First of all, I’d like to thank Robert Greene II for organizing this roundtable. The intrinsic power of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay on reparations was immediately obvious, but I am very grateful to Robert for encouraging us to see that US intellectual history might have much to say about the longer conversation on reparations as well as much to take from the history of that conversation.
I want to pick up, to some extent, where Kurt Newman left off in his Tuesday post on the legal scholar Boris Bittker. Kurt points us to Bittker’s first engagement with the legal aspects of institutional racism and potential state efforts to combat it, in Bittker’s 1962 essay, “The Case of the Checkerboard Ordinance.” As Kurt notes, the essay imagines a fictitious Illinois community called New Harmony through a thought experiment set in Bittker’s near future—1965. This town, which Bittker describes as being near Chicago and only incorporated in 1962, the year of the essay, is zoned such that, apart from “public, commercial, industrial, recreational, institutional, and other nonresidential properties,” all lots are given either an “N” or a “W” designation that is immutable—the ownership and occupation of all “N” lots must remain in the hands of African-Americans and all “W” lots must remain in white hands.
It was interesting to me that Bittker chose to place his fictional town in a real state, and it is worth pausing a moment to offer a few possible reasons why that state was in the Midwest, especially given that the closest contemporary analogue for a totally-planned community with a strong racial policy regarding occupancy and ownership would seem to have been the Levittown settlements in New York and Pennsylvania, with the Levittown, PA riots in 1957 likely still quite fresh in people’s minds.
Bittker’s town’s name, New Harmony, is shared with the real town of New Harmony, Indiana, a utopian community founded originally by a German dissenting sect, then sold to Robert Owen, the Welsh socialist reformer. The Midwest has a history of utopian settlements, and Bittker almost certainly had these in mind. The unsegregated Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, finished in 1962, might also have been an influence. Kurt already pointed out the legacy of the Ossian Sweet case, in which a black man was put on trial for defending his home after a mob had gathered to extra-legally evict his family from their home in a white neighborhood in 1925.
The Ossian Sweet case also had a profound influence on Sinclair Lewis’s 1947 bestselling novel Kingsblood Royal, which is set in a fictional city called Grand Republic, Minnesota, in 1945-1946. Kingsblood Royal may also have played some role in directing Bittker toward the upper Midwest as a location for his New Harmony, but I’d like to argue here that its relevance to our conversation on reparations stands on its own merits, regardless of any possible influence it may have had on Bittker.
The novel is sensationalistic, melodramatic, and unrelentingly provocative—like Lewis’s 1935 anti-fascist novel It Can’t Happen Here, it was written to draw attention and to draw fire, to flush a problem out into the open. It is about Neil Kingsblood, a young banker who has just returned to his Minnesota home wounded in the European theater of World War II, who undertakes a whimsical investigation into his genealogy and who unexpectedly finds out that he is, by the one-drop rule, black, having a Martinican maternal ancestor who was a coureur du bois in the 18th century. Kingsblood Royal is a sort of American existential novel—should he tell? does this revelation really change him, or is it just a social construct? what is his duty? can he be true to himself if he suppresses this information?—but it also should be contextualized as part of the remarkable mid-1940s efflorescence of civil rights literature: there are definite similarities to Chester Himes’s incredible 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go, in that both are equally certain that the war’s effects, especially in terms of the employment of African-Americans in formerly “white” jobs, have permanently altered the consciousness of African-Americans. But it is also obviously a relative of Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit (1944) and Laura Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), as well as the Popular Front-inspired work of Carey McWilliams, Carlos Bulosan, and Louis Adamic in the 1940s. It is more directly indebted to Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945), Roi Ottley’s New World A-Coming (1943) and Gunnar Myrdal and Ralph Bunche’s American Dilemma (1944), Lewis actually having reviewed the latter three books for Esquire in a piece entitled, “Gentlemen, This Is Revolution.” It also worth noting that the year Kingsblood Royal was published, the President’s Committee on Civil Rights released its report, To Secure These Rights.
