From your lowest point to your proudest moment

When entering new and often challenging environments many of us feel the need to hold on to what we have become accustomed to in our more familiar environments. Oftentimes this is met with even more challenges as we are encouraged to let go of past experiences and feel the need to conform completely to our new lives. There are evils in both of these ways of thinking. For one we need to be able to grow and adapt to new surroundings. And on the other hand, you should not have to let go of who you are and what has shaped your life so far. Life is all about finding balance. “I told you. Numbers. Balance. Ratio. And the earth, the land” Finding balance is a major theme in both Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and in From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century by William A. Darity, Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen. Song of Solomon’s epigraph “You just can’t fly on off and leave a body” means to me that you carry your experiences, good or bad with you throughout every stage in your life. From your lowest point to your proudest moments you can not separate those versions of yourself. In past essays, I have asked the question, if your body is the core of who you are, how can you ever get up and leave? And what does it mean to not be able to leave your body, does this mean you can never fully change? I argue that to grow as a person and to move past traumas you can’t simply escape them, you have to accept that they are a part of you. One can not fully change everything about your past but if you can learn to reflect from what you’ve learned you can grow over time.

Where we’ve been

This past summer I had found myself at a low point with my mental health. I have always been very conscientious of my health especially my mental health so this summer when things had gone out of my control I was devastated. I have struggled with anxiety my entire life and yet I have always been able to manage on my own. Two years ago I decided to get a therapist who I have now become very close to. My mental health was up and down but never too much to handle. July 17th, 2021 began the worst three months of my life. Imagine yourself in a pool, trapped below the water. You can hear everyone that’s above water clear but you can’t for the life of you get above water. There are now two worlds. Above the water where you used to live and breathe with everyone else. And then there is underwater. You are now living underwater unable to fully commit, or feel, or breathe. Depersonalization or derealization disorder involves a persistent or recurring feeling of being detached from one’s body or mental processes, like an outside observer of one’s life (depersonalization), and/or a feeling of being detached from one’s surroundings (derealization). I had felt like I had left my body. For three months of my life not only did my life full stop but so did the lives of my loved ones. Both my parents, my older sister, my therapist, and my best friend all dropped everything to watch me full time.

I would like to argue that one of Milkman’s lowest points in his life was what he did to Hagar and how that affected not only him but his loved ones. I believe that this bad behavior had stemmed from his childhood and other early bad behaviors. At the beginning of Song of Solomon, it goes back and forth between his father’s life and Milkman’s life. Through this, we can get a better grasp on just how the milkman had found himself in a position where he couldn’t help but hurt people. One thing that is worth examining is his overall treatment of women. He used Hagar until he didn’t need her anymore which led her to feel completely abandoned and in turn, she turned to rage and violence against Milkman. Looking back on his childhood he was over breastfed, this is how he got his nickname. He had used his mother. Even though his mother Ruth had chosen to breastfeed him for much longer than necessary he still became dependent on her. He had become dependent on women and not in a grateful way. He taught himself with the help from his father and his abuse of the women in his home, to look at women as coveted and useful tools that can be thrown out when not needed anymore. Including the events that led to Hagar’s death.

The idea of land and freedom held out a powerful allure for African Americans. As a result, thousands of slaves absconded from their owners and reached the British lines. Other African Americans escaped pursuing other opportunities for freedom, such as migrating to Florida (a Spanish possession), settling with Native groups, creating their communities on the fringes of American society, living as free people in the north, or migrating after the war to other countries. From Here to Equality’s chapter “Roads Not Taken in the Early Years of the Republic” begins with an examination of the steps taken by whites to harden the legal definition of “slave” in colonial America, making it a permanent condition. Enslaved African Americas were stripped of all rights, isolated, and differentiated from other groups of people. “Black enslavement could have ended with the making of the new ­nation.” Americans were given the chance to restart after the Revolutionary War. this was their chance to begin to repair the damage that they had done to the African American community and instead, they did nothing to help them. In 1776, approximately 25 percent of the 2.5 million inhabitants of the thirteen colonies were black, about 500,000 people. The first post–Revolutionary War census, conducted in 1790, indicates that over 90 percent of blacks in colonial North America were enslaved and a mere 8 percent were free. There were as many enslaved persons as there were free colonists in Virginia, and there were twice as many enslaved persons as there were free colonists in South Carolina; slavery was practiced in every one of the thirteen colonies.

