Land. At once, it's undeniably tangible and yet, extremely symbolic. It is as immediate as the ground beneath our feet, as inescapable as the horizon. But the idea of land, this is what resonates so deeply within the human spirit, inspires a sense of belonging, of connection. As agriculture heralded the dawn of human civilization, it also serves as metaphor for the relationship between a people and their land--that life-sustaining dependence upon one's immediate physical environment.
Consider, then, a people ripped violently from the land--their land.
How must it have been to catch a fleeting glimpse, above decks on a slave ship, of a shrinking strip of green, the land of your ancestors dwindling to an impossibly thin sliver, before disappearing forever from your sight? And what a mixed blessing it must have been after the dreadful journey as one of only half of the ship's "cargo" to survive the horrific middle passage, to glimpse the shores of the New World, a land in which you would be forced to toil until death? How was it for those kidnapped Africans to feel Mississippi mud between their toes? To work the red clay of North Carolina between their fingers? To use their knowledge of agriculture to wrest crops from soils and climates unfamiliar to them for the benefit of the Europeans who'd stolen both them, and the very land that would serve as their lifelong prison?
To these unfortunate souls, surely, the brown furrows of a freshly tilled field must have all too closely resembled a striped, whip-scarred back, dripping with the sweat and blood that fertilized the land. The umbilical connection between African slaves and the land that they worked fed this nation even before its birth, then suckled it in its infancy, like so many black women who were forced to keep lactating and "mammy" the massa's children.
Black people know about land.
During the Civil Rights Movement, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of "the promised land," he was intentionally digging deep into the black subconscious. Promised. Land. Two loaded words, infused with an age-old longing and inflected with hope during a time more appropriate to despair, linked an earthly struggle with a spiritual one.
He went Ol' Testament on 'em, imploring faith from throngs of black folk wandering the wilderness of a hostile American desert, and reminding those who would be gods of this earth that they were subject to a higher judgment than any that they could render with guns, nooses, dogs or fire hoses. King confronted this nation with the standard of its own professed Judeo-Christian ethics, a comparison that found white America sorely and glaringly lacking.
MLK did not limit himself to mere rhetorical or spiritual demands for justice, however. On several occasions, in his speeches and writings, he clearly articulated the need for some form of recompense. In 1967, in his book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, for example, he wrote: "A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis."
This is certainly counter to the revisionist version of King crafted by contemporary conservatives, who worship at the twin altars of the color-blind and historically blind. They'd exhume him if they could, and puppeteer his bones to convince them and us that he would have opposed affirmative action and any number of other policies that seek to either balance the current playing field, or provide redress for historical wrongs.
A secular interpretation of "promised land" necessarily zeroes in on the word "promise" and, specifically, the promise made to newly freed slaves by the U.S. government in the form of General William T. Sherman's famous Field Order 15. That order, given in January of 1865, called for ex-slaves to be granted 40 acre plots from land seized by the Union Army from the rebels, along with a means for working said land in the form of loaned army horses or mules--which is where the latter part of the "Forty Acres and a Mule" saying comes from. This Field Order was actually specific to land in South Carolina stretching from the coast near Charleston to about 30 miles inland, and was made after General Sherman conferred with local black leaders on what to do about the thousands of newly emancipated refugees who were following his army. Those leaders astutely suggested land as a preferred partial recompense, reckoning that they had earned at least that much during the long years of stolen labor.
In March of that year, Congress established the Freedmen's Bureau, and gave it control of some 800,000 acres of confiscated Southern land, to be parceled out to ex-slaves. But President Andrew Johnson punked out in the summer, bowing to pressure from the Southern states, and ordered that confiscated lands be returned to pardoned Southerners. The combined lack of any formal grant of land to the freed slaves and the return of confiscated holdings to their former owners set the stage for the onset of the sharecropping system, which supplanted legal chattel bondage and would endure for almost another century as a form of de facto economic slavery while the scaffolding of Jim Crow was erected.
