The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks

The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks

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by Randall Robinson

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The national bestseller by the author of Defending the Spirit.

In this powerful and controversial book, distinguished African-American political leader and thinker Randall Robinson argues for the restoration of the rich history that slavery and segregation severed. Drawing from research and personal experience, he shows that only by reclaiming their lost past

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The national bestseller by the author of Defending the Spirit.

In this powerful and controversial book, distinguished African-American political leader and thinker Randall Robinson argues for the restoration of the rich history that slavery and segregation severed. Drawing from research and personal experience, he shows that only by reclaiming their lost past and proud heritage can blacks lay the foundation for their future. And white Americans can make reparations for slavery and the century of racial discrimination that followed with monetary restitution, educational programs, and the kinds of equal opportunities that will ensure the social and economic success of all its citizens.

In a book that is both an unflinching indictment of past wrongs and an impassioned call to our nation to educate all Americans about the history of Africa and its people, Robinson makes a persuasive case for the debt white America owes blacks, and the debt blacks owe themselves.

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Editorial Reviews

Frank H. Wu
Robinson is respected for having brought the political influence of the black diaspora to bear on U.S. foreign policy toward Africa. He has met another challenge here: His book is easy to read....His engaging and conveys his estrangement from the mainstream.....He continues an important conversation. Democratic deliberation helps create a society in which we are all equal stakeholders. The process is as valuable as the outcome. In that context, even if reparations are a lost cause, they are a noble cause.
Washington Post Book World
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As founder and president of TransAfrica, an organization aimed at influencing U.S. policies toward Africa and the Caribbean, Robinson can be said to have contributed to the antiapartheid movement and the restoration of democracy in Haiti. Having vividly outlined the pervasiveness of American racism in his previous work, Defending the Spirit, he now summons America to acknowledge what he casts as its financial obligation to blacks for centuries of slavery and continued subjugation. Substantiating his analysis of America's ignorance of African history and the agenda of the Clinton administration with personal stories that illustrate the impact of de facto discrimination, he reveals slavery's legacy not only in our social and political lives, but also in the American psyche. In Robinson's view, the incessant deification of the founding fathers (many of whom owned slaves) and the denial of the benefits gained from centuries of slave labor are, in effect, an attempt to pretend "that America's racial holocaust never occurred." Juxtaposing domestic racism with the sufferings of people abroad, he contends that America's dubious foreign policy initiatives in Cuba and throughout the black world should be mitigated through debt relief. Methodically tackling one issue at a time, Robinson suggests the creation of a trust to assist in the educational and economic empowerment of African-Americans. Whether readers agree or disagree with his views, Robinson has made a definitive step in presenting these controversial and still unresolved issues. Book club rights sold to Doubleday/Black Expressions; author tour. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
"The problem of the twentieth-century," wrote W.E.B. DuBois in 1903, will be "the problem of the color line." At the close of that century, Randall Robinson, another eminent African American scholar/activist, suggests that the problem of the 21st century should be the problem of reparations to African Americans. Robinson, who went to segregated schools in the South before graduating from Harvard Law School, is the founder and president of TransAfrica, and was the single most influential person in organizing the movement that led the U.S. to impose economic sanctions on South Africa, resulting in the dismantling of apartheid. In The Debt, Robinson looks at the devastating consequences at home of centuries of slavery, segregation, and the refusal to acknowledge these wrongs. Reparations were paid to the Jews and Poles after the Holocaust, to the Japanese Americans after their internment during WW II, to Korean women forced into prostitution by Japan, to the Inuit in Canada and to the Aborigines in Australia, and they are due to the 32 million African Americans who continue to suffer from four centuries of institutional exploitation and disenfranchisement. Such reparations will finally remedy the psychological harm done to African Americans whose contributions to this country remain unacknowledged, and will lift them from the financial abyss they find themselves in today, as a result of multi-layered discrimination. Despite its title, which might suggest economic jargon, The Debt: What America Owes Blacks is highly readable, replete with pertinent anecdotes and accessible, convincing examples. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, andadults. 2000, Plume, 262p, bibliog, index, 21cm, 99-045728, $13.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Nada Elia, Visiting Assoc. Prof.; Afro-American Studies, Brown University, Providence, RI, March 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 2)
Library Journal
The title of this book shouldn't deter perspective readers: Robinson (founder and president of TransAfrica) dedicates only one of the ten chapters to a discussion of reparations. And his ideas about reparations are unconventional: it's true, he writes, that there is a precedent for paying reparations to the victims of history. But even just starting a national conversation about reparations, he suggests, would be useful--such a discussion would bring U.S. racial atrocities to the surface, make blacks aware that something has been taken from them through no fault of their own, and launch a critical mass of blacks "into a surge of black self-discovery." In the remainder of the book Robinson discusses his disappointment with the quantity and quality of black political participation and the long-term economic and psychic damage brought on by slavery, Jim Crow, blacks' lost African past, and unequal U.S. foreign and domestic policies. Robinson's political experience and readable prose should make the book appealing to a wide audience. For public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/99.].--Sherri Barnes, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Cornell West
Randall Robinson's powerful and poignant story of personal and political struggle is one of vision, courage, and sacrifice.
—Cornell West, Harvard University
From the Publisher
"Engaging...important...supports his attempts to reclaim African heitage and empower African-Americans." —The Washington Post