Where we’re going

At the root of the words, repair and reparations can be the same thing, much like harm and care. But in context, it is very important to understand the difference, because those differences matter and affect other people. I was not in a position where I could completely repair the damage of those three months. I realized that that would be my life forever; however, I did get better. It took a long time, a lot of help from my loved ones, lots of sessions with my therapist, a couple of doctor’s appointments, and a new prescription but I got through one of the darkest moments in my life. Above all of this, I needed to learn how to handle this new version of myself. I was now a person had cant always jump back into life when things go wrong. Going to Geneseo was terrifying. I was still dissociated and I didn’t know anyone and of course, in the state that I was, I couldn’t always tell what was real and what was fantasy. Ironically I was not able to fly off and leave my body although that was exactly how my brain had made me feel. To get back into my body, I shifted my focus to school, specifically this class. I found that having a space to communicate with other students regularly was crucial in my success in not only this class but in finding my place at Geneseo. Having a ten to fifteen minute time cut out of class to talk with other students and hear what they had to say and how they had interpreted the lesson helped me in not only understanding others’ points of view but also in understanding my point of view.

Milkman had some attempts at reparations but only after Hagar collapses into a deep illness and dies. Hagar’s death can be traced to this cycle of flight and abandonment, by not only Milkman but Milkman was her last straw in a way. In her frantic attempts to improve herself physically for Milkams love, she gets ill and dies. Hagar thinks that she can break the cycle of abandonment only by transforming herself into a physically attractive woman and luring Milkman back. She had gone crazy after he left her and dies as a result of her exhaustion. Hagar loses her struggle precisely because she does not believe that she is deserving of love. Milkman understands that he must pay his dues for causing Hagar’s death. Part of this debt is having to carry Hagar’s belongings, just as Pilate carries what she believes is the old white man’s bones because she considers herself guilty of taking his life. Milkman carries the box of Hagar’s hair that Pilate gives him. In his willingness to do so he expresses his respect for Hagar’s deep love for him but also demonstrates ownership of her life. That is, he is now willing to acknowledge and take responsibility for his role in Hagar’s death. In doing this he can start his “rebirth”. The most important aspect of this rebirth is Milkman’s restored faith in flight, which he had lost as a child, which redeems him culturally and spiritually.

Something that is often missing from “reparations talk” is a specific plan for repairing past tragedies. One of the things that were considered missing in the respiration movement was a detailed program of reparations for black Americans. They had called upon the U.S. Congress to assert leadership and authorize payments to be made by the U.S. government. Many atrocities, indignities, and micro-and macro-aggressions have occurred in the well of American racism. “While it makes complete sense to seek recompense from clearly identified perpetrators when the entire political order is complicit, it is not sufficient for A Program of Black Reparations to bill individual perpetrators. The invoice for reparations must go to the nation’s government.” The U.S. government, as the federal authority, bears responsibility for sanctioning, maintaining, and enabling slavery, legal segregation, and continued racial inequality. Specifically, the invoice should go directly to the U.S. Congress, the legislative branch of the national government. The work for reparations has begun and the accomplishments are significant. That being said one of the major themes in _From Here to Equality_ is that they are not looking to “repair” but to find “reparations”. Meaning they can’t repair or fix the atrocities but can only help mend and heal those who are still affected every day.

attempts of Numbers, Balance, Ratio.

Alex Hillyard, Abby Cornelius, Ireland Conrow, Angelina Roberts

From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century by William A. Darity and A. Kirsten Mullen is a road map for explaining the issues of reparations for Black Americans by focusing on racial inequality and accountability, given the history of how Black people are treated like second class citizens. The actions that are represented in this book can also be demonstrated by Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Guitar and Milkman talk about Guitar’s aspirations in joining the group Seven Days. Guitar expresses strong beliefs on how the group will affect change with racial inequality. Considering the way Black people are treated it is not surprising that this character saw a desperate need for change. Although he neglects to explain how a homicidal ‘tit for tat’ will help to repair the wounds of racism in American society, he truly believes what he is doing is helping indicate his feelings of hopelessness to effect change. When Guitar says “I told you. Numbers. Balance. Ratio. And the earth, the land,” he is not only expressing that he believes this to be a universal problem but that the only possible solution is balancing the ratio of harm itself. Even though the character Guitar is a fictional representation of a generation’s struggles, the problems he faced were very real to an array of people. His life represents how a series of bad faith interactions can lead a person to such a considerable solution.

