My Face Is Black Is True, by Mary Frances Berry (Knopf, 336 pp., $26.95)
Here’s most of what you need to know about Mary Frances Berry, the former head of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania: Her recent book actually footnotes the so-called scholarship of Ward Churchill, that obnoxious ethnic-studies professor who referred to the victims of the World Trade Center bombing as “little Eichmanns.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that My Face Is Black Is True is an unreliable work of history whose main purpose is not the advancement of knowledge but rather the promotion of an untenable political agenda. But then what else would you expect from a woman who–according to her onetime civil-rights commission rival Linda Chavez–used to carry around a dog-eared copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book?
At least give Berry credit for choosing an interesting subject for her own book: the life and times of Callie House, a woman born into slavery who became a leader in the post-Civil War movement to compensate ex-slaves for their years of servitude.
Unfortunately, House’s well-intended movement attracted con artists who tried to convince emancipated blacks that such a law had already been passed, but that they needed to produce some upfront money before they could receive any payments. House herself was imprisoned for being part of such a swindle, and it is Berry’s thesis that she was wrongly accused.
She may be right, but Berry asserts her case rather than proves it. Indeed, her reliability as a historian is questionable, and her citation of Ward Churchill is the least of it. She claims that the Gettysburg Address “gave hope of reparations,” when there is no such suggestion in it. She says that Martin Luther King Jr. “called for reparations,” but doesn’t back it up. Even the simplest biographical facts are confused: Berry writes that House was 52 years old in 1917 and 67 years old in 1928. Do the math. (Good luck.)
But one suspects that Berry’s real motive in writing this book is less an interest in past details about House and more a desire to promote reparations today. After all, the book’s epilogue is entitled, “The Reparations Movement Still Lives,” and the book’s last sentence declares, “Those who act in the cause [of reparations] today pay homage to their [i.e., the ex-slaves’] struggle and to the spirit of Callie House.”
Yet there is a huge difference between what House wanted a century ago and what Berry seeks now. For one thing, House meant to help ex-slaves and nobody else. Before the Civil War, 14 percent of blacks in America were free–some because they had escaped from the south, but many because they were born that way. In House’s view, those who hadn’t lived in bondage were ineligible for remuneration. She actually promoted legislation in which older ex-slaves would have received higher pensions than younger ones, presumably on the assumption that they had more unpaid wages coming to them.
Nobody who is alive in 2005, of course, qualifies for House’s plan. Although most American blacks have slaves in their family trees, others have parents who came here from Ghana or Nigeria only last year. The playing field is not level for many of our citizens, but those citizens come in all colors. Even for those who are black, the reason for the tilt is never traceable in whole and often not even traceable in part to slavery.
It is also difficult to decide who ought to foot the bill for reparation payments. Most white people–to say nothing of Asian Americans, American Indians, and Hispanics–don’t have ancestors who owned slaves. Many of their ancestors rest in “patriot graves” (to use Lincoln’s actual words for his first inaugural address) because they died in a war to end slavery.
The most logical candidate to pay reparations–that is, the entity that was most adamant in defending slavery before the Civil War and most supportive of Jim Crow thereafter–is not the federal government but the Democratic party.
Now there’s an idea. Howard Dean, call your office!
But seriously, setting up a race-based reparations bureaucracy would divide Americans rather than heal ancient wounds. Callie House probably would have understood this, even if Mary Frances Berry does not.
–Roger Clegg is general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Sterling, Virginia.