Lewis’s interest in civil rights was not new—he had been friends with Walter White and through him connected with the NAACP since the early 1920s, even serving for a few years as a judge for the Spingarn Medal—but it is obvious from the text of the novel that the war decisively changed his mind about the real imminence of a breakthrough. His assumption, though, was that it would come through revolution, not through reparations—the novel is filled with threats of violence and, while it is contained within the US only, Lewis’s mind was also on the war’s destabilization of old empires and the promise of the overthrow of European (and US) governance and exploitation by peoples of color worldwide.
Yet Kingsblood Royal is also suffused with the issue of racial legacies and the ways they are filtered through and produced by the state. Neil Kingsblood actually discovers his lineage by going to the Minnesota Historical Society, after a comic interlude in which he wonders, “Was there some fellow in the Government whose job it was to explain how you got historical facts?” It is also surprisingly attuned to the compounding injustices that have, over time, produced the whiteness that Neil has, for his entire life, taken for granted: Lewis repeatedly directs the reader back to the dispossession of Native Americans as the foundation of the community in which Neil lives, and in fact, even before he finds out about his Martinican ancestry, he discovers that on the same family tree he has a Chippewa great-great-great grandmother.
Yet Lewis’s novel is not intended to yield the answer “reparations” to the question “what is to be done,” and while that is in part for historical reasons—no one was offering reparations as a solution at the time—it is also for narratological reasons: it is extremely difficult to tell a story about racism such that reparations seems like an answer.
That difficulty comes from two dilemmas: how to handle empathy and how to handle agency. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s reparations essay, I think, is so successful largely because he delicately manages both problems, inviting and estranging the (white) reader’s sense of empathy, and balancing praise for the resilience and resourcefulness of African Americans throughout history with a realistic insistence upon the real damage of systemic racism. Kingsblood Royal is an effort to meet these problems head-on as well, and while it is not entirely successful, it is worth pointing out where it departs from contemporary and prior efforts in fiction and in other arts to do so.
The central conceit of the novel—that a white man metaphorically wakes up as a black man—was by no means new: the Populist politician Ignatius Donnelly (like Lewis, a Minnesotan) wrote an 1891 novel titled Dr. Huguet which featured one of the earliest uses of a body-swap plot when the minds of a white Southern intellectual and a black petty criminal are temporarily transposed into one another’s bodies; we can see some element of it in the scene in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man when the narrator as a child “discovers” he is black; the 1947 musical Finian’s Rainbow turns a race-baiting Southern Senator black temporarily; a bit later, John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me constructed this situation when the author used a variety of methods to darken his skin to go undercover to experience Jim Crow. The spirit, at least in the Donnelly and Griffin examples, is a literal rendering of the famous line from To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his [sic] point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Or, in other words, don’t just take their word for it, try to feel it—try to “feel right,” as Harriet Beecher Stowe recommended in the concluding chapter of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Kingsblood Royal considerably complicates this circuit of empathy: Neil doesn’t just take a walk in a black person’s skin, and his situation isn’t a temporary body swap—once he tells the world he’s black, he’ll stay that way. Furthermore, the latent hint of the novel is that the white reader cannot feel empathetic toward Neil because there may very well be no “safe” distance from which to view his plight. The reader who asks herself “What if this thing that never could happen to me hypothetically did happen to me?” may very well be deceiving herself—who is to say that there is not a black ancestor in her allegedly white family tree? Kingsblood Royal uses the specter of kinship—attenuated as it might be—to erode the distance of empathy; only solidarity is worthwhile when you might, in some way, however remote, be the kin of those with whom you are trying to empathize.
Kingsblood Royal also is an insightful, if flawed, examination of the issue of agency, of the question of how to acknowledge the courage and resiliency of African-American culture—there is a great deal of humor in the book, especially during the “race-talks” Neil attends, including the anecdote related by one of Neil’s friends, “The other day, in the bathroom, I read a label ‘facial tissues’ as ‘racial issues’”—while also acknowledging the reality of the damage constantly sustained in the teeth of everyday slights and humiliations. Kingsblood Royal largely finds the politics of respectability suspect and prizes a more vernacular, lower-middle class attitude toward the realities of internalized racism and the false promises in much of uplift ideology.
