Making the Case for Slavery Reparations

Reparations for slavery are an essential component of making the U.S. more equitable, says Maureen Fadem, basing her arguments on Toni Morrison’s classic novel, Beloved.

Making the Case for Slavery Reparations
Maureen Fadem. (CUNY)

Maureen E. Ruprecht Fadem, a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY), describes herself as a scholar-activist whose work centers around colonialism, empire, race, racism and the residual impact of slavery. Her third book, Objects and Intertexts in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, [Routledge, 2021] is meant to provoke a reckoning with the ways enslavement has tainted race relations in the U.S. and calls for reparations to repair the emotional, social and political damage it has caused.

On the domestic front, Fadem sees reparations for slavery as an essential component of making the U.S. more equitable. Her argument utilizes Toni Morrison’s searing 1987 novel, Belovedto highlight the necessity of grappling with the brutality of “the peculiar institution.” She supports monetary reparations for those whose genealogies include enslaved fore-parents as a foundational first step, but also advocates the building of monuments to pay homage to those forced into servitude. 

In addition, Fadem calls for the formation of Truth and Reconciliation bodies to bring people of all races together to listen to one another.

“We need to tell each other our stories so that the descendants of slaves and the descendants of white indentured servants can talk about the wretchedness imposed on them by poverty,” Fadem said. “Animosities are constantly reinvented, and we need to know each other if we are ever going to develop empathy and unity across the color line.”  

Making the Case for Slavery Reparations
A slavery memorial in Stone Town, Zanzibar. (Wikimedia Commons)

Lastly, she says, abolishing mass incarceration—and addressing how the prison population skyrocketed from 350,000 to 2.3 million in the decades following passage of the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights legislation—must be at the crux of progressive demands.

What’s more, for Fadem, Beloved underscores the imperative of remembering the past in order to transcend it.

Beloved is a narrative of African America, a history of slavery and of enslaving, and in this sense, it is American history, full stop,” she wrote in a chapter of Objects and Intertexts called “The Tragedy and Its Props.”

Beloved is not fiction; it is historical fiction: the notion of forcing human beings into an object status as life condition, of purloining not just a series of civil and inalienable rights but the deeper, less visible, more greatly painful right simply to be a human being … the freedom to love your children, first and chiefly, parenting being the first among the desires a human being ought to have the legal right to.”

Indeed, Fadem hammers the necessity of the task, promoting an agenda that includes increased government funding for public schools, parks, community gardens, and recreation programs, and calls for local entities to monitor and address over-policing, excessive force and surveillance. And while there are tasks for those working inside as well as outside of the academy, Fadem believes that “it is more urgent than ever for scholarship and research to be a counter to the xenophobia, fake news and white supremacy that are thriving. Activist scholarship can work with the grassroots to support organizing and move social justice movements forward.”

After all, as she writes, “If empire and thievery are wrong, if slavery is wrong, if the heinous acts committed against Native American people were wrong, why has there been no move toward justice?”  It’s a great, if as yet unanswered, question.

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Maureen Fadem’s Political Awakening

Fadem’s own political awakening began when she was a teenager, attending a nearly all-white Catholic girls schooled called Nerinx Hall in St. Louis, Missouri.  It was there that she met Black girls for the first time—kids bused in from nearby Ferguson. Although the girls interacted with one anther in class, they never socialized outside of school, something Fadem did not think about until years later. At the same time, she recalls bristling at the overt racism that was expressed by white peers, and reports being unafraid to object to the hate speech she heard. 

“I’d known hatred was out there,” Fadem said, but hearing it voiced by people she considered friends was eye-opening; she recalls her time at Nerinx, 1975 to 1979, as “deeply consciousness raising.” 

Her awareness of racism got an additional boost in 1977 when she saw Roots on television, which Fadem told Ms. “was a revelation about the brutality of slavery. I felt like what it depicted was knowledge I should already have had. I felt betrayed by my education. I was angry that these atrocities had happened in the country we pledge allegiance to.”

Although these feelings persisted, by the time Fadem was 18, she had gotten married and given birth to her first child. A second baby was born a little more than a year later; a divorce quickly followed.

“After my husband and I split up, I found work in St. Louis’s corporate sector. But after a few years, I lost my job. I knew I wanted a change so when I was offered positions in Philadelphia and Minneapolis, I chose Philly and moved there in 1992. I took a job with a mortgage company, and attended Arcadia University on weekends and at night from 1996 to 1999.” 

Throughout this time, Fadem was advancing, eventually becoming an assistant vice president of marketing. “During those years I was on a treadmill—work, college, kids. There was absolutely no time for anything else, including political activism, for 20 years. Still, from the time I was seven or eight years old, I’d wanted to become a teacher and writer.”  

That’s where serendipity comes in. A chance meeting with Meena Alexander [1951-2018], a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, was life-changing for Fadem. “Meena suggested that I enroll in a Master of Arts program in Liberal Studies at CUNY. I did and after one semester, she and another professor wrote letters of recommendation to support my application to the PhD program. I was accepted and enrolled in the Fall of 2000.”

Fast forward a few years and Fadem has come full circle, completing her doctorate, publishing four books, and teaching a range of writing and literature classes. Politics are now at the core of both her scholarship and her activism.

U.S. House Considers the Case for Reparations

Reparations for Black Americans are closer than ever to becoming a reality. On Wednesday, the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (a Judiciary subcommittee) hosted a hearing on the creation of a new commission—one that would “examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.”

The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, H.R. 40, was introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who said 170 fellow members of Congress are in support. Three hundred organizations as well as President Joe Biden have also championed such a bill, which can advance to a House debate once passed by the House Judiciary Committee.

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Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance journalist from Brooklyn, N.Y., who writes for Truthout, Lilith, the LA Review of Books, RainTaxi, The Indypendent, New Pages, and The Progressive. She tweets at @eleanorjbader1 .