Balance and reparations

By Isabella Algieri, Amanda Cruz, Amariah Sellers, Olivia Smock, Fiona Sullivan

In Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, we meet a complex character named Guitar who believes that killing people will bring justice to those who were wronged. Unfortunately, his ideals are arguably skewed. In conversation with the main character Milkman about the organization he has joined, which seeks revenge on white people who needlessly kill, he states, “I told you. Numbers. Balance. Ratio. And the earth, the land.” The group that he is a part of consists of seven people that seek a form of reparation in their eyes. They commit the exact crime that has been committed against people of color on white people. The reasoning behind this group includes imposing fear to prevent future murders of people of color, vengeance for innocent lives that have been lost, as well as retaliating against inequity. Although Milkman and Guitar shared many ideas, Milkman did not join the Seven Days group and disagreed with Guitar’s involvement. Milkman had a way better upbringing than Guitar which is why Milkman doesn’t quite understand Guitar and his morals. After his father was tragically killed, he wasn’t given compensation from his father’s white bosses. Guitar states, “ White people are unnatural. As a race they are unnatural. And it takes a strong effort of the will to overcome an unnatural enemy”(157). As a result of his father’s death along with him experiencing discrimination on a daily basis, his idea of white folks became much more negative which ultimately led to his hatred of white people. He had to constantly fight to survive connecting his upbringing to his ideals and what he believes is right for the people. His past is a motive as to why he joined the group and ruthlessly sought justice. In Guitar’s eyes, he is completing these tasks out of what he thinks is love for his people. In From Here to Equality, the authors, William Darity and A. Kirsten Mullen believe that adequate reparations have not been made, yet the solution for achieving justice should be mobilized by a national effort. Darity and Mullen agree with Guitar’s ideas that justice was not given to African Americans who were wronged as a result of slavery, but they don’t necessarily agree with his methods for getting justice.

According to From Here to Equality by William Darity and A. Kirsten Mullen, full reparations set for black people were never completed. In the first section of this book the text states, “American reparations advocates were motivated by the federal government’s failure to fulfill its promise of an endowment of forty acres and a mule to the formerly enslaved made on multiple occasions toward the end of the Civil War and in the years immediately following 1865.” This was one of the first promises made in an attempt to right the wrongs that were done against African Americans during slavery. However, it failed.  When Guitar includes “land” in his quote, he alludes to the fact that the land former enslaved people were promised was never given to them. After slavery was abolished in 1865, African Americans still struggled when it came to their security and trying to move on from the holds of slavery.

Ever since the first broken promise was made, African Americans were not able to start over and begin a new life where they were equal to fellow Americans. This broken promise ultimately paved the way for countless more to follow with segregation, discrimination, Jim Crow Laws and so much more. Even the safety of black people was threatened every day. Violence against people of color was more prevalent after the Civil War, continuing into the world we live in today. Black people were not safe in their homes, on the streets, in church, etc. “Intimidation of black voters with gun and noose became the norm” (From Here to Equality, 213). Also, the lack of safety of black people from the police, a system that is supposed to protect its citizens, has stemmed from those broken promises and the Jim Crow era. Black people are proportionally more likely to be killed by police than other groups of people, as well as being harassed and targeted. According to Darity and Mullen, “With respect to safety encounters with the police, not only are blacks far more likely to have fatal encounters, but they also are far more subject to harassment associated with police stops, especially while driving” (254). In addition to this, “Black elected leaders were tortured and killed, and a host of impediments was established for black voters” (213). Even when they tried to join and fix the system that was harming them, more animosity followed. In Song of Solomon, Guitar is explaining to Milkman what the secret society he is a part of does and their reasoning for it. He describes the group as a group of seven men called the Seven Days who kill white people in response to black people being senselessly murdered, in the same way, they were killed, to “keep the numbers the same.” With all of the imbalance that occurred after the Civil War that is still prevalent today, people like Guitar wanted to seek their own ways of reparation in the form of balance with an “eye for an eye” mentality to “frighten them into behaving.” Ultimately, their idea of justice was one that would do more harm than good. 

In From Here to Equality, there is statistical evidence of this injustice and inequality. When Guitar states “numbers,” a perfect example of this is the inequality in asset poverty. On page 254 in From Here to Equality, it is mentioned how the “noteworthy median net worth of whites is in the bottom twenty percent of the nations income distribution is higher than the median net worth of all black Americans.” Guitar recognizes that there is an unfairly large gap, with numerical proof, between black and white Americans, thus demonstrating his motivation for wanting to balance the numbers and ratio. In Song of Solomon, this is demonstrated when Macon and Lena had a conversation about the beach houses and how no African Americans can afford such an extra asset. Along with numbers that show the disparity between the monetary worth of African Americans and white people, some statistics display the physical worth of these people, expressed as ratios. In From Here to Equality, Darity and Mullen include how “…there was one hospital bed for every 139 white Americans but only one for every 1,941 black Americans, indicating that the average black life was worth only 7 percent of the average white life” (220). Clearly, this ratio proves how African Americans were never given the same opportunities and treatment, even though they were promised reparations and justice after slavery. 

After looking back at our conversation with Joe Cope (the Associate Provost for Academic Success and Professor of History at SUNY Geneseo), we can use his knowledge to help show us that Guitar’s actions are doing more harm than good. As Guitar goes about murdering white people as revenge for slavery, one can’t help but think of the consequences. If they were to carry out their plans and kill white people, then these people would fear them and retaliate by hurting African Americans or worse, killing them back. This whole thing could ultimately end in a huge bloodbath.  As we learned with Joe Cope that every action has a reaction/consequence, Guitar’s whole revenge scheme can ultimately cause more harm to African Americans than good. History even shows us that African Americans were no strangers to violence from slavery, segregation, discrimination, and present-day events where many African Americans are brutalized and treated with very little respect. Fortunately, there are people such as Joe Cope who are working to make equality among everyone greater than before. He further includes how admissions systems of the past thoroughly excluded people of color, in efforts to continue systemic racism. Joe Cope acknowledges that wrongs of the past cannot be changed, like Darity and Mullen. In From Here to Equality, they include, “The fact that full amends cannot be made for a grievous injustice does not mean significant recompense should not be made” (255). People like Joe Cope himself are working to compensate by rebuilding a new structure that is based on balance and equality. When explaining his role at SUNY Geneseo, he included that  “…the vision and why I’m here, which is about inclusion right, that’s why I think it’s important that we’re a public institution. That’s why I care about what we do here. But we’re also operating with an institution that has these really problematic historical roots.” His work in making a fair and safe environment for every student on campus is something that is greatly appreciated. If a problem arises with a class or community he tries his best to troubleshoot and problem solve. In everything that he does, Joe Cope always tries to make sure that there is inclusiveness within each classroom.      

           Even today there still remain so many injustices and inequalities amongst African Americans. Even after African Americans were “released”  from slavery, systematic racism kept African Americans in and at an unequal status. So much was promised to repair the sufferings they endured but they were never fulfilled and instead further harm was implemented. Even though the injustice of slavery could never be amended, African Americans well deserve consequential reparations and care. Since African Americans never got reparations after being freed from slavery, people like Guitar wanted to take matters into their own hands. Although Darity and Mullen would agree with the passion behind seeking rightful reparations, they would not agree with the violent measures Guitar took. There are still people like Guitar who want to seek justice for those wronged. It makes some people think what would have happened if African Americans got their reparations when first freed from slavery? What would our world look like today? 

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