While Dr. King spoke symbolically about the "promised land," his Black Nationalist contemporaries left no room for misinterpretation of their view of the debt the United States owed its black citizens. The Nation Of Islam, for example, which rose to new heights of visibility during the tenure of Malcolm X as spokesman, was very clear about the subject of land vis a vis the black liberation movement. Their founder and spiritual leader, Elijah Muhammed, maintained as a core tenet that the United States should provide a whole lot of land--a separate state--for the descendants of slaves whose labor and suffering was the very foundation of America's vast wealth.
To be sure, demanding an entire state was a tactical stance, a rhetorical means of framing the terms of debate. True remuneration for the monstrosity of American slavery is and was beyond this nation's ability to even calculate, let alone pay. But recognition of that central truth was and is essential to the discussions of the current conditions of African Americans. The point was that there should never, ever have been the perception that black people were coming as beggars to the table in light of the fact that we were owed such a colossal debt. Equal treatment under the law was not a bargaining chip, but a birthright, fully justified and utterly non-negotiable.
Beyond asking from the American government and people a mere pledge to treat us right from now on, the nationalists were insistent that some practical means had to be devised to mitigate the sheer economic impact of a society wholly dedicated to the suppression of black economic interests for centuries. We had no need of platitudes and pledges, we needed something real.
There was certainly precedent for such mass land grants. Even while the U.S. government considered and then dismissed the idea of 40 acres and a mule for freed slaves, they were giving away 160-acre plots of land to mostly white "settlers" in the West in the name of manifest destiny and the 1862 Homestead Act.
But while the government refused to even attempt meaningful redress for the historic crime of slavery, it further compounded injustice throughout the last century by aiding and abetting the systematic theft of the land that black people managed to accumulate on our own.
African Americans have gone from owning 14 percent of the nation's farms in 1920 down to less than 1 percent at present. The mechanisms for this land loss have varied, including out and out confiscation by the government, the physical taking of land by force by armed terrorists like the Klan, lack of enforcement of legal protections against Klansmen dressed in business attire, and a deliberate exclusion of blacks from the systems of finance which have allowed white farmers to exist and eke out a living.
Following emancipation, black people were the most skilled agricultural workers in the nation, and could have reaped considerable profits to be passed down, with interest, to their future generations. But when black economic prosperity reached any sort of critical mass, as it had in Tulsa, Okla. (in an area formerly known as the Black Wall Street), or in Wilmington, which had a significant amount of black economic and political leadership at the turn of the 20th century, it was met with literal destruction. These incidents, many of which occurred in the wake of the return of black GIs from fighting World War I, have often been given titles which obfuscate their true nature, recorded in history as "riots," when in fact, they were armed pogroms by whites against blacks. The decimation of black people and their economies in these areas, much like that of Rosewood, Fla., served to both literally and symbolically stifle the aspirations of would-be African Americans.
Up to and through the 1960s, we were blatantly discriminated against in all walks of life, but in few as economically damaging as the housing market. Black people paid taxes at all levels of government just like everyone else, but never fully received the benefits of the public services our money helped pay for. According to Tim Wise, a researcher and writer on racial matters, between the years of 1934-1960, the Farmer's Home Administration underwrote more than $120 billion worth of home equity, of which, only 2 percent went to African Americans. With our federal tax dollars going toward the support of programs like these and countless others for which we were denied benefits, black people effectively subsidized housing and education for white people. Now ain't that ironic?
Lest we think of these things as being "all in the past," we should note that the USDA continues to struggle with the fact that its employees discriminate in allocating resources to black farmers--accelerating black land loss and, by extension, the further erosion of black wealth. Housing discrimination remains pervasive, whether measured by testing and studies, or by the millions of complaints that come to the department of Housing and Urban Development.
Had all qualified black homeowners been able to purchase housing and land at the same rates as whites over even the last 50 years, those notes would have been paid off by now and we'd have acquired property that would appreciate in value and become an available source of capital.
Whereas there aren't enough zeroes on the calculator to determine a proper compensation for slavery, we should certainly be able to calculate the economic damages to African Americans from specific actions and inactions of the government in the last century. Because the impact of those injustices is every bit as real as the land itself.