They closed lower Broadway to traffic on Oct. 3 to make way for horse-drawn carriages bearing the skeletons of African slaves discovered while we dug deep into the Manhattan earth 12 years ago.
The remains arrived via ferry after a tour of several cities, making land at Wall Street, where the people they once were first arrived 300 years ago, in chains-a stain on the founding of our city, which aspired to be a sanctuary for those yearning for freedom.
The colors of the African displacement were everywhere. The funeral dirge, the haunting banging of a drum, served as a reminder that not everyone who had a thirst for liberty was treated equally in Nieuw Amsterdam.
It should have been a day for healing, a day for those still struggling to recover fully from the World Trade Center murders to pause and embrace each other, to reflect on what slavery did to a race, on how it dishonored the Declaration of Independence and destroyed generations. It should have been a day for each of us to make amends, to admit that yes, being born white in America had-and has -certain advantages, even if our own relatives suffered under the oppression of colonialism.
It was an occasion to connect the issue of New York slaves to the genocide inflicted on those who were trustees of the land before Columbus arrived. It should have been an opportunity to talk about shared exploitation, to discuss the crimes of the Holocaust or a so-called famine in Ireland that slaughtered one million people while food was being shipped out of the country.
But it wasn’t that kind of day, because City Councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther who once said he would like to slap a white person (any one would do) for his mental health, lit the match of racial politics. Mr. Barron, a mouthpiece for the homophobic Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe, sidetracked a serious discussion by throwing out the explosive word “reparations” as he talked about what is “owed” his people “in the hood.”
Mr. Barron was last heard from with his sidekick Norman Siegal talking about nonexistent Mason-Dixon lines in our city. Mr. Siegal, the former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, would rather torch his copy of the Constitution than be caught standing with, say, David Duke as he talked about the pleasures of slapping around a black person.
In a city like New York, such nonsensical jabbering about reparations for slavery must be challenged for what it is: a feeble leftover of the Black Panther philosophy, which asserted that white people as a group bore responsibility for slavery. It’s not as though this is a new issue-I remember debates over reparations at City University in the late 1960’s, where I, along with my black classmates, were blessed with brilliant professors who treated us as individuals, not groups.
But after Mr. Barron ruined an otherwise perfect day with his political gelignite, I thought of a brighter side: Perhaps I can get the British royal family to pay me reparations for the land that was stolen from my family in Ireland 500 years ago. What about those Irish people who were sent against their will to the West Indies to become indentured servants?
The reparations issue raises other questions. Will there be tax exemptions, say, for the descendants of abolitionists who fought mightily-some with their lives-to end slavery? Who will pay the progeny of the indigenous peoples of California, colonized by the Spaniards, who then lost it to the Anglos? How much will the relatives of those Africans who actually sold the slaves be forced to pay?
The issue, of course, goes beyond slavery. Think of all the other groups that could have a past-due reparations notice. Will the family of Sam Houston have to cough up for the Alamo massacre? And what of the sainted Franklin D. Roosevelt? Will his family be required to pay because he allowed Jewish refugees on the S.S. St. Louis to bob around the Atlantic in 1939 rather than offer them a safe harbor? And what of the relatives of families who protected Jews from the Nazis in Europe? Would they get a pass?
What we owe every child in every hood is a first-class education, something that has still not been achieved in our town, supposedly the bastion of liberalism. We owe our kids access to new computers, up-to-date textbooks, roofs that don’t leak, libraries and school buildings that are open seven days a week, nutritious food before class, a safe environment free from knife- and gun-toting knuckleheads and, when they graduate, well-paying jobs and discrimination-free access to housing.
This is what we should be demanding of our officials, including Mr. Barron and his City Council compatriots.
The results will be self-evident.