Suffering from the calamities of the past

by Kate O’Neil, Lauryn Bennet, Eddie Eforo, Faith Zatlukal

The discussion surrounding injustice of African Americans is one that has been historically debated in works of nonfiction and fiction books, like Song of Solomon, and From Here to Equality. Guitar’s experience with racial discrimination leads him to take action into his own hands by strategically killing white people in an attempt to keep the proportion of white and Black deaths balanced. Guitar’s bold statement, “I told you. Numbers. Balance. Ratio. And the earth, the land.” (Morrison 158) explains his understanding of the events that took place in history by foreshadowing what will happen in the future, while simultaneously creating a conversation with the authors of From Here to Equality, Darity and Mullen. These authors and Guitar don’t disagree that there hasn’t been a solution to the problem of racism— they do, however, disagree about the means of obtaining the answers to the question: are reparations enough to heal this generational mistreatment?

Guitar and Darity and Mullen’s thoughts are connected, like their ideas are a part of the same string, pulling against each other throughout their conversation. Darity and Mullen assume that economic reparations towards African Americans is the best solution to discrimination, whereas Guitar believes acts of revenge are the only way to secure a future for his race. The existence of these differing solutions proves that Guitar and Darity and Mullen both believe that has not been a solution to the problem of racism. When it comes to the past, current, and future crimes being committed against Guitar and other African Americans, Guitar jumps straight to revenge in lieu of repairing these issues. He wants to ‘get even’, because it’s what he thinks will make things right. Darity and Mullen take a softer approach, preparing a logistical plan for reparations, and defending the plan against any stance that could undercut it. Guitar bases his knowledge of what happened in the past as, “Southerners think they own Him [Jesus], but that’s just because the first time they laid eyes on Him, He was strung up on a tree. They can relate to that, see. Both the stringer and the strung. But Northerners know better” (Morrison 115). He recognizes that the Southerners and the Northerners are among the same people, but he uses the analogy “… the stringer and the strung” for a reason. He is comparing the lives of African Americans to the lives of puppets, lives that are controlled by another. Darity and Mullen, although they agree that African Americans have been belittled and discriminated against, don’t conform to the idea that the history cannot be unwritten. There is a balanced aspect between the definitions of reparations and revenge, as they both have a final goal of reclaiming something that was lost in history. These similarities are mirrored in the varying aspects of harm and care, and how Darity and Mullen view these topics in comparison to Guitar.

Harm and Care, when defined by a dictionary, can mean very different things. They can be seen as almost opposites in terms of meaning and intent when using them. However, when looking at the origins of each word, it can be found that the word ‘care’s’ origin is related to the Old High German words for grief and grieving. The origin of harm, care’s presumed opposite, is related to the Old Norse and German words for grief and sorrow. Two very dissimilar words, with very similar origins and meanings are seen at the core of Darity and Mullen and Guitar’s varying approaches to ‘caring’, and repairing the crimes against African Americans. From Here to Equality proposes a thought out and developed proposal for reparations for Black Americans in the 21st century. The plan consists of calling upon congress, a program for identifying the people who would qualify for reparations, and proposes assigning a monetary value to the generational trauma inflicted upon Black Americans. Darity and Mullen mention, “How much should be paid for black reparations? What is the size of the bill? It is customary, in the American court system, to assign monetary values for damages to human lives. Monetary damages for the collective injuries inflicted on black lives are long overdue” (Darity and Mullen 259). They believe that reparations will provide care for the African American lives lost throughout history. Guitar proposes ‘making things even’ in an entirely different direction, as he and the group he joins, The Seven Days, intend to make things even, by taking the life of a white man for every Black person that is killed. Darity and Mullen approach the process of reparations with care, and Guitar approaches them with harm and violence.“…You’re going to kill people?” “Not people. White people…. It’s necessary; it’s got to be done. To keep the ratio the same”…“Why kill innocent people? Why not just those who did it?” “It doesn’t matter who did it. Each and every one of them could do it. So you just get any one of them. There are no innocent white people, because every one of them is a potential n—r-killer, if not an actual one…” (Morrison 155). In Guitars’ eyes, there is no other option for equality, other than taking the lives of innocent people, as he sees the killings as a way to repair the harm done by white people to African Americans in years past and present. Guitar believes that all white people, even those who have not personally committed crimes, have the capacity to cause harm to him and other Black Americans in the future; therefore, the harm he inflicts is not a crime in his eyes. The most important thing to him is balance, and evening out the score. Peaceful repair is out of the question, and Guitar feels that the only course of action is through violence, should the people he is harming be innocent or guilty.

