Reparation Ghosts

America’s greatest living poet, Kevin Coval, posted a photo on Instagram of spray-painted artwork on an abandoned building. His caption read: “there’s some ghosts in this house”.

Yes, indeed there are ghosts. And they’re whispering at my door.

For the past fifteen months I’ve shut the door on quite a few ghosts. I hear dead friends whisper “it’s ok to let me in now. to miss me. to mourn me”. There are the terrifying ghosts I’d boxed up and shoved into the southwest corner of my noggin. They’ve gotten loose. They’ve inched their way from the outer part of my field of vision to standing right in front of me. 

“Go out,” they command. “Talk to people. Meet friends. Make mistakes. Fail. Be brave.”

Then there are the ghosts of abandoned homes in Chicago. As the shutdown got rolling, anti-racist Zooms flew out of virtual networks and landed on my computer screen. I heard the voices and faces of Black families who were systematically denied family wealth in mid-century Chicago. Black and white activists explained contract-buying and redlining. Poets spoke of the mental wreckage caused by whites colonizing their neighborhoods.

I’m haunted by the stories in Beryl Satter’s 2009 book, “Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America.” Unscrupulous brokers sold homes by contract and convinced Blacks they were making monthly mortgage payments. But there weren’t mortgages. They didn’t own their homes, didn’t build equity, couldn’t sell, and couldn’t pass the deeds on to their offspring. The massive housing scheme drained as much as $500 million from the Black community.

In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about North Lawndale’s contract buyers in The Atlantic article The Case for Reparations.  He made the case. Denying Black families access to generational wealth through home ownership and other racist practices has caused the poverty, social ills and violence in the Black neighborhoods of the nation’s cities.

Coates had a solution. Reparations.  A word that makes a lot of people shiver came out of the Congressional closet where it had been languishing in a bill first introduced in 1989. About 12.5 million slaves were abducted from Africa. Reparations for their 35 million African-American descendants today would be approximately $1.5 to $2 trillion. 

White powerhouse hustlers say, ”The people to whom reparations are owed are long dead.” 

Oh those ghosts. They’re falling from the sky like rain and irrigating seeds of change. Evanston Illinois is the first place in the country to make housing reparations for Black families victimized by redlining, a practice that defined clear racial boundaries. The Evanston program is funded by (get this), marijuana sales. Illinois is expected to receive $1 billion in marijuana revenue in 2021. Uh. Oh. Someone may get the idea to use half of that for housing reparations for descendants of the swindled families in Chicago’s North Lawndale. 

That might satisfy the Chicago ghosts. Might not. I have a feeling it won’t satisfy the poets.

3 thoughts on “Reparation Ghosts

  1. Very moving and important. I don’t remember if you saw the Stevenson center program on contract buying. Bruce Orenstein, its documentarian, would not allow us to post it online after the meeting as he is trying to sell a long series about the issue to national television. But the story is heart rending on film as well as in Coates’ words on paper. Thank you for writing about this largely overlooked issue. Cheers, N

    Liked by 1 person

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