The Case for Reparations, In PicturesHistorians in the News
tags: art history, reparations
Karl Kusserow is the John Wilmerding Curator of American Art at the Princeton University Art Museum. He is the author and editor of five books, including the forthcoming Picture Ecology: Art and Ecocriticism in Planetary Perspective (2021).
Last month, the House Judiciary Committee recommended the creation of a "commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery."
First proposed in 1989 by Michigan Democrat John Conyers, House Resolution 40 was reintroduced annually up to his retirement in 2017, only to be voted down. Recently championed by another Black legislator, Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, the bill still faces uncertain prospects, though it has in President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the support of three of the nation's most powerful politicians.
Thirty-two years is an uncommonly long time for a bill to languish in committee, but April 14, the day on which this one was finally approved, offers some additional historical perspective: it was the 156th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's assassination. The legacy of slavery goes deep in this country. Looking closely at an iconic history painting and a contemporary reinterpretation of it helps us recognize racism's abiding shadow and envision a more just future.
Despite its prosaic official title -- the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act -- the resolution reveals a bit of poetry in the shorthand by which it has subsequently been known. The "40" in HR 40 refers to the "forty acres and a mule" that Union General William Tecumseh Sherman included as part of Special Field Orders No. 15 in 1865, near the end of the Civil War.
Over the course of his "March to the Sea" from Atlanta to Savannah, more than 10,000 Black refugees had joined the Union troops, becoming "contrabands" -- captured enemy property -- in the callous terminology of the day. Famed illustrator Thomas Nast depicted some of them in a Harper's Weekly wood engraving, feeding, nursing and even carrying the wounded and bedraggled soldiers on their backs.
Faced with how to accommodate these unofficial volunteers at the conclusion of the military campaign, Sherman appropriated 400,000 acres of coastal land, providing for its division and distribution to the formerly enslaved African Americans -- a kind of initial attempt at reparations.
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