Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “A Case for Reparations” taught me a lot about American history, and it made me consider issues in a new light. The author’s talk had the same effect. Something I learned of myself by the end, though, was that I find analogies very helpful and persuasive. There were two Coates used that really stuck with me and made me think, but I’ll just discuss the first.
While acknowledging it was not the perfect example, Coates compared slave ownership to homeownership today. Slave ownership was a norm at the time, and people could aspire to own slaves as a status symbol and method for accumulating wealth. Slaves were a topic of conversation and comparison, and ownership was enriched with magazines and advice. Homeownership is also a norm and a signifier that one is at least middle class, a status symbol. Homes also accumulate wealth over time, and homeowners seek out magazines and advice in order to improve their homes.
I would never have come up with this comparison on my own, but it was very effective at giving me a new perspective. My family has put a lot of work into my house over the years, making improvements and design changes each year. If my home were suddenly taken away, much as the slaves were suddenly given rights and freedom, I’m sure I would be very upset. I picture the government coming to my door and telling my family to vacate because the house is now its own entity and cannot be owned. I’m sure I would feel cheated and angry at the unfairness of it all. Why should I have to suddenly give up my home, my property, something that I have taken for granted and which has been an investment for my family, all because someone else said so? A building cannot nearly be compared to a human being, but I definitely have a better grasp on why whites and even the government may have reacted with animosity after the Civil War. It certainly doesn’t justify everything that happened, but it did offer me a new concept to think about and added to my understanding of why we have the world we have today.
Can understanding why the animosity began help us to enact change?
Featured image: cover of November 2010 issue of This Old House magazine