Lemon Project hosts discussion on reparations: Virtual ‘front-porch talk’ analysis ways to promote healing of racial injustices

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COURTESY PHOTO // WM.EDU

Tuesday, Oct. 27, The Lemon Project held a virtual panel entitled “Coates’s ‘The Case for Reparations” in collaboration with the Williamsburg Regional Library. On the panel were Lemon Project Director Jody Allen Ph.D ’09, Lemon Project Postdoctoral Fellow Jajuan Johnson and founder of the Historic Triangle chapter of Coming to the Table Laura Hill.

Coming to the Table is a national organization that holds open conversations about race, racial trauma and healing. Throughout the panel, Hill emphasized the need for an open and honest dialogue regarding racism and reparations.

“Our vision at Coming to the Table is the same as the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King,” Hill said. “In his 1963 ‘I have a Dream’ speech, King said, ‘I have a dream that one day the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will come to the table, will sit down at the table of brotherhood.’ And that is our aim. Every month, Coming to the Table chapters all over the country bring people together to have that very difficult and clumsy and uncomfortable conversation about race.”

Johnson echoed this sentiment regarding an open conversation, urging participants to hold “brave spaces” where participants are encouraged to be candid, but also held accountable for their contributions.

 “Tonight we are creating a brave space about a topic with varying opinions, and that’s often misunderstood,” Johnson said. “In a brave space, complex conversations are welcome, but we are encouraged to practice radical empathy, where we are intentional in understanding the feelings and experiences of others.”

“Tonight we are creating a brave space about a topic with varying opinions, and that’s often misunderstood,” Johnson said. “In a brave space, complex conversations are welcome, but we are encouraged to practice radical empathy, where we are intentional in understanding the feelings and experiences of others.”

The panel’s discussion centered around “The Case for Reparations” by journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which Coates argues that America’s history of enslavement warrants some form of financial reconciliation for the descendants of enslaved people. Coates points to enslavement as the root cause of the systemic racial injustices in America today, arguing that Black Americans deserve widespread initiatives to counteract the injustices of the past.

“Typically we hear, ‘no one alive today was enslaved or an enslaver, so stop talking about reparations,’ a very true statement,” Allen said. “But another true statement is that everyone alive today still lives under the lasting effects of the institution of slavery. Slavery and its aftermath is now systemic. It is part of the body, and the entire body must be addressed if healing is to take place.”

Discussions of reparations have increased following acts of police brutality against Black Americans in 2020. Hill argued that these murders, along with the impacts of COVID-19, have clarified the need for reparative work.

“The George Floyd murder revealed what we’ve known in the African American community: that we have broken policing and law enforcement systems,” Hill said. “Also, the Coronavirus pandemic unmasked our broken healthcare system, and African Americans are dying of Coronavirus at rates disproportionately higher than other groups.”

Hill compared systemic racism to a broken bone, arguing that reparations are an urgent and necessary step in the healing process for Black Americans.

 “I broke my leg last year, and letting my leg stay broken was not an option,” Hill said. “When it’s a bone in your body, you understand that you need immediate medical intervention. Reparations are the intervention to repair our broken systems.”

“I broke my leg last year, and letting my leg stay broken was not an option,” Hill said. “When it’s a bone in your body, you understand that you need immediate medical intervention. Reparations are the intervention to repair our broken systems.”

Because systemic racism impacts all areas of life in the United States, reparations can take many forms, including scholarships, economic development initiatives or direct payments. Hill pointed to the Lemon Project as a form of reparations at the College of William and Mary.

“William and Mary’s Lemon Project is an example of a reparative project,” Hill said. “The first part of reparations is acknowledgement, a recognition of historical harm.”

Hill also cited ongoing reparations initiatives in national and state-level governments, such as the Harriet Tubman Community Investment Act in Maryland, or H.R.40 in the House of Representatives, both of which aim to study the lasting impact of enslavement on Black Americans. Hill urged Williamsburg to construct a reparations bill of its own.

“We are really hoping that, in the state of Virginia, that Williamsburg, which is the birthplace of America, will lead the way in reparations and racial equity,” Hill said. “The sad thing is that these laws to enslave, to disenfranchise and disadvantage people based on the color of their skin and their ancestry in the 17th, 18th, even the 19th century, many of these laws were passed right here in the Historic Triangle. These systems and these laws were intentionally designed to not work in the best interest of people of African ancestry.”

When asked about the potential for dismantling these laws and the systemic racism across the country, Hill remained optimistic.

“I don’t know that we will see it completely dismantled in our lifetime, but I think it’s important that every generation is tasked with making things better for the next generation,” Hill said. “I’m hopeful that we can dismantle the systems of oppression. And I’m also hopeful because I look at what’s happened over the past five months. Right now, more than a hundred Confederate monuments have been torn down, and would you have thought that was possible at the beginning of this year? No one would have imagined that happening. It just goes to show: all things are possible, and they can happen very quickly.”

Above all, Hill emphasized that reparations are simply overdue payments for the suffering inflicted by centuries of enslavement in the United States.

“Reparations are not a handout,” Hill said. “The work has already been contributed to our nation. The wealth of our nation was made on the backs of enslaved Africans, people of African ancestry. The move for reparations is not asking for a handout. It’s asking for what has already been paid through the sweat and tears of our ancestors.”