A visit to New Orleans: modern day tourist haven, historical slave port. Listen to this courageous convo with key American voices on how this past influences the present, and what debt remains in our collective hands. With Eddie Moore Jr, founder of the White Privilege Conference; John Cummings III, Owner of the Whitney Plantation (the only plantation documenting the history of slavery in America); and Bryan Nichols with Medria Connolly, Clinical Psychologists/ Activist Scholars actively researching the psychological case for Reparations.
Please note: Any sound discrepancies in podcasts are a trade-off for interviewing in the field.
Annahid Dashtgard in conversation with Eddie Moore Jr., John Cummings III, Bryan Nichols, and Medria Connolly – June 2018
View Transcript in PDF format: Breaking the Ocean: Episode 2
Annahid: Hi there. My name is Annahid Dashtgard, and I’m host of this podcast, Breaking The Ocean: Sound waves of Belonging. I’m an immigrant born, Canadian woman who identifies as a person of color living north of the border. I do diversity, equity and inclusion work and one of the things that I’ve been inspired by is watching the process of reconciliation towards Indigenous peoples in Canad including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report and things that are happening to start to make reparations toward Indigenous people as a result of our long, broken, painful history.
Recently I went down to visit the American South, outside of New Orleans and the surrounding areas, and I visited the first plantation in America, documenting the history of slavery towards African-American peoples.
I was curious about how invisible that history still is and why a similar process around reparations has not been advanced or at least to the same degree that we’re seeing here north of the border. While I was down there, I happened to run into my friend Eddie Moore, Jr., founder of the White Privilege Conference in the US that’s been running for more than 20 years, a couple years here in Canada. And I had a chance to ask him, whether he thought reparations were important and what the process could look like.
Eddie: One, I think it’s long overdue. I think relationships are better if pain is caused and apology follows that. I think there’s going to be a real healing that happens if we can get this apology followed by reparations.
And I’m not talking about individual white people giving individual checks to black people. I am talking about corporations, organizations that benefit, that built, that in many cases expanded their wealth through the participation of the enslavement of African people, should be given back. Not necessarily in individual checks, but in contributions to society, where we know slavery, the enslavement of African people destroyed human capital. And I think, to some extent, it is the responsibility of those who destroyed it to repair and rebuild it.
Annahid: John Cummings III, is one of those individuals who have taken responsibility. He purchased the Whitney Plantation outside of New Orleans in 1999 and has spent more than $10 million dollars out of his own pocket restoring the plantation as an homage, a memorial, to the history of slavery, not only in the American south but the only plantation documenting this history in the country.
I’m going to start with a question, a different question. What was the most moving thing that you read in the history when you purchased the plantation, that led to turning this into a kind of a memorial?
John: It is a memorial and what, there was no white horse or lighting, but what happened was, when I got to the section on successions, on probate, everyone had an inventory. And for the first time-
Annahid: An inventory of owning slaves?
John: Of slaves. An inventory of everything he died possessed of but I realized for the first time and I was embarrassed that the second most valuable asset on his plantation were human beings and I did not know that. So, I was embarrassed.
Annahid: After sugar.
John: I was embarrassed and I figured that if I didn’t know it since I had everybody in New Orleans fooled into believing I was a Civic Leader, I had two degrees. Many law offices around the United States, tried many of the big cases in the world, that no other Caucasian in my area knew that. I thought the thing that I’d have to do is to try … And that’s when it changed. It was no longer going to be an asset of mine. In fact, at the end of the year, we are donating all of it to a foundation. You know I’ve spent 10 million dollars so far here.
John: I still have a few dollars left, so we’re going to keep doing it, but that’s where it’s going. This place, eventually, will be controlled by African American board members. So that was it, I looked and saw that men, women and children all had a price tag on them. Either in Spanish, French or American currency depending on who was in charge at that time. I didn’t believe it but I figured that I had to do my best to educate my [00:02:30] fellow Caucasians. You never pay a debt until you acknowledge it.
Annahid: I was left so affected by my visit to the Whitney plantation that I couldn’t understand how could it be that in 21st century America, this history is still so largely invisible? I went to my friends, Dr. Brian Nichols and Dr. Medria Connolly, clinical psychologists and activist scholars who have been actively working on the psychological case for reparations over the last couple of years.
I want to start by asking you two, and Medria, you’re here in person, Bryan, you’re joining us by phone, why you think reparations are important, and what could it look like?
