Of course the first and most obvious thing to say about The Angela Project 2019 is that, 700 miles away from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where sit the duo responsible for propelling the discussion of reparations to an unprecedented level of visibility in the mainstream of U.S. politics in recent memory, a patchwork of black celebrities, writers and academics are all gathered on Capitol Hill to give testimony during a congressional hearing for whether or not we ought to convene a committee to study that same issue.
And while the presence of American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) both in the hallways and the hearing room itself inside the Rayburn Building cannot but buoy the spirits of anyone who may be justifiably concerned that missing from the proceedings would be those who constitute the victim group such measures intend to heal, it is indeed a strange thing to be sitting here in this church in Birmingham, looking directly at the backs of the heads of Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore, and knowing that two of the most critical figures in elucidating the very much extant legacy of slavery in America—and who have really shaped the necessary framework and language for justice-focused, meaningful reparative initiatives that aim to redress that legacy—are conspicuously absent from the hearing today.
Which is not to say that right now they are not exactly where they’re supposed to be. Birmingham has in many ways been the seat of the civil rights movement in this country’s history. The very church in which we are all gathered is the site of a 1963 act of domestic terrorism that saw the lives of four young black girls snatched by the murderous intolerance of white society, an instinct that has not just occasionally accompanied American racism, but which still today remains its most basic expression. The girls, Denise McNair (age 11), Addie Mae Collins (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14), were all preparing to leave Sunday school, and were so being instructed in the precepts of a Christianity which, for the most part throughout the U.S., has historically asked the black community to lift up their suffering to the Lord and understand such hideous and barbaric deeds as burdens for Christ to carry. But when so-called Christianity limits itself to seeing only such depravities as violations of the very essence of its doctrine, and does not recognize as being every bit a form of participation in that same violation of holy decree the church’s absence in advocating for justice for the oppressed, demanding on their behalf restitution—not only for one incident but for the whole continuum of atrocities to which the black community has been made subject—then the fact is that it simply ceases to be a Christianity that can claim any kind of actual authority in matters of God’s intention for mankind. In such reticence and inaction, only sin and complicity in Satan’s will.
The heinousness of the act so nakedly expressed in the bombing of the 16th Street Church was one in a constellation of similar obscenities in the South that helped make apparent to the broader population the profound vulnerability of black America and the need for targeted legislation to shore up protections and to compel the curtailment of discriminatory behavior that further precluded the group’s normal development in a society entirely given over to preserving the template of race relations established by slavery. And so it is fitting that, at a moment in America where our preference is either to be indifferent to the abject failure of those efforts, or to indulge in a fantasy of progress, of expanded consciousness, refined moral sensibilities, and civic growth and inclusivity with respect to black America, we find those leading the charge in the repudiation of that flagrant lie right here with the community, among the still burning embers of injustice of which Birmingham is but one of myriad examples. From here they exclaim to America at large the glaring omission in that account of U.S. life; namely, that despite whatever perception is cultivated and silaged in the media, and which then goes unchecked in our segregated day-to-day experiences, Descendants of American Slavery—particularly the younger cohort—exist today by a few remaining threads of stability, be it the former generation’s modest and isolated gains in wealth, or the federal programs of assistance that both liberal and conservative administrations alike have been chomping at the bit to attenuate and eventually denude the landscape of entirely. Moreover they aver that absent a transformational politics that reallocates an appropriately vast sum of the country’s available resources directly into the hands of that group, and accompanies that with a suite of specific policies and initiatives to ensure that infusion of money does not simply get siphoned back out of the community and its institutions, the long, slow withering of black America will simply reach its inevitable and tragic conclusion.
Because The Angela Project is taking place during a time when we see ascendant on the Left a politics in which there figures at least a dimension of racial justice, one might argue that the deep anxieties surrounding the black community’s imminent collapse are somewhat misplaced, or that the apocalyptic overtones in which is cast this depiction of contemporary black life are perhaps overwrought. One might argue that there is, in the present moment, reason for optimism.
Professor Sandy Darity of Duke University—who, in what had felt like a kind of divinely ordained playlist coincidence, entered the room earlier while Angela Project staff was setting up and taping down sound cables to Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City”—uses part of his time to issue a rather sobering warning concerning some of the more ostensibly bold policy proposals put forward by these candidates on the Left. Policies which, in at least the candidates’ own understandings of them, aspire to reparative justice.
One of these—Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Small Business Equity Fund—professes to triage and structurally amend one of the many pernicious consequences of the racial wealth gap; that is, the dearth of startup capital available to black entrepreneurs. It claims to achieve this via a disbursal of 7 billion dollars in federal grants which are to be administered at the local level. Taking this as emblematic of the paltry and tepid approach to the abyss of injustice which is his object of scholarship, Dr. Darity says, “Now let me make the point here. There are already two point five million black businesses with one-hundred and fifty billion dollars in total sales,” he says. “That is minuscule. Wal-Mart alone has five-hundred billion dollars in annual revenue. Wal-Mart alone. A seven-billion-dollar intervention patently can do very little to change this huge imbalance. What we have to recognize is the imbalance is so enormous that incremental social programs—or social programs that are designed to help all Americans, however desirable—will not close the racial wealth gap.”
The point, obviously, is not necessarily to discourage the audience from getting behind Senator Warren as a candidate. Rather, the point is to demonstrate how thoroughly and utterly warped our understanding is of the sheer magnitude of what we are up against. And that such declarations of apparent commitment to tackling the problem of the racial wealth gap—which is indeed perhaps the most vivid expression of the summation of centuries of unchecked American antiblackness—either deliberately avoid the reality of what is required to fix it, or would rather pander to the desire among a portion of the electorate who wants to feel like they are engaged in justice work for black America, but who may not be fully aware of the degree and scope of the problem.
There is, though, to be sure, a giant surge of material injustice that has long been issuing from the seismic center of our nation’s racist history, the institution of chattel slavery. This is the point that Antonio Moore makes repeatedly: that what we observe now with respect to hardship in the ADOS community—while no doubt grievous— is by comparison a run-up flood that precedes the actual colossal swell of calcified wealth that is threatening to crash down onto that group and annihilate them with a swift and nameless shock. Politicians who proceed as if the backs of ADOS are turned to this existential danger, and who opt to do a little song and soft-shoe performance of racial justice to try and hold their attention, do so in a moment whereby they effectively absent themselves from serious consideration among an exceedingly conscious and self-interested voting bloc.
Contrary to what was discussed on Capitol Hill this weekend, the Angela Project begins from the premise that we can ill afford to squander any more time disputing the matter of whether or not a debt is owed to American Descendants of Slaves. Where else do we encounter the language and exploits of sober debate when it comes to the matter of an obvious debt? There is no uncertainty here. And so what the Angela Project rightfully asks instead is, insofar as there are people who identify as Christian in this nation, and who submit before and resolve to carry out the edicts of that biblical doctrine—of which justice is chief amongst those inviolable laws—then how do they not accept the task of repair put before them? Indeed, as Yvette Carnell reminds all of us as she closes out her speech in Birmingham, “When there is no confusion, it’s time for conviction.”