by Paul North
We're used to thinking of the past as something that already happened. We say it's over, finished. We've moved on. Some go further and say that the past itself has moved…out of reach. It is over and done with, it holds no claim on us, it has not only stopped happening but also no longer has effects. As naïve as this seems, there are reasons to take this view. What do Napoleon or the Warring States period in China have to do with shopping malls and the global poverty level? Which parts of the past influence us and which are truly out of date? A good example of the "over and done with" theory of the past is old technology. Is that a clay tablet for sale in my office supply store? This evidence can be used to argue for a strong discontinuity with the past.
The same evidence, the reed stylus for making wedge-shaped impressions in a clay tablet, can be used to show a strong continuity with the past. Some would point out the obvious similarities between 300-year old stylus and ballpoint pen, for instance, and perhaps a little more surprisingly, but not much, some will note the screen-like nature of the clay tablet. Those who see this think that the past, though completed, nevertheless has influence on our present. Some believe that the US Constitution fixed the standards for high-level political issues, and these very standards—freedom of assembly, the right to bear arms, freedom of speech, among others—persist, despite multiple problems of interpretation, and despite the way language changes and forms of living and frames of reference change. The past happened. It is done and closed for business. Our present reenacts—in perpetuity—matters settled long ago.
In perpetuity—this is just the point. Many also think the past, though fixed and formed and unchanging, influences not only the present but also the future. This view is shared by evangelicals and tech junkies alike. The belief that in the deepest past God fixed a date for salvation is close cousin to the belief that in the recent past the invention of the computer fixed the course of progress. These beliefs, despite the obvious differences, have a similar view of the past. Past events, finished, final, and certain as they are, nonetheless shaped future events.
Any other view would be hard to believe. Who could imagine that what has passed into the past could still be changed? More than changed—who could imagine that the past is still… happening? Mad-persons, dreamers, or Hollywood directors maybe, but certainly no one concerned with truth. After all, "past" means this. Past things have passed beyond our—anybody's—sphere of action.
Fate is not always about the future. There is also a fateful attitude toward the past. You know you have it when you look back and see something settled once and for all. It's like replaying a video. At most you can argue about what the clip means or whether it is still relevant. You never replay it and say: look, that is still happening! I wonder how it will turn out this time? Napoleon and his army are entering the Italian peninsula. Will they be stopped? The Zhi family lands are being stolen by the Han, Zhao, and Wei conquerors. Will the Zhi get their lands and power back? Instead you say: the action has passed. Matters are settled. You agree, though, that the past is still a potent force, totally outside your control of course, but with effects on us and on our future.
We can call this "the stubborn past." A lot of decisions we make today are based on a past that doesn't seem to budge. Let's look briefly at one such decision, the one placed before all US citizens, and anyone else who benefits from current US political and economic success. I'm talking about the great provocation and test of the present: whether to pay reparations for chattel slavery.
We can put aside the ridiculous, not to mention dangerous idea that the past is no longer active, that it could possibly be dead and gone. Even if we put this naive belief aside, the character of the past is still stubborn, our attitude towards it still fateful, because we believe it is out of our control. Sure, the past has effects on the present and the future, but the original situation cannot be changed. I would venture to say that many of those who believe the US should pay reparations to heirs of slaves hold this fateful view of the past.
Look at Bill H.R. 40, known as the ‘‘Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act," introduced by Representative John Conyers for the first time in 1989 and then every year subsequently up to the present. Look at the heart of H.R. 40:
To acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality,
and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and
the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and
to establish a commission to examine the institution of
slavery, subsequently de jure and de facto racial and
economic discrimination against African-Americans, and
the impact of these forces on living African-Americans,
to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate
remedies, and for other purposes.
Here, in this very important bill, which has not yet, even after 28 years, received a hearing let alone a vote, in this incredibly reasonable bill, a connection is established between a past practice and a present situation. Let's call them that, a practice and a situation. The dates are like walls keeping the practice from leaking over: it lasted from 1619 to 1865. It has a beginning and an end. It is clear from this, and it has to be clear, under the law—the law demands clear lines on acts—it is clear from this that chattel slavery is no longer being practiced. Now it has a historical existence only. This past is not "living" in the sense that many African-Americans today, or in 1989, or in every year in which the bill was presented in the House, are and have been living a precarious and hostile situation.