Bryan: All right. Thanks for having me, Annahid. Yeah, I worked in community settings for 30 years. The last 18 or so years was in gang prevention and gang intervention. In the City of Los Angeles we invested a lot of money. There was no lack of commitment and money. But I kept seeing multiracial groups of researchers, providers, city bureaucrats come together to try to plan this things. And I kept seeing this group breakdown into racial conflict. Where all the stereotypes and beliefs about each other became present in the room, and it impeded a collaborative progress.
Bryan: Medria and I, also witnessed this process, which we referred to as racial enactment, happened in conferences that we attended. Conferences explicitly geared toward bringing about racial understanding.
Annahid: What did you say, Bryan, racial tension?
Bryan: Racial understanding. I called was a racial enactment.
Medria: Racial enactment.
Annahid: Oh, racial enactments. Okay.
Bryan: Yes. But, it seemed to me that there was some force, I would say floating above the room, that kept undermining the ability of a multiracial group to come together. Old conflicts kept emerging and dominating the conversation, dominating the interaction. It seems to me that something that had not been done needed to be done to clear the air. Then once I’ve read Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Reparations, then I understood.
Bryan: It was that we would never be right. We would never be healed until there was an appropriate apology and compensation for this crime against humanity that was slavery. That’s in a nutshell, if I could say how it came together for us.
Annahid: Well, that idea of compensation is interesting just as a side note, because I understand that Congress has made two apologies. Yet, it seems like they didn’t register with many people. Did you want to-
Bryan: Well, the apologies were made and I’m not one who minimizes that, because those apologies were made by the Senate and the House in 2008 and 2009. So still, if it was so easy to make an apology why would it have taken 150 years to get it out? So the way I view it, is as a step. Even though at the end they said this apology in no way opens this up to claims. Right? That’s all right, it’s just a matter of the proper activism of the people to move it over the next hump of actual compensation.
Medria: Well, part of that too … I mean it is a first step. But I think that the fact that no compensation was attached to it was one of the reasons why it was one of our best kept secrets. There was no media blitz. I mean you and I found out about this, what a year ago? No one I knew was aware of it, but it in fact happened, so it’s ironic. I don’t think most black people are aware that there has been an apology made. So it’s like, okay what is that about? And would something that is that significant to us, as a people, be not promoted. It was not really promoted. It wasn’t highlighted. I don’t know what that’s all about, but it is curious.
Annahid: It sounds to me like you’re talking about this presence that hovers over the relationship between African Americans and folks of other racial backgrounds. I think it seems … I would call it the Ghost of History. I’m somebody that does a lot of work around racism, and I know the history of slavery. I have to say that I was really shocked visiting the plantation yesterday. Hearing the first person accounts. Seeing the thousands of names that are etched in these memorials across the ground. Seeing the slave quarters where people lived. Just hearing the depth, frequency, level of atrocities that happened among people on the plantation. Never mind the journey to move people from Western Africa across the ocean onto the plantations themselves.
Annahid: I’m in tears. I’m on the bus and reflecting. The bus pulls up the other plantation that people have visited, and there’s an Inn on the site. People are sitting and drinking and chatting. This is the other plantation where I think they do a tour of the house, and the people that used to live there, and the china patterns. And I’m just struck by the difference and experience of, how can it be that people … It’s like to me visiting a concentration camp. One concentration camp focuses on the atrocities done to Jewish and other folks at the camp. Then the one across the way has a restaurant and people are just chatting and eating. How is that possible?
Bryan: Well, our friend and colleague, Jeff Prager says, “This kind of multi generational trauma, for the victim it’s something that we can’t forget. But for the perpetrator it’s something they can’t remember.” That lack of remembering is what promotes the haunting, the ghost. It makes it unresolved. And a unresolved feeling that perpetuates through the decades and the centuries.
Annahid: That’s really powerful what you just said. That line, that for people of color, you can’t forget, and for other folks, it’s too hard to remember.
Bryan: Because if you remember, if you perpetrate like that, and then you go through the generations and then somewhere three, four, or five generations down, there’s a person who gets up and goes to work and is normal. Is good hearted soul, wasn’t directly involved in it. But yet, they had benefited in what we call, white privilege, but they’re decent people. They don’t want to be affiliated with an atrocity that they have inside of the thing, committed a crime against humanity.
Bryan: “I don’t want to remember that. I’m a good guy. I’m not trying to hurt anybody. But yet, maybe my family benefited and maybe my fellow citizens across the way did not benefit, but if I have to own that I’m gonna have to feel some shame about that. The shame’s too hard to own. I’d rather forget about it.”
Annahid: I think it’s hard for people to see that this is also just not about that distant past. Although, we’re not seeing the level of atrocity towards black people as it existed 200 years ago, or 50 years ago, with the history of lynchings and all of that. That was still recent. But, the rendering of the forms of unconscious bias and the ways in which the micro aggressions, the micro assaults that still happen on a daily basis if you live in a black body. I’m wondering if either one of you want to just speak to that a little bit? What is that like? How does one swallow that, and how do you talk about that to non-black friends?
Bryan: Well, let me just comment on what you just said about we don’t see the level of atrocity. I would agree. We don’t see quite the level of atrocity. But when you worked in neighborhoods like I did, from doing gang prevention and gang intervention, and you see families decimated by their family members being in prison. By some of their family members being killed. By people killing each other. There is a level of atrocity still. When you see the gross numbers of African Americans in prison, and some for serious crimes, but some for very trivial crimes. And in prison for a long time, damaging the family. Harming their ability to get work when they come out, poverty for these groups. It’s pretty bad.
Now, then there are those of us who made our way to middle class, and then we suffer the micro assaults to a certain extent, and sometimes even more. But it’s broad range of assaults that we’re dealing with. Some of us who made it okay don’t have to face that every day reality that some of the people in the hood go through. But that can be a tough reality.
Medria: Absolutely. Then there are other ways that it manifests. I was sharing with Annahid and Shaquille, on our return trip from the White Privilege Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan on the end of April when I had my granddaughter, Makai, who’s 15. I put her on the plane to fly back to New Jersey. She’s a short girl. She’s four ten and three quarters. She was not flying as an unaccompanied minor so she really had to negotiate all of this on her own. I just told her, which she had done coming out, “Just ask somebody to help you put your suitcase up,” because she can’t reach it.
I later learned from her that when she got on the plane, she stood there asking people to help her put her luggage up. She was completely ignored. People just walked by her as if she was not standing there asking for help. Then she said finally an older white woman got up out of her seat and helped her put her luggage up. Then when she sat down, she was sitting next to another white woman who absolutely refused to look at her. Would not smile. Would not engage her. Acted as if she was not there at all. Just chilled her out.
I have to say, hearing this enraged me, because one, she’s vulnerable. She’s a kid. There was no one there running any real interference on her behalf, and she just had to deal with it. Those types of micro aggressions that happen … she’s a full paying passenger just like everyone else on that plane. But that sort of experience undoes me. I get undone around that, and it triggers my rage. Then I say, “Okay. Well, where do I put that? Where do I take that?” So those are the kinds of things.
Bryan: Let me add to that, Medria. Makai, four foot ten and three quarters though she may be, there’s that research that says that when white people look at pictures of black kids they estimate them to be three to four years older than they are.
Medria: Well, that is true too.
Bryan: Which allows them to not treat them as though they need support, as though they’re vulnerable. This actually comes through in the sentencing of African American teens. But it comes through a million ways, and maybe that was one of the ways that your granddaughter had to suffer.
Medria: Right. Right.
Annahid: Yeah. It’s like the greater emotional tax that is paid by being black and having to swallow the gamut of, as you said Bryan, the existing atrocities. If I’m black and living in poverty all the way to being a more middle class professional context, where it’s the steady rendering of the micro aggressions. I feel like this is like … there’s this huge gap in the conversation between what black people experience and what white people see. And as we’re talking about, are willing to see. I’m wondering do you two … do you have some thoughts on how do we start to … Well, I think the gap is being bridged, but how do we continue? And what are some things that you think about as helping to bridge that gap? What do you think is important? How do we start to take the next steps on this reparations journey?
Annahid: Just that small question.
Bryan: I mean this was part of the foundation of what led us into this in the first place. We would be in these multiracial groups trying to have this conversation, and as I would say, the conversation usually gets … let me say, messed up.
Medria: I would say, it goes south. The conversation goes … it starts off good and then it goes south.
Annahid: Right. When we talk about what we gotta do people kind of …
Annahid: And let’s be clear-
Bryan: Because people are seeing things from totally different angles.
Bryan: But it’s hard for me to speak to what everybody else wants to do. I speak to myself, and when I hear offensive comments, well I’m making judgements. I distinguish people as being, are you guilty or are you unrepentant? If you’re unrepentant, I got nothing to say to you. But if you’re guilty, I’m trying to hear and I’ll try to be sensitive and empathic, and not reactionary. Mostly, I’m not trying to play my part. I’m not trying to fall into the role of the angry black man, because you can easily be pushed into these roles.
Annahid: That’s right.
Bryan: Once you’re playing your role, then you are reinforcing the old prevailing dynamic.
Annahid: That’s right.
Bryan: So I’m fighting that. I’m trying to be sensitive and keep engaging. That’s what I try to do.
Medria: Well, it’s challenging too because the other side of that is being pushed into the role of caretaker. When you’re trying to have this conversation with whites and they start crying or feel attacked. Robin DiAngelo speaks about this beautifully in her book on White Fragility. She really talks about it in terms of white people really needing to develop the muscle to talk about this. But that they’ve been so protected by privilege that they feel terribly vulnerable when they begin to enter into these conversations. But it’s actually with Bryan and I, having the same experience over 30 years of you have these conversations, but nothing changes.
Bryan: Medria, what did you tell that person at one of our talks when she made a comment about projecting the blackness? What did you tell her? Do you remember?
Medria: You’re talking about when on your paper with Get Out?
Medria: Oh, she said, “Well, what should we do?” I said to her, again, quoting James Baldwin, I said, “Listen, you have to do your own work. Do not give me that work to do. You have to figure out as James Baldwin said, why you need me to be your negro? That is not my work to do. That is your work to do.”
Bryan: “Why do you need me to be your negro?” That’s just what you said.
Medria: Exactly. That is the issue.
Annahid: That’s great.
Bryan: And to that point I will add, sense of humor. A sense of humor goes a long way. I mean it doesn’t usually sit in these conversations, but for me, it’s a saving grace.
Annahid: Well, and it ties in with the bigger piece in our society that we’re still socially and emotionally stunted. Let me just say it this way, I think we have a lot further to go. I think people generally just don’t have emotional literacy, especially with the harder or more difficult emotions. So I find feeling these harder emotions, grief, fear, shame, guilt. Then, “I want to run away from them as quickly as possible.” People don’t realize that if I run away then I’m putting more burden on those that are already carrying too much.
Bryan: But one of the things in one of the talks we had up in San Francisco, Medria. You weren’t in this meeting when a person was saying, “Now, I’ve been exposed to this, and I feel awful. When I go home at night, I’m gonna feel awful. Am I supposed to hold onto this? What do I do with all of these terrible feelings?” I was like, “Don’t worry about it my man, don’t worry about it. Look, the next time you see a petition for reparations at your local Whole Foods, just sign it. Then be good with that.”
Bryan: Because otherwise, it does feel like feelings that people are just gonna get stuck in. You do need to have an awareness, but nobody wants to live in shame. You can’t … individual human beings aren’t gonna function that way.
Bryan: You need an awareness, but you need a pathway to redemption. And reparations gives you a concrete pathway to redemption. That’s what we need.
Annahid: That’s really well said.
Bryan: I’m just not trying to make you feel bad, now live in that. Live in how bad you feel, no. No human being wants to operate that way.
Annahid: That’s right. That strikes me as the inner work in the way that Medria was talking about. You’ve gotta do your inner work. In other words, you gotta work through those difficult emotions, but then get somewhere with them. I like what you’re saying Bryan, that the reparations gives people the pathway. But you gotta be willing to do the work to walk that path as well.
Medria: Absolutely. It really is about atonement, and this is a form of that. And the whole notion of a Truth in Reconciliation Commission … that certainly happened in South Africa. Happening in Canada. One of the things that is clear in my reading is that reason that, that happens is because one of the first steps in repair is listening. A deep listening. Surprisingly, that deep listening makes people feel some kind of way. If you’re really taking it in you are going to feel awful.
Medria: I mean I’m experiencing it reading about veterans since that’s where the notion of moral injury is a term that’s typically applied to Vietnam, Afghani, and Iraqi vets. Where they have their horror stories, and people don’t want to hear that stuff, because … am I’m there. I was reading their narratives and I was feeling like, oh my God. Not only that, but I was feeling my own complicity in the things that they were talking about. I was like, oh my God, I was one of those people who were protesting the war in Vietnam. I was one of those people disrespecting those vets when they came back home. I’m in there.
Then dropping down and recognizing my complicity in something that I really had … I thought I knew about, but in fact I really did not know about, because it’s only now that I’m learning it. How I have taken that information, even from currently, the soldiers in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and those vets who have come back. Where are they? Are they in my mind? No. They sort of are now because I’m doing this reading. But think that there is a parallel process that goes on then for whites in relationship to the legacy of slavery. It’s the same dynamic, so it is work. I get it. You do have to work to hold onto it.
