Ryan's Reviews > The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks

The Debt by Randall Robinson
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's review
Feb 19, 2008

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bookshelves: politics, non-fiction, philosophy-history, owned-books
Read in November, 2005

** spoiler alert ** My notes and quotes:

Jews, Arabs, Turks, Russians, Finns, Swedes, Czechs, Uzbeks, Macedonians, Estonians, Malayans, Cathayans, Japanese, Sinhalese – one and all planetwide – have a nurturing access to the fullness of their myriad histories, histories that often seem as old as time.
African Americans must spiritually survive from the meager basket of a few mean yesterdays. No chance for significant group progress there. None. For we have been largely overwhelmed by a majority culture that wronged us dramatically, emptied our memories, underminded our self-esteem, implanted us with palatable voices, and stripped us along the way of the sheerest corona of self-definition. We alone are presumed pastless, left to cobble self-esteem from a vacuum of stolen history.
By default, we must define ourselves by our ongoing tribulations and those who mete them out to us. Otherwise, we have little in the way of a long-held interior idea of who we are. (p. 28).

I will not belabor the point here. Talk of the International Monetary Fund tends to induce sleep quickly. But certainly were it not for the blindness occasioned by Africa’s damaged self-confidence, Africa’s leaders would know from painful historical experience that money’s Western sorcerers can quickly change costumes when there’s money to be made, pawns to be fleeced. The Western strategy for five hundred years has always been to exploit until understanding dawns and economic circumstances alter, or sufficient public revulsion gathers to force a retreat. Thus, slavery was caused to morph into colonialism, and colonialism into the Cold War and the Cold War into the African Growth and Opportunity Act. (p. 183).

There is, I think, a useful lesson in this story. Those – nations, individuals, whites as a racial entity – who enjoy the privileges of disproportionate power and wealth will seldom voluntarily do more than render to the disadvantaged an appearance of helpfulness. It is not in their interests to school the disadvantaged on the origins of their dilemma. Nor would they ever be likely to take unforced measures that would tend to level the playing field, if you’ll forgive the tired metaphor. Never, in the march of human relations, has power behaved thus. Intrinsic to advantage is the drive to maintain itself. Aah, the advantaged. Careful, now, not to deify them. For such undeserved admiration, in and of itself, is for the disadvantaged a debilitating condition. (p. 198).

Perhaps it would help her place herself in context if she could read a letter I came upon in the wonderful book Strong Men Keep Coming by Tonya Bolden. The letter is dated August 7, 1865, and was written by Jourdon Anderson, once a slave in Big Spring, Tennessee, to his former owner, Colonel P.H. Anderson, who had written to the ex-slave in Dayton, Ohio, where he had resettled with his wife and children. The colonel had written to persuade Anderson to return to Big Spring and work for him as a free man:
Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdan, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can …
I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mnady, - the folks call her Mrs. Anderson, - and the children – Milly Jane, and Grundy – go to school and are learning well … Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my freedom papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshall-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you.
I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-give dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to …
Please send the money by Adam’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for our faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises for the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense … Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire …
Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

Colonel Anderson never paid Jourdon Anderson what he owed him for his labor, nor had any of the other slaveholders (including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) who had stolen the labor of tens of millions of blacks and, by so doing robbed the futures of all who would descend from them. (p. 241).

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