Can one even assign a monetary value to this generational trauma, or life itself? Darity and Mullen propose this thought as part of their detailed plan for reparations from the American government. As seen throughout Guitar’s life, there doesn’t seem to be a payment for the lives lost up until this point. Guitar struggles with understanding this as he describes the days leading up to his fathers death, “It was the fact that instead of life insurance, the sawmill owner gave his mother forty dollars ‘to tide them kids over,’ and she took it happily and bought each of them a big peppermint stick on the very day of the funeral” (Morrison 225). Guitar develops a mindset that money doesn’t solve everything, on the basis that the forty dollars his mother was paid and used to buy peppermint sticks, didn’t show care for him, but rather harmed his rationale. Guitar isn’t of the belief that this debt can be paid in money, he is in the mindset that it should be paid in blood, and as soon as possible. In Song of Solomon, Guitar offers his opinion about the importance of evening the scale: “The ratio can’t widen in their favor,”(Morrison 158). He feels that the ratio between whites and African Americans needs to be rationalized, and that the way to heal what has been hurt is not through any type of funding, but through blood alone, and that it has not yet been justified. Darity and Mullen take the time to address the many questions that are usually used to undermine the concept of Black reparations. “Didn’t white America (or America in general) already pay its debt for slavery in blood by waging the Civil War, which resulted in emancipation” (Darity and Mullen 245). Considering racism itself and lack of reparations are still an issue during Guitar’s life (long after the Civil War) and long afterwards, the answer to this question is clearly no. They answer their own question with “Recompense for a grievous injustice is not achieved merely by ending the practice. It requires some form of payment or compensation for the damage or injury…”(Darity and Mullen 246). The authors of From Here to Equality and Guitar don’t disagree that there is a problem that needs to be fixed, they disagree with the solution to that problem.

Guitar, and Darity and Mullen are pulling on opposite ends of the same string, and by acknowledging their differing arguments they are able to strengthen their conclusions, which creates tension in their string. Despite the fact that Darity and Mullen title one of their chapters “Criticisms and Responses”, Guitar is adamant about his stance, and stands by what he believes, without noting the possibility of there being another side of the argument. Guitar’s stance aligns with Darity and Mullen as both parties agree that the harm to African Americans is unsustainable without some form of reparations, though their definition of reparations varies. Whether their solution is deemed to be inherently “right” or “wrong” is not for the reader to judge. However, it is important to note that Darity and Mullen, and Guitar see their stances as the way to formulate a solution to the problem that is racism. Dr. Joe Cope, Associate Provost for Academic Success and Professor of History, touched on the importance of conveying all perspectives of a problem when he came to Beth McCoy’s INTD-105 class. He works to reduce the amount of harm students experience, and in order to do that, he has to be able to see the various perspectives of a situation, so he can produce good from a harmful circumstance. While Guitar’s and Darity and Mullen’s definitions of reparations may vary due to their varying perspectives, their similar stance shows that they can combine their perspectives to formulate a more developed solution. Through Guitar’s experiences, he is only given the opportunity to see through one perspective. Therefore, his analysis of the happenings of the past are justified because he can only base his thinking off of his experiences. “…Don’t you want to be better than they are?” “I am better.” “But now you’re doing what the worst of them do.” “Yes, but I am reasonable.” “Reasonable? How?” “I am not, one, having fun; two, trying to gain power or public attention or money or land; three, angry at anybody.” (Morrison 157). In Guitar’s eyes, his solution to the harm that has been inflicted in the past is justified; thus, he sees no issue with the way he carries out this form of repair, claiming it does not come from a place of pleasure, greed, or anger. This implies that Guitar has a different motive behind his actions, which appears to solely be confusion over why racism is happening around him. This also explains why Guitar feels the need to balance the ratio: as a way of evening the scale, and fixing what has been broken. When settling disputes, Joe Cope emphasized the importance of “being comfortable with ambiguity” when problem solving. People should not be concerned with the unknown when formulating a solution to a specific problem because it can distract them from all the information presented to them. Guitar wouldn’t have taken Joe Cope’s advice, which is not to say that Guitar is wrong for this, but rather, he is only focused on his lived experiences, whereas Darity and Mullen are creating an analysis based on the history of discrimination and racism. Guitar doesn’t allow for the natural aspects of time to unfold, and he tries to take matters into his own hands. In the case of Guitar, ambiguity is what drives him, the uncertainty of the future of his race is what pushes him to focus his solution on maintaining “balance” through violent actions. Joe Cope adds an important perspective to the conversation Darity and Mullen have with Guitar, one about the need for a solution for the complications history has provided.

Darity and Mullen respond to Guitar’s thoughts and actions, which creates a paradigm of conversation that is related to Guitar’s main argument for revenge over reparations: “I told you. Numbers. Balance. Ratio. And the earth, the land.” (Morrison 158). By analyzing two opposing perspectives to an established problem, it is apparent that there can be various solutions to the same question. For example, when given the same prompt in Beth’s INTD-105 course, each group has created vastly different collections of ideas, but they have all been centered around the same topic. Much like Guitar and the authors of From Here to Equality, without understanding where the other has come from, they are unable to see that they are pulling on opposite ends of a string, which could be tied together to form a continuous, and supporting conclusion.

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