19 June 2006


I almost forgot: it's Juneteenth today, marking the end of slavery in the US. The history of the holiday is itself interesting.

Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

This year I discover that the mythology of the origins of the holiday is complicated. What's with that two-and-a-half year gap?

Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another, is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another, is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All or none of them could be true.

Hmmnn. I'd guess that none of those stories are factual, but I submit that all of them are, in an important sense, true.

Being a white guy, I figure it isn't really my holiday to celebrate. But being an American, the holiday and its story are part of my history, and so it's my responsibility to mark it. It's not exactly controversial to stand up in opposition to slavery ... but not everyone is comfortable being reminded that it is, unhappily, a central part of American history, and in fact history that is still alive in the society of the nation.

The reminder is important. If we don't have the will or wisdom to fully address the crimes of our history, in the very least we should make the effort on the level of symbolism.

So in honour of the holiday, let me offer Cobb's beautiful idea for symbolic reparations, which I've been meaning to blog for some time.

As a matter of apology and reparation, I propose the minting of a coin. This coin, preferably gold in color, would be distributed directly to [African] Americans through the US Post Office. What is important is that a sufficient number of these coins be minted such that their circulation through this country and the world such that their very presence indicate the breadth of the impact of any market orignially directed at the labor of African Americans.

The amount minted might be, instead of reflecting an interest bearing debt on 40 acres and a mule, representative of some fraction of todays economy as expressed in proportion to that of the slave economy in its day. For practical reasons, it is not likely to be a 1:1 ratio. But if the slave economy was estimated to be 1/3 of that time, it might be reasonable to mint 1/3 of all dollar coins as the “slave dollar”.

There are other practical considerations, such as the success of the coin itself, but I have little doubt that it would circulate widely among African Americans. There are currently many popular theories of ‘recycling black dollars’.

The presence of these coins in the national circulation would show, over time, how pervasive the effects of money generated by the slave economy would be. One of the great excuses often given in resistance to reparation and apology is that no one living was directly responsible or directly victimized. But a coin minted and circulated specifically as the currency of apology ultimately reaches everyone, just as the money generated specifically by the institution of slavery.

Symbolic justice alone is not enough, but it's still worth doing. Happy Juneteenth.

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