So, we have established something. There is a qualitative difference between the past and the present that is hard to bridge. If the past is dead and the present is living, they are different in kind. If then you want to say there is a connection between them, you have to justify your position. You have to establish a commission to study the possibility of a connection. Is the past so dead as this suggests? By the way, in the language of this bill, the present includes the recent past. African-Americans living in the 1980s and those living right now do share a situation in a way that they don't share one with their enslaved ancestors. Those practices are over, past. So we have to ask: when exactly are past practices pronounced "dead"? Not yesterday, surely. Not last week even. We would even say that last year is still alive for us in a way that 1619 certainly is not.
How long is the statute of limitations on the living? John Conyers, currently the longest serving member of Congress (since 1965), a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and active at the Selma voter drive on Freedom Day in 1963, Congressman Conyers we imagine as living, and we imagine Dred Scott as dead. In truth, everything is past as soon as it happens. Then what makes some pasts count as alive and some as dead? Is the past alive if it appears in someone living's memory? if people saw it with their own eyes? if it comes up on the first page of a Google search instead of on the millionth?
When will we learn that the past does not expire on its own? Decisions are made about what counts as dead and what counts as still living when it comes to history. And some things live on despite our decisions.
Conyers' bill is a watershed public call to consider reparations. At the same time, it has a fateful attitude toward the past. The bill tells us slavery is dead. We're supposed to do something about its effects, but the practice itself is finished, gone. H.R. 40 also wants to connect slavery to something that is very much living, which it calls "racial and economic discrimination." How does the bill make this connection? Not directly. The dead and the living are different in kind. It can make only the most tenuous and hesitant analogy. It makes an analogy with cause and effect. Discrimination is one of "the effects of the institution of slavery on living African-Americans." To some this may seem like a strong argument.
Let's look at the terms of the analogy with cause and effect. African chattel slavery in America happened. "Subsequently" there came to be "racial and economic discrimination." On one hand, "the slavery that flourished in the United States constituted an immoral and inhumane deprivation of Africans' life, liberty, African citizenship rights, and cultural heritage, and denied them the fruits of their own labor." On the other hand, today we can only study "the lingering negative effects of the institution of slavery and the discrimination… on living African-Americans and on society in the United States." The word "lingering" should make us shudder. We are lead to think that with a few minor adjustments, this last, rather inessential vestige of the past could be cleared up.
Bill H.R. 40 should obviously be supported and have its hearing in Congress. It ought to become law. But when it asks that a commission be established to investigate the "lingering effects" of an evil of planetary proportions, thanks to which the US first became an economic power, we should worry about what weak language does to strong problems.
Try to imagine for a minute a non-fateful attitude toward this same past. Imagine we still live under slavery. Still live? Try this virtual reality experiment. You don't even need goggles. You can look around and see attitudes, institutions, realities still in place and in operation. A non-fateful attitude toward the American past would ask for reparations and more; it would ask for social transformation. True, reparations may be a realistic way to bring about this transformation. We have to worry though, don't we, that the view of the past on which some reparations arguments depends is too weak to ever allow us to repair the damage being done as we speak by such egregious wrongs.
Critical theorist Charles Mills prefers to call the operating system that includes chattel slavery, reconstruction, segregation, Jim Crow, and so on "white supremacy." He has written that the concept, white supremacy, if taken as a transhistorical institution, allows us to see legal oppression; economic violence; cultural murder; cognitive self-abasement; as well as subjugation of black bodies and lives as part of a single active system. The focus of white supremacy may shift from physical degradation to cognitive degradation; it may shift back, or take some other form. Yet it still describes the world in which we live. What I like about this view is that it does what the best artworks do, what the TV series "Roots" did so long ago now. It uses a non-fateful view to remind us that the past is still ahead of us, our project and our responsibility.