2016-06-30
In 1969, civil-rights leader James Forman presented The Black Manifesto to American churches and synagogues, demanding that they take the lead in paying blacks $500 million dollars to answer for slavery and racism. The Manifesto argued that whites had "exploited and degraded, brutalized, killed and persecuted" blacks, first through slavery and later through Jim Crow laws and other legal and social practices. This subjugation benefited whites enormously economically, while blacks got little from their labor. Churches were only Forman's first targets. He planned to move on quickly to other institutions to contribute to pay the debt.

Forman collected little money, but he did ignite discussion in universities, newspapers and, of course, pulpits. This response, by Gayraud S. Wimore Jr., then executive director executive director of the Council on Church and Race of The United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., first appeared in the journal Theology Today.

Note: the following contains frank language some may find objectionable.

Reparations, Zeparations! Clergymen have customarily been afflicted with an almost sexual fixation upon words. We have symptoms of verbal voyeurism, roving eye-balls, and attuned ear drums for words--words for the morning, words for the evening, words to conjure with, words to analyze other words.

Ministers, and especially theologians, hustle words, seduce and are seduced by them. We manipulate and fondle them promiscuously, in public and in private. We bring them home to live with us, shacked up in rhetorical harems suited for our multifarious services, moods, and appetites. It is, perhaps, not for nothing that we call ourselves "ministers of the Word" and that the Bible, theology, poetry, and the latest phrases and quotations become our special procurers-working overtime on Sundays and holidays.

The effect of all this is that we are having a veritable orgy these days with the word reparations, while the Black Economic Development Conference has received about $20,000 of its $3 billion revised demands and practically all of that from the collection plate rather than the clergy-dominated bureaucracies. We are plainly more interested in talking, writing, theologizing about reparations than in making money and power available to implement the programs of "The Black Manifesto."

[New York newspaper columnist] Murray Kempton's appraisal of James Forman's controversial document was almost accurate when he wrote: "This is not language which lends itself to acceptance or rejection by ordinary rules of discussion, being not so much argument as incantation, and thus in a special sense language not of this world."

"We are demanding $500,000,000 from the Christian white churches and the Jewish synagogues. This total comes to $15 per nigger.

This is a low estimate for we maintain there are probably 30,000,000 black people in this country. $15 a nigger is not a large sum of money and we know that the churches and synagogues have a tremendous wealth and their membership, white America, has profited and still exploits black people" (Black Manifesto, p. 7).

These words are not so much to be spoken as chanted or sung. A recitative in Southern blues meter. The kind of thing James Brown or Aretha would do at shrill pitch in a jumping Baptist church. The vibrations coming through from this kind of address do not intend to convey mainly cognitive information. A message is there, but it is not inherent in the words but in the spirit, in the style of music-in the pitch and timbre of the harsh, sad, rhapsodic music of extreme alienation. "This total comes to $15 per nigger."

There is, indeed, something to be taken seriously here, if with a smile, but one misses the point if he reads the reparations passages as a legal brief or a pronunciamento. What communicates meaningfully and by intent is a sullen irony, a bitter adumbration of the black condition, an uncompromised and unequivocal anger that curiously is laced (though imperceptibly to the untutored ear) with the cryptic black humor of the black community.

Kempton is both right and wrong. Incantation it may be and certainly not subject to the ordinary rules of discussion, as white people discuss other people's problems. The language, however, intends to transmit something more than a verbal abracadabra. It has the spirit of a certain grim, no-nonsense aspect of the ghetto, and it points to realities (real needs and demands) which black people experience daily in their world. If most white Americans do not live in the same world as blacks, that is all the more reason to force them-by disruption if not by something more persuasive-to pay attention to the fact that they and not the blacks evoked the Two Americas, one slave and one free, and that the overdue bill for that evocation must now be paid in full. The real issue is not the validity or invalidity of reparations, but the fact of black alienation and what white Christians are going to do about it.

What the concept of reparations in the Manifesto connotes is that notorious phrase from the black poet and playwright, Leroi Jones-"Up against the wall, Mother ----- !" That is its impatient, angry, gutty, ghetto connotation. In a prosaic, ideological context, such as the rest of the Manifesto provides, the concept becomes refined substantively as the word reparations. But that is not the point. The point is desperation, alienation, and the kind of rap on whitey that all black people understand.

What James Forman was saying, with a chorus of black voices behind him, is: "We are mad, sad, busted, and disgusted. We are fed up to here with good will, cooperation, coalitions, and joint planning. We are turned off by application forms, certificates of incorporation, feasibility studies, budget reviews, and evaluation teams. We are sick to death of investment loans, matching funds, emergency grants, seed money, and phasing-out allocations.

"Up against the wall, Mother ------!

'We don't want you to give us another damn cent. You robbed us in slavery and you rob us everyday. We now take what belongs to us and we owe you neither gratitude nor accountability.

"No more consultations. No more conferences. No more five-color interpretive brochures on poverty and community organization. Give us the money that went into printing the brochure, that goes into those million dollar sanctuaries, into Hilton Hotels and TWA, into IBM machines, audio-visuals, and air-conditioners while you put a few hundred bucks here and there for black economic and community development-properly validated, authorized, coordinated, accounted, and evaluated-by white people.

"We need bread and we need it now. We need it to be left on the doorstep at midnight so we don't have to see you coming or say, 'Thank you, Mr. White Man,' when you leave,"

We can call it reparations, restitution, indemnity, or "An Offering to Get These Black People Off Our Backs." The BEDC couldn't care less. What is happening is an attempt once again, only this time more forcefully and with the focus on the affluent white religious institutions, to induce Whitetown to repair the damages in Blacktown as the price for peace and the possible evolution of one prosperous, united community.

The label under which that enormous task gets done is immaterial. What is crucial is that the work does get underway as soon as possible and that the people involved on the receiving end are permitted to retain their pride, sense of dignity, and the determination of the means and ends which they deem to be relevant to their own self-fulfillment.

The FBI and the local police know a little more about the language of the ghetto than the white churches. At least they understand, without much sympathy unfortunately, the meaning of black alienation and what is at stake in this struggle. Characteristically and unsentimentally, they regard the way Forman talks about reparations as blackmail and extortion.

But the Christian church is neither the FBI nor the local police. Of all the institutions of the society, it is supposed to know the dynamics of a stick-up in a culture of poverty and oppression. It is supposed to have wisdom born of the knowledge of God, a sense of poetic justice in passionate language, a feeling for the human drama in which (to quote Bonhoeffer) "there are once more villains and saints.... But the villain and the saint have little or nothing to do with systematic ethical studies."

Of all the institutions interested in ethics and morality, the church should have sensitive ears to the difference between a cry for help in the threatening command of the rapist houseboy, whose manhood has been emasculated, and the secret motive to exploit lust and feign innocence in the whimpering of the mistress being raped, when she herself has psychologically raped every servant in the house. Bonhoeffer again: "Better than truth in the mouth of the liar is the lie."

The church, if with wisdom it also has insight, will understand the meaning of reparations in the context of the present black-white situation in the United States. Let us not hang up over the words. Let us make the money and power available to those who need it to survive our perfidy.



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