Reparations: the Real Me Facts

In my first post of this reparations journey, I didn’t tell you everything you need to know. The next part isn’t easy, and it would be simple to ignore it and leave it out. But it goes to the heart of the question: why am I making this journey at all?

So.

The Salacious Part

My dad died when I was three years old. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that. Daddy Joe’s car ran into a train (if you’re gonna follow this journey, you might as well get used to these family names.) At the time of the accident, Daddy Joe was on an out-of-town business trip. Another woman was in the car with him. She was a work acquaintance. Her brother said she was hitching a ride to see her fiancé who lived in the town where they hit the train. The wreck killed her too.

Losing my dad at such a young age has made me more attached to my paternal family than reason dictates. I have spent my life reaching towards them for a connection to my dead father, one my dad himself didn’t have. I mean, as soon as he was an adult, he left them. He went out west and to South America. After serving time in the Pacific in WWII, he returned to the west where he took my mom after they married and where he lived until he was killed by the train.

Reparations: the Fealty, or Lack Thereof

This paternal family is the one where most of my racial difficulties lie. Particularly with Daddy Joe’s maternal line. Thing is, that family cut me out of it.

Twice.

The man I’ve named The Scoundrel (I’m not just talking enslavement; this man’s white club of racists figured prominently in the Vicksburg Massacre) divorced my ancestor, hooked up with an 18 year old, and moved to another state where he exited the family story forever. His granddaughter, Daddy Joe’s mother whom we called Bigmama, chose not to recognize her deceased son in devising her property. Whether the way Daddy Joe died set her course or not, I don’t know.

Does it Matter?

When considering reparations, what does my relationship with that family matter? What do I do with my emotional need and adoring love for them? How do I weigh that against the reality of our financial disconnection? In other words, must I take financial responsibility for a family that didn’t take financial responsibility for me?

Reparations: try a New Analysis

I think the answer lies in setting my approach to reparations.

As the book Be the Bridge notes, reparations isn’t a ledger question. To quote the book, the question is, How do I make myself a credible witness for racial reconciliation? What is my role in repairing what has been broken? And, most importantly, what new legacy would I like to leave for this difficult branch of my family?

These questions create a deep shift in focus. It ceases to be about my responsibility for their actions—asking, am I actually a victim? Instead, you ask yourself, how can I be an actor for the good here?

In answer to the first question: I can’t be credible if I use inheritance treatment as an excuse to disregard the family from which I received so much.

As to the rest, I don’t know if I can repair what they broke, but, man, a new legacy would be awesome.

Next post: Warnings before you begin this journey.

reparations truths are tangled indeed
Reparations truths are tangled indeed

be the bridge, my reparations journey, Reparations, reparations facts

Comments (15)

  • When we have the chance let’s talk about Daddy Joe’s WWII service. This piece makes me want more–that’s good writing in my book

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      TY, Joe, for liking the writing. I’d love to talk about Daddy Joe–he was in the Pacific in Okinawa during a typhoon in the bay where he threw his life preserver overboard to show his crew they were going to be okay. Lots of myths around his life and lots of adventuresome truths too.

  • The complexities of your family history are astounding. I look forward to reading more as you continue your reparations blog thread.

    Admittedly, as someone who has no known ancestors in the country before the Civil War, I don’t have the same sense of personal family connection that you do. For me, reparations are a matter of social justice, certainly reaching back to enslavement of Black people and the dispossession, oppression, and genocide against First Nations but also encompassing the many manifestations of continued oppression and inequality into the present time. A Black person who came to the US in the 20th or 21st century can still suffer oppression even without having ancestors who were enslaved.

    I wish I had a just proposal for reparations that would address all of this but I am not that educated about how one goes about such things. I look forward to reading about your story and where it has led you on this issue. I know your knowledge of law will make it possible to go deeper into this than I ever could.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Yes, Joanne. I didn’t know about the divorce (in 1880; how extraordinary is that?) and exit from the family until I began researching for this reparations journey. Once I learned it, I thought, well, no wonder the stories flow from Big Poppa’s mother, not his father.

      Part of what I’m doing with this journey is parsing what I’ve always done to try to do better in the world in terms of social justice and what I’m now considering as “reparations.” For me they’re different, but I want to be clear (with myself) how so. I’m sure I’ll share that “essaying” as well as my groping toward answers.:) Thank you so much for traveling along with me!

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      “Harrowing” is a good word. It takes a while for what I’ve learned to sink in—the brain’s protective mechanisms kick in so quickly. Thank you for following along and your support in sharing my words on Twitter <3.

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