by Rev. William Barnwell for The New Orleans Tribune

I firmly believe in reparations. However, I believe in racial reconciliation as well and have learned the way of reconciliation from Dr. Martin Luther King, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and countless others. The way to overcome the dreadful legacy of slavery is for our nation to fully acknowledge our sins of the past and, as Dr. King said so eloquently in his “I Have a Dream” speech, create a society where Black and White children “will join hands as sisters and brothers.” 

When the Reparations bill comes up again in Congress, why can’t we call it “Reparations and Reconciliation”? 

Programs popular in New Orleans—two national, one local—are showing the way for Reparations with Reconciliation.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a chief spokesman for reparations, argued in his inspiring and possibly culture-changing 2014 Atlantic article that reparations are “more than recompense for past injustices—more than a payoff, hush money or reluctant bribe. What I am talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” 

He also wrote, “What is needed is a healing of the American psyche, and the banishment of White guilt.” (Destructive White guilt, I would say, as a born and bred White man from the Deep South.) Sure sounds like reconciliation to me! (See Part IX in Coates’ article.)

Should a commission ever be set up to support both reparations and reconciliation, I am already imagining programs the commission could support and publicize. 

I think first of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. Black led, with headquarters in New Orleans, PISAB offers over a 100 two-to-three day “Undoing Racism” workshops each year throughout the nation and also abroad. Over the last 40 years, over a million people have taken part in one of their trainings. 

The People’s Institute focuses on systemic racism and helps participants understand just how racism—from the very beginning of slavery to the present—has poisoned so many of our prominent institutions. But PISAB also creates a safe space for all participants—overall about half White and half Black—a reconciling place where participants learn from one another as well as from the inspiring trainers. The attendees include various policymakers, university students and professors, labor union members, church and other faith leaders, health care workers, and, of course, those already active in anti-racism efforts

I am also thinking of how 450-plus screenings of the documentary, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, offered by my friends, Dain and Constance Perry—an interracial couple—have helped many thousands understand the lucrative slave trade not only in the South but in the North as well. I can think of many screenings in New Orleans in churches like Trinity Episcopal and Christian Unity Baptist Church.

Led by Katrina Browne, she and nine other descendants of the Rhode Island DeWolf slave-trading family—one of the “most successful” in the country—retraced and filmed the route that their ancestors followed or supported in the late 1700s until 1820. Katrina’s family, close and distant members, began their trip in Bristol, Rhode Island, went to West Africa, where their ancestors had bought slaves, and then returned to places where they sold thousands of enslaved persons—that is, those who survived the deadly slave-ship voyages.  Some of the DeWolf ancestors made use of the slaves on their own plantations. 

After the participants view the documentary, Constance and Dain invite everyone to give or think of a one-word response to the film. And then, everyone is invited to say in two minutes or less why they chose that word. You can imagine such words: “guilt,” “horror,” “despair,” “anger,” “helplessness,” “sadness,” and the double-word “original sin.” 

A simple device, but it does help all the participants—the liberals and the conservatives, the Blacks and the Whites—to listen to each other and so avoid angry, polarizing exchanges on this complex and painful subject (as one might expect in open-ended discussions on reparations). 

Here is how one participant, Episcopal Bishop Carolyn Irish of Utah, responded to the screening: “The film opens the door to an authentic way for people of faith—indeed everyone—to walk in repentance, reconciliation, and healing of the horrors of slavery so deeply embedded in our culture and in ourselves.” 

Besides these two national programs, I have been part of the New Orleans coalition, Justice and Beyond, that shows the way for both reparations and reconciliation.  Justice and Beyond could and should be emulated throughout the nation as a model for undoing ongoing racism while seeking reconciliation. 

Black-founded and Black-led Justice and Beyond, in our weekly evening forums held since 2012, have addressed the most devastating problems African Americans experience in our city, state, and nation—issues related to public schools, incarceration, job inequities and unemployment, racism in public service organizations like Entergy, the citywide electric and gas utility. White people like me are invited to participate in the decision-making of Justice and Beyond and to help carry out the plans for our actions, but we cannot overrule the decisions of the Black leaders and members.

One of the things that makes Justice and Beyond unique is that we insist on bottom-up, coalition-building leadership. Too often decisions to serve the poor are made by “top dog” leadership without even consulting those who are supposedly helped. And too often, those who are hired in agencies to serve in particular areas of need compete for funds with other agencies that should be their allies and not their rivals. 

The thing that brings the most reconciling efforts of Justice and Beyond is that we carefully follow our slogan—“Justice and Righteousness.”  Righteousness is interpreted as “respect for all who take part, regardless of point of view.” 

In my long experience as an Episcopal clergy, I have not known of a program like Justice and Beyond in the places I have served: South Carolina, Boston, the Washington National Cathedral, or other places which I have visited and know up-close.

The bottom line for repentance is providing significant help for those who have been left behind or broken because of what slavery has done to us all. But the way to get the necessary widespread support for that help, I believe, is by supporting and publicizing programs like the People’s Institute and their Undoing Racism Workshops, the popular screenings of Traces of the Trade and discussions that follow, and the New Orleans Justice and Beyond coalition. This way, we will eventually move toward the kind of “spiritual renewal” culture Ta-Nehisi Coates envisions.

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