Lewis is also insistent upon showing us the ugliness of romanticizing African-American resilience as something both super- and sub-human. There is a terrible scene where Neil and his friend, an African-American chemist, are paraded as token blacks before the progressive set of Grand Republic and urged to sing a spiritual as an example of their people’s mournful glory. Neither man knows any, and the white liberals are snappishly disappointed: they wanted to be reassured that all African-Americans had the resources to bear their indignities gracefully and courageously. Neil himself does some romanticizing of the first black people he really gets to know, but he is persistently and intelligently put in his place: he must come to love his fellow African-Americans as people, not as mental constructs to buffer his own attempts to come to terms with and ultimately to appreciate his ancestry.
But the novel’s most intuitive attempt to resolve these problems of empathy and agency comes at its close: the climax of the novel occurs when Neil and his wife are joined by an assortment of white and black friends to defend—by force—their home from a mob of enraged citizens who want to expel Neil from the lily-white neighborhood in which he has been living all along. Neil himself fires not warning shots, but a volley actually kneecapping the first row of assailants. Then a group of policemen, waiting nearby, spring into action and arrest Neil. Neil’s wife (ridiculously named Vestal) demands to be jailed with him and, when refused, strikes a police officer with the butt of a pistol to force the issue. “Move along,” they order the Kingsbloods. “We’re moving,” Vestal replies.
That last sentence is meant to be portentous: “we are on the move” more than “we’re leaving.” But it also neatly encapsulates the central dilemma of the narratology of reparations: “We’re moving” can be construed as leaving behind no pause, no moment of sufficient stillness to contemplate coming to terms with the “story” up to this point. The novel directs us to an unsettled vanishing point somewhere beyond itself, leaving the shape of the story that has come before it muddled, lumpy: how do we begin to sort out the actions of the characters when we don’t know how it all turns out, when they continue “moving” beyond the scope of the novel?
Coates presents us with an identical problem—one approaching a paradox—at the end of his essay on reparations.
In 2011, Bank of America agreed to pay $355 million to settle charges of discrimination against its Countrywide unit. The following year, Wells Fargo settled its discrimination suit for more than $175 million. But the damage had been done. In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore whose owners had been granted loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008 were vacant; 71 percent of these properties were in predominantly black neighborhoods.
As long as we construct the narrative of reparations as an effort to catch up to the end of the story, these payments look like ironic failures: the people had already “moved” on beyond the scope of the story, refusing to stay still long enough for the reader to catch up to them. It is, I think, the virtue of Coates’s essay—and of Kingsblood Royal—that this desire to catch up to the end of the story is not indulged, or is at any rate not decisive: Coates presents us with many ways to think about what kinds of repayment might constitute justice, and how different kinds of repayment might interact and reinforce one another. To think of reparations as a conclusion to a story narrows those options to one, and it is above all the refusal of that constriction that I think we can gratefully acknowledge in both Coates and Kingsblood Royal.
 There are many interesting nuances to this thought experiment which Bittker folds into this basic idea, some of which are notable for their acuity when it comes to imagining the US as a multiracial, and not merely a biracial, society. For instance, Bittker writes that “The ordinance accommodates persons who are neither Negro nor white by providing that, upon settling in New Harmony for the first time, such a person may acquire or occupy property regardless of designation, but thereafter he [sic] may not acquire or occupy property in the other category; and similar provision is made for parties to mixed marriages [n.b., Loving v. Virginia was still five years off when this essay was published]. Servants are not subject to the occupancy rules, but may live with the families for whom they work.”
 Lewis acknowledges the possibility that Neil and his family could try to move somewhere else and pass, or even say that Neil’s research into his genealogy was in error, that there was no black ancestor, but Neil refuses to consider these real possibilities—the suspicion would always be inescapable, if nothing else, and Neil actively disavows wanting to be white any longer after experiencing prejudice.