"Incisive...keenly observed...beautifully written." —The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

An Excerpt from The Debt by Randall Robinson

In the fall of 1998, I went to the television studio of the University of the District of Columbia to tape an interview about my memoir, Defending the Spirit. Before the taping, Ed Jones, the station's general manager and an old friend, introduced me to a twelve-year-old neighborhood black boy who was there with his mentor, a student at the college, to hear my discussion. Billy was an attractive and pleasant boy with a stocky build and intelligent eyes.

"Billy," said Ed, "have you ever heard of Randall Robinson?"


Jesus, Ed, you might have spared me the sure-fire blow to the egoplexus.

"Well, Mr. Robinson is the president of TransAfrica. You've heard of TransAfrica, right?"

Christ almighty, Ed.


"Well, Mr. Robinson led the effort in the United States to free Nelson Mandela in South Africa. You've heard of Nelson Mandela, right?"

Now here we go.


On my way home from meeting Billy, I visualized the boy on a walk with his mentor on the long grassy Mall in Washington. He is surrounded by monuments and memorials. They can mean little to him although he consciously tries to compensate for his lack of emotional engagement. It isn't that he has no interest. He does. The monuments and buildings are big and impressive. Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, Roosevelt. Still, he does not feel anything much, other than small. Not small but small. The monuments don't seem intended for him. They do seem, from the look on their faces, intended for the white family of four from Nebraska standing near him. Look at them, sunny with pride in their ridiculous plaid vacation wear and dangling Kodaks. Mall-trekking well-scrubbed Norman Rockwell pieces of Americana as remote from Billy as the monuments that captivate them.

Where am I? Who am I Why am I here?

The questions buried deep and unphrased in Billy's psyche, with only boredom as a sustaining frame for the aimless remarks he makes to his mentor. The monuments, neutral before sighting the Nebraska family, stand now in odd rebuke.

"When are we going home?"

"Soon. But you need to know this stuff. History is important."


The mentor does not answer. Billy is exhausting his script and testing his patience.

"What is that? Over there with the long line?"

"That's the Holocaust Memorial."

"What's a holocaust?"

"During World War II, the Germans tried to kill all of the Jews in Europe. Six million Jews died. That memorial helps us remember the terrible thing that happened there."

"Oh yeah?" Genuine curiosity. Approval. "What about us?" Hopeful now.

"What do you mean? What about us?"


The estimates vary. Anywhere from ten to twenty-five million Africans died in slave ships en route from Africa to the Americas. A lifetime of bondage awaited those who survived the passage. This massive crime against humanity—the enslavement and exploitation of tens of millions of human beings—is an American holocaust. (The extermination of the Native American population is another.) Yet one can scour the commemorative architecture of the nation's capital and find little evidence that America's racial holocaust ever occurred.

It is as if, since its very establishment, America had chosen to hold, as Napoleon would, that "history is the myth that men choose to believe." The crypto-Machiavellians who serve as the perennial stewards of American public affairs understand that people on the whole are about as malleable as their history can be made to be. The landscape is rife with examples, from historically overarching lies and half-truths to popular culture deceits.

It is well know that Thomas Jefferson had slaves. It is less well known that he had them chased and brought back when they escaped.

Or consider Charles Lindbergh. When the nation needed a hero, Lindbergh flew the Atlantic nonstop from New York to Paris in the spring of 1927. Even in the era of relatively primitive communications technology, few in the world failed to learn almost instantly of Lindbergh's feat. His ensuing hero status has survived for over seventy years largely untarnished, although Lindbergh, a self-described racist, had written in Reader's Digest in 1939 that aviation was "a gift from heaven...a tool specially shaped for Western of those priceless possessions which permit the white race to live at all in a pressing sea of yellow, black, and brown." He urged the U.S. not to war with but join Germany in forming a "Western Wall of race and arms which can hold back either a Genghis Khan or the infiltration of inferior blood."

