Get ready to love ‘Watchmen,’ the smartest show on television Regina King shines in a tale propelled by one of America’s greatest shames

In 2015, the photographer Tyler Shields released an image that, in his own words, cost him a book deal.

The photograph, titled Lynching, was part of a series called Historical Fiction. It depicted a black man, who is nude, in its foreground. He is knee-deep in an inky abyss of water, holding fast to a rope entwined around his right arm. On the other end, hanging from a tree, is a hooded Klansman, neck snapped, body limp, his feet inches from the same body of water.

Lynching by Tyler Shields. 2015.

Tyler Shields

Watchmen, which functions as a sequel to the Alan Moore comic book maxiseries of the same name, is a lot like Shields’ Lynching: An arresting, daring, complex work of art about white supremacy that dares to challenge its audience while refusing to traffic in cheap provocation. The new series begins Sunday on HBO at 9 p.m.

Moore’s comic was set in 1985. Series creator Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) fast-forwards the story to present-day America and uses the probing, philosophical nature of the original comic as its inspiration, while taking an unexpected but welcome turn. Moore’s comic explored the nature of superheroism and power itself, how and if vigilantism could co-exist with the established structure of democracy, and what would result if such a world existed.

Watchmen’s true superpower is that the ramifications of every subversion, every appropriation of all that those who cling to white supremacy hold dear, every millisecond of dialogue and imagery, has been deeply considered.

Much like Moore’s original universe, the 2019 Tulsa, of Watchmen is awash in weirdness. In this alternate Tulsa, Oklahoma, Vietnam is a state because the U.S. won the Vietnam War, Watergate never happened, alien squid creatures rain down from the sky at unpredictable intervals. The country is run by President Robert Redford (yes, as in The Way We Were Robert Redford), who has been in office for some 25 years. His treasury secretary is Henry Louis Gates Jr. The Redford administration has enacted reparations for the descendants of the Greenwood Massacre, also known as the Black Wall Street massacre.

Now for a quick side trip to reality: After World War I, Tulsa’s Greenwood district was a bustling haven of black economic activity. A young black man, Dick Rowland, was arrested after he got on an elevator with a white operator named Sarah Page. Page reportedly cried out. When members of the black community came to the Tulsa courthouse to demand justice for Rowland, who was being held by police, a mob of armed white Oklahomans chased the black protesters to Greenwood. On June 1, 1921, they burned and looted the district known as Black Wall Street.

Back to the Tulsa of Watchmen: In 2019, the white residents of Tulsa still harbor resentment toward the black ones. Three years earlier, an organized mob of whites known as the Seventh Kavalry (essentially a new iteration of the Ku Klux Klan) hunted down Tulsa police and killed them because the police were fighting white supremacist terrorism. After the mass murder, the entire police force is nearly wiped out, save for detective Angela Abar (Regina King) and Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson). The secret police now wear masks to hide their identities. After three years of peace, trouble begins anew when a Kavalry member shoots and kills the black officer who pulled him over during a traffic stop.

Regina King (second from right) as detective Angela Abar/Miss Night and Tim Blake Nelson (left) as Looking Glass in HBO’s Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

The series takes off when it becomes clear that the Kavalry will not be satisfied with one instance of violence, but instead is gunning for full-on revolution. I’ve seen the first six episodes, and they are startling in their insight and overall brilliance. I can’t say much more about plot details without setting off a minefield of spoilers. However, Watchmen is on par with Get Out as an astute and compelling examination of race and power in America, one committed to exploring the insidious depths of the country’s original sin and what it truly takes to subvert it. It is ambitious, consuming, visually appealing entertainment that is also masterfully dense with historical and sociological observation.

Lindelof and his team of writers (Nick Cuse, Lila Byock, Christal Henry, Cord Jefferson, and Carly Wray) has taken on a challenge that has tripped up many a writer and director exploring the idea of racial role reversal and the flip-flopping of power dynamics. It’s an experiment employed with results that run the spectrum from flippant to profound to utterly disastrous, showing up in Wild Wild West, BlacKkKlansman and even Ma.

Watchmen’s true superpower is that the ramifications of every subversion, every appropriation of all that those who cling to white supremacy hold dear, every millisecond of dialogue and imagery, has been deeply considered. Like Daniel Fish’s radical restaging of Oklahoma!, the musical from which Lindelof draws so much inspiration, Watchmen never loses sight of the limits white supremacy exacts on black power, even black power that is afforded the imprimatur of white institutional legitimacy. In Watchmen, that legitimacy comes in the form of a police badge and uniform.

In that way, Watchmen feels appropriate for right now, as works such as Oklahoma!, Slave Play, and the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project continue to prod at the country’s long-held beliefs about race and power, question them, and turn them 180 degrees for full, well overdue examination. In Watchmen, all of the characters are raced, and the show contends with what that means with refreshing consistency — it follows the complications such a decision invites instead of turning its back on that decision when the siren call of narrative convenience beckons.

It is wholly committed to the challenges of being a character-driven work that derives its propulsion from the horrors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and that commitment makes itself evident the more the story unfolds with each episode.

Watchmen isn’t perfect, and if you’re unfamiliar with the comic or the 2009 Zack Snyder adaptation, some of its turns can feel awfully disorienting. But patience is rewarded; a virtuosic sixth episode, directed by Lost alum Stephen Williams, provides the keys for how everything fits together, and it’s impossible to exaggerate what a big, satisfying payoff it delivers. Before then, King delivers a remarkable, rangy performance. The choreography of her fight scenes is punchy, breathtaking and fiercely kinetic. King’s scenes with Jean Smart, who plays an FBI agent named Laurie Blake, practically jump off the screen.

As for further parallels to Shields’ Lynching? They will reveal themselves with time. In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s canonically nonwhite Alexander Hamilton: Just you wait.

The bitter harvest of Richard Bibb: A descendant of slavery confronts her inheritance The families of slave owners and the people they enslaved gather for a ‘reunion’ in Kentucky

RUSSELLVILLE, Ky. — That morning, I took my measure of the place. I toured the former Bibb plantation house turned museum and explored the nearby work cabins. I paid attention to the ways the ground shifted beneath my feet. By early afternoon, I’d settled in the community room to talk with the museum director who got the idea to bring together the descendants of the slave owners and the enslaved when some of the white families arrived for a tour. I heard their voices in distant parts of the house and sensed the anger rise in my throat. It was dark, sudden, impolite. I was not ready to meet these people. They had done nothing to me, yet I felt as if they had.

Do not come in here, I warned silently.

Their voices got closer and I grew more anxious, though you wouldn’t have known by looking at me. We wear the mask. But it felt like mine was about to slip.

The author, Lonnae O’Neal, watches from a window of the Bibb House as guests begin to arrive for the reunion.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

I had joked with the only Bibb cousins I’d ever known that we were being lured into a trap. But now, the trap was real. It was all plantation houses and the ghosts of black people and white voices coming closer. I had stepped into a house of mirrors. I wanted to escape.

A couple of could-be-relatives reached out to shake my hand, and I extended mine to them as well.

Why had they come? I wondered.

Lord, why had I?


2.

The Bibb House was built around 1815 in this small Western Kentucky town about an hour north of Nashville, Tennessee. It was originally home to Maj. Richard Bibb, an officer in the Revolutionary War, his second wife and the scores of people they enