W. E. B. Du Bois's observations about the links between Americans' unwillingness to acknowledge the legacies of slavery and the shortcomings of formal equality in the post-Reconstruction era anticipate the obstacles to racial justice in the “post-civil rights” era. His study of the “splendid failure” of Reconstruction indicates how a kind of willful national amnesia prevented black citizens from enjoying in fact the freedom and equality they were guaranteed by law. Arguing that the story of racial injustice is still importantly a story about memory's suppression, I use Du Bois's writings to explore the case for reparations as one element of a larger effort to expose the presence of the slave past and to undermine the continuing effects of slavery and Jim Crow.
Memory—of what has been, of acts of commission or omission, of a responsibility abdicated—affects the future conduct of power in any form. Failure to adopt some imaginative recognition of such a principle merely results in the enthronement of a political culture that appears to know no boundaries—the culture of impunity.
Wole Soyinka (1999)Earlier versions of this essay were presented at the 2000 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association in Washington, DC, the 2001 meeting of the Collegium for African American Research in Sardinia, Italy, and the 2002 Riker Seminar and Frederick Douglass Institute Seminar at the University of Rochester. I am grateful for the comments of all of the participants at those sessions, as well as for careful readings by Joshua Dienstag, Roxanne Euben, Frederick Harris, George Klosko, James Johnson, Joel Olson, George Shulman, Valeria Sinclair-Chapman, Jeffrey Tucker, and Stephen White.