In Hollywood, press agents have gone to great lengths to suppress reports that film star Arnold Schwarzenegger's father was a member of the Austrian Nazi party. While the sins of the father should not be visited upon the son, that is not why the flacks are busy. Of course, sanitizing history is hardly a new practice. Socrates advanced ideas for selective breeding to produce a superior race. The ideas were later copied by Nazi Germany. Such theories are now seldom associated with Socrates.

In the animated Dreamworks movie Prince of Egypt the ancient Egyptians are drawn to appear more Arabic than African. But the ancient Egyptians came originally from Africa's interior to the south. They were not Arabs, not people from Arabia, but indigenous Africans. Egyptian civilization was thousands of years old by the time the Arabs, with a modest Army under General 'Amr ibn as- 'As, entered in December of 639 A.D.

Back around 3000 B.C. the First Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt had been founded by one Narmer. A stone likeness of the pharaoh survives, its features offering convincing evidence that the ancient Egyptians who built the great pyramids were black. (Pictures of Narmer's likeness and those of succeeding pharaohs can be found in UNESCO's General History of Africa, volume II, pages 52-57. Have a look.)

Three millennia later Egypt's throne had passed to Cleopatra, who herself may have been a good deal darker than any of the actresses who have portrayed her on screen. The queen belonged to the Polemic dynasty, a line of Macedonian Greeks who had ruled Egypt since its conquest by Alexander the Great, but the identity of one of her grandmothers is unknown. This grandmother may have been a concubine, not a member of the Polemic family. Cleopatra was the only one of the family to speak the Egyptian language. At least one Roman historian described her as dark-skinned. All this leaves open the question of whether she looked black or white. But it is not likely that she had the alabaster skin or violet eyes of Elizabeth Taylor.

It is even less likely that a Semitic Christ of two thousand years ago even vaguely resembled the ubiquitous blond image most Americans believe to be something near to Christ's actual appearance.

Again, I am not suggesting the presence of any grand conspiracy to suppress or distort history or ephemeral information. Accuracy can be elusive. For more than twenty years I have read newspaper accounts of developments in Africa and the Caribbean in which I have had direct firsthand involvement. Often the coverage has been fraught with factual error, critical omission, and wrongheaded perspective. Most of the misdescription was due, I suppose, to inadvertence or incompetence as opposed to bad intentions.

The point is this. Even well-meaning, competent journalists sometime misreport events that occur in the world only days before. Journalism is not an exact science. Historiography is a hundredfold less exact than journalism—even when historians believe themselves sincerely trying to be objective. Their subjects are long dead. Records are incomplete or nonexistent. Flawed premises beget more flawed premises.

And then, of course, are the built-in distortions. Would-be Machiavellis, some long dead before the Florentine statesman ever lived, anticipate the historian's enquiries by booby-trapping evidence, laying false trails, and liquidating artifacts. (This might have been what Napoleon had in mind when he blew off the nose of the Sphinx. Or was it Mohammed Sa'im al-Dahr who did it, in 1378 A.D.? No one really knows.)

In his book Black Spark, White Fire, historian Richard Poe makes a case that black Egyptians were among the first philosophers and explorers, traveling as far from Egypt as Russia and turning up with the Romans at Troy. Has such knowledge been suppressed heretofore, or simply lost? According to Poe, "History was designed to justify European domination."

None of this begins to adequately explain the near total disappearance of Africa's past and the denial of its information to the modern world. To me. To Billy.

—Excerpted from The Debt by Randall Robinson. Copyright © 2000 by Randall Robinson. Excerpted by permission of Dutton, a division of Penguin Putnam. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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What People are saying about this

Edwidge Danticat
Randall Robinson does it again with this follow-up to his amazing memoir, Defending the Spirit. He tells it like it is and we are all the better—and stronger—for it.
—(Edwidge Danticat, author of The Farming of Bones)
Tavis Smiley
Randall Robinson is an authentic American hero and a true patriot. He loves his country, but he is unafraid to rebuke or expose its sins. America is indebted to her black people, and Randall makes the case for why we must not and cannot accept the check marked insufficient funds.
—(Tavis Smiley, author and host BET's Tonight)
From the Publisher
"Engaging...important...supports his attempts to reclaim African heitage and empower African-Americans." —The Washington Post

"Incisive...keenly observed...beautifully written." —The Philadelphia Inquirer

Camille O. Cosby
Randall Robinson eruditely highlights America's poverty of truth pertaining to its historical distortions and institutional abuses of black Americans. The debt begs the questions—will America ever be a true democracy?
—(Camille O. Cosby)

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Meet the Author

Randall Robinson is the founder and president of TransAfrica, the organization that spearheaded the movement to influence U.S. policies toward international black leadership. He is the author of Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks and The Reckoning: What Blacks Owe To Each Other. Frequently featured in major print media, he has appeared on Charlie Rose, Today, Good Morning America, and the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, among others.

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