It’s awfully nice when you then have a vehicle, something to say, okay, I’m feeling this kind of way. Let me to do something. I can vote for a reparations because we will all feel better if we acknowledge this wrong and do something to correct it in the here and now. Then we don’t have to keep defending against it. Projecting our negative aspects of the other people purchasing our care and concern for our own group by projecting out our aggression and anxiety onto the other and so forth, and so on.
Annahid: Yeah. It seems like there is a … Yes, we’ve made so many steps forward. And with Trump being elected, it’s just of reminder of how much further we have to go. Are you two hopeful about the future?
Bryan: Oh, don’t get us talking about a hope. We have had long conversations about whether hope is even something to be discussed or considered.
Medria: Right, we have.
Bryan: I’m actually … I’m kind of hopeful. I’m gonna tell you I think Trump moves us closer rather than further away. I think the moment of chaos and crisis gives us an opportunity. That’s what Trump brings. He makes the illness come to a boil. Now that boil has to be lanced. It won’t be pretty. It won’t be pretty. But there is a chance … I think there’s a chance of exposure and working through that’s easier when things seem okay on the surface.
This thing isn’t gonna be done in just little increments. Ultimately, it’s going to be a quantum leap that’s gonna happen if we ever get to this point of reparations and real reconciliation, atonement, equality.
Medria: Well, one of the other things that our conversation around hope, and Bryan tends to be more hopeful than I am. What I say to him is, “Okay. Hope is a privilege, and why do we have to have hope in order to do the right thing?” It’s like, “No, I don’t know if this is going to get better in my lifetime.” If I’m using hope as my motivation then I’m in trouble that it helps certainly … it feels better when one experiences hope. But I don’t feel like it needs to be necessary in order to do the work that we have to continue. Because it’s the right thing to do.
Bryan: Let me distinguish hope from expectation.
Medria: True. That’s true. That’s true.
Bryan: I would say when I read Coates’s article, who by the way says, “I don’t know about hope. Don’t talk to me about hope.”
Medria: Ta- Nehisi definitely says, “Don’t talk to me about hope.” Right?
Bryan: But when I read his article, his article provided an answer to my lifelong question. Why does this continue? How come things don’t seem to get better? When he started talking about reparations I realized, “Oh my God, that’s it!” A crime happened and nobody apologized. It’ll never get better if it doesn’t get rectified.
Bryan: Then I saw it. It was like a clear path. This is what needs to happen. I don’t know about our hope. I don’t care about … maybe it’s more like obsession, but I see what it is to me. So then you … until my last dying breath that’s what we work for.
Medria: That’s what we work for. Absolutely. That is exactly right. That is what we work for.
Annahid: That’s right. That’s right. And it’s very possible. I will say that our Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the report … After the government apology, the commission and then this report generated, there are hundreds of recommendations. Many of which are now enshrined into policy. Including the mandatory curriculum development of the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Which has not been covered unless voluntarily by teachers in our school system. Which is astonishing, but no different than in the US here. I just want to say that this is a choice. It’s a story that needs to be heard by people in power. And enshrined in our systems at every level, and especially, in our education. Children in America need to learn about the history that they come out of.
I think about going to the plantation yesterday. One of the most powerful aspects was they had statues of children across the plantation that had … and it’s apparent. It’s unimaginable. But just the children that had lost their lives or been forced into violence or been raped at 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 years of age, because they just … I think, our children need to know the stories of those children. They need to know those stories to they can make different choices.
Bryan: That’s part of the remembering. I’m gonna say one more thing about that hope thing. For us who are working toward this, sometimes I find it almost seems fashionable to say, “Oh, that’ll never happen. That’ll never change.” I’m just not with that. We’re working in this area, why would we ever say that? I’m not saying that’ll never change. Now I don’t know that it will-
Bryan: … but if we work on this, I’m not with that. This can be better.
Medria: It definitely can be better.
Bryan: This can be better.
Annahid: Well, I want to say thank you to both of you. I think that’s a really great way to end. It can be better, and we all choose what part we play in making things better.
Annahid: Both those things are true, and they’re connected truths. I want to just finish by asking each of you, when you think of the word belonging, what comes to mind? Just a couple of quick associations.
Medria: My first association is to community and relationships. Community is very, very important, so that’s what I think belonging … Not being isolated in one’s experience, which is a hard thing to tolerate.
Bryan: I think accepted, welcomed, on the inside. That’s what comes to mind when I think belonging.
Annahid: Thank you, both of you. That was really, really a great discussion.
Medria: Thank you, Annahid. Thank you for your work.
Bryan: Thank you. Thank you, Annahid.