October 3, 2007
Slavery reparations, an issue columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson described in 2002 as “once a fringe issue touted by black separatists, zealots and crackpots” and “shunned like the plague” by so-called “respected mainstream civil rights leaders,” is finally reaching some level of attention in the national public policy debate. While Hutchinson’s language is laced with pejorative value judgments of reparation activists, the point is clear: reparations discussions are marginalized and the arrival of this topic in national debate is something we should all pay attention to.
At the July 2007 CNN/You Tube Democratic presidential debates, a young man identified as “Will from Boston, Mass.” asked if African Americans will ever get reparations, adding that he knew candidates would “run around this question, dipping and dodging.” John Edwards replied with a prompt “No … but I think there are other things we can do.” Barack Obama called for reparations in the form of reinvesting in our schools. Hilary Clinton took a “pass,” leaving me to rely on her past denouncements of reparations. And Dennis Kucinich, in a biblically laced soapbox message, noted that he was for reparations, but believes there should be an akin reparations program for poor whites.
It is important that presidential candidates are at least talking about reparations, even if abstractly and evasively so, but are national policy debates and classrooms the only spaces where these discussions can happen? Some argue, yes, keep policy dialogue in its “proper spaces.” However, many artists are using performance art to create a broader dialogue and bring more attention to social issues. It is an attempt to disrupt the monopolies on “legitimate” discussions and where they can take place.
In 1992, artists Guillermo-Gomez Pena and CoCo Fusco toured the country trapped in a 10-by-12-foot cage as members of unknown, but fictional, “specimens representative of the Guatinaui people” in the performance piece “Undiscovered Amerindians.” In a satirical commentary that far too many people missed, Pena and Fusco brought attention to the colonial encounter, live human spectacles like Sara Baartman and the countless examples of carnivalized “natives.” Between 1986 and 1990, Adrian Piper passed out offset lithograph calling cards at social gatherings when someone made an unwelcome sexual advance or someone unaware of her racial background made a racist joke. One calling card read, “I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you … just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.”