Guitar thought of the idea of “numbers, balance and ratio” after his father’s death. At the same time Guitar faced both the trauma of losing a parent at a young age and was made aware of how little the company responsible for his death did in the way of reparations. Although his mother tried to provide some kind of solace to her son and other children in good faith by “[buying] each of them a big peppermint stick on the very day of the funeral,” she only ended up making things worse. Guitar’s mother attempted to fix a situation that couldn’t be fixed. The injustice that Guitar’s family faced can never be repaired; however Guitar’s mother attempts to find balance by repairing it in her own way. Morrison also connects with the ideas of Darity and Mullen through giving specific examples of events such the death of Emmett Till. What made this specific case stand out was the actions of Till’s mother following her son’s death. She stood up and talked about the injustice done in a time when speaking out against the system could cost you your job, house, or your family. The economic terrorism that was ingrained into the minds of Black people was also built up by structural racism and systematic inequality, which was enforced by the lack of African Americans in politics or on police forces at the time. However, even after African Americans were given voices in these respective systems, they are still flawed systems. This built effective systematic discrimination that hindered people from standing up to fight injustice. In Song of Solomon, Guitar parallels the death of his father to the death of Emmett Till which though to them is a recent event, is not at all that surprising to anyone besides Milkman. As unpleasant as it is to say, the Till murder was not out of its place when looked at in comparison to other countless lynchings in the south during this era. Although Guitar is still young here, he is able to recognize this very public affair regarding his father’s death. He is able to recognize that Milkman allows himself to be ok with the system because his family is about as wealthy as a Black family at the time could be, and he doesn’t have to be as concerned about speaking out and losing his job in the way many people did.

Guitar sees the way that the Jewish people received retribution after World War Two as a goal for the Black peoples of America to receive post segregation; he’s focused on this big idea of trial-style justice. To find justice Guitar joins a secret society called The Seven Days, an organization consisting of seven Black men that are assigned a day of the week. The men kill white people in response to a Black person being murdered. They make each killing similar to the original violence against the Black victim. The killings are performed on the same day of the week as the original murders of the Black victims. Guitar believes that his actions help keep the ratio of Black people to white people balanced, ensuring that white people will not gain enough power to start a genocide. From Here to Equality mentions that both white and Black people considered the laws and institutions to be less of the problem and said they saw individual prejudices were to blame. Darity and Mullen also outwardly state that their goal is to convince the reader that Americans are looking at racism incorrectly. The civil rights movement did not result in economic freedom for African Americans. Americans have not moved past their long history of racism because of the election of a Black president. All of these efforts for justice and equality have not been sufficient. This eye for an eye style of thinking isn’t going to solve any of these structural problems. Guitar claims that his deeds are grounded, but is he murdering out of love for Black people or murdering out of hate for white people? Either way, seven Black people murdering white people can’t change the structural racism in this country. As From Here to Equality states, “No shift in the power relationship will be possible unless the society as a whole takes action to transform the structural conditions to make racial equality a real possibility”. This relates back to the idea of “numbers balance ratio” because to make a change you can’t just balance out the actions of the opposing group.

Although slavery to a certain extent has long since been eliminated, the lasting effects of racism have been rooted into the lives of African Americans today. SUNY Geneseo faculty member Joseph Cope, Associate Provost for Academic Success and Professor of History, is one member of the college faculty tasked with the job of handling student problems that stem from history within the college. It can be a difficult task, working with people who can be harmed by the very institution that they are a part of; however students in a college institution despite societal pressures and expectations are still actively choosing to be part of said institution. Between de facto segregation, increased voting laws in historically Black districts, the increased rates of serious health issues and many other well known facts it is still clear that Black Americans are still recovering from the pre-existing structures of this institution. Darity and Mullen acknowledge that those who oppose reparations and are quick to point out that money might not do much in the way of actually fixing these issues, but it isn’t really about fixing everything with one apology. According to From Here to Equality the objective of the reparation project is to redress the socioeconomic inequalities associated with race. All of the efforts for justice and equality have not been sufficient because there is no ‘replacing’ instead the conversation is about acknowledging the racial inequality in America.

In conclusion, although most of the processes of inequality have been done away with remnants of a broken system still remain across the U.S. In many ways, the lives of Black people are still affected by systematic efforts to decrease representation, education, and quality of life. When Guitar faces these issues throughout his life it harms him to the point that he is unable to see any solution that doesn’t involve violence to compensate for pain. We can see through the Song of Solomon character Guitar, that when you are so wronged and traumatized that the need to find justice for not only yourself but for your community can become impetuous, especially when the injustices that you and your community have faced are so horrendous and deep-rooted. This is addressed in From Here To Equality when the authors reference how reparations probably wouldn’t actually fix any of the problems they solved but would serve as an acknowledgement and a clear first step in the right direction.