relies on presenting the consequences of slavery as something that cannot survive over 150 years. Disrupting the Reparations Timeline seeks to help foster an understanding of the past and present that is dynamic, interconnected, and deeply enmeshed.

People often deny the contemporary significance of reparations by downplaying the relationship between past historical racial violence and present racial disparities. People point to particular events in the past as proof that our contemporary racial problems dramatically differ from those of the past. We no longer have “Colored Only” signs. Schools are not segregated. Slavery is over. The quality of life for Black people is “better” than during slavery. The absence of overt racism signals the end of racisms’ contemporary significance. Because of events such as the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the election of President Barack Obama, it is argued we have collectively transcended our “race problem.” One could name these sentiments as decidedly post-racial. The “post” captures the tendency for those against reparations to argue we have “moved beyond” racism. Particular moments in the past ensure a severed connection with the present. At the end of the day, post-racial sentiments, like those explained above, construct the past as something for which we are no longer liable. We no longer need to worry about what happened, but instead, should focus on what is to come.

Post-racisms’ twin is “progress.” As it goes, the unfolding of time corresponds with the improvement of the human experience. Because slavery is “dead” and Black people no longer live in bondage, coupled with the passage of time, we have “progressed.” The absence of overt racism (i.e., “Colored Only” signs, lynching, segregation, etc.) means we are doing “better,” thus, there is no need for reparations. Progress is undergirded by a sense that time evolves in a linear direction. Typically, our understanding of “history” captures “historical events” as subsequently unfolding nodes in a timeline. We move from slavery, to reconstruction, to Jim Crow, to the civil rights era, to the election of Obama. Discussions of reparations often fall into this orientation to time. Slavery happened, it was dismantled, and it no longer exists. Therefore, we don’t need reparations because we have supposedly dismantled the systems that warranted it in the first place.

A Different Timeline of Reparations

Time is a central “concept in building the imaginary of the modern/colonial world and instrument for both controlling knowledge and advancing a vision of society based on progress and development.” A narrative of progress and development that leaves transgressions of colonialism, such as chattel slavery, and racism by proxy, regulated to stay confined in the past, dissipating from public memory as time marches forward. Coates’ essay “The Case for Reparations” works to intervene in public discussions about reparations, time, and anti-Black violence in order to encourage a more productive understanding of how the past and present are connected. Coates uses a novel understanding of time to shift the reparations debate into a new direction. Disrupting the Reparations Timeline provides a digital space to grapple with Coates’ prose and his novel understanding of time, pushing the reparations debate into a different direction.

Disrupting the Reparations Timeline complicates our understanding of racial progress. In Coates’ essay “The Case for Reparations,” he does not rely on a progress framework to explain the importance of reparations. Instead, he uses the weight of history as a tool to create a dynamic connection between the past and the present. Disrupting the Reparations Timeline is a digital manifestation of how Coates plays with time in “The Case for Reparations.” Throughout the article, Coates jumps around the timeline of reparations. Moving back and forth from the past and present shifts how a reader is oriented to time and anti-Black violence.

What is Black America owed? This question is as much about time as it is about a daunting debt. I hope this non-chronological timeline invites you to consider how the matters of the past are the matters of the present. Time-travel across the history of anti-Black violence in the United States, inspired by the prose of Ta-Nehisi Coates, and go on a journey to (re)discover the call for Black reparations.

Use Disrupting the Reparations Timeline as a guide through Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations.” Hopefully, you’ll not only learn something new about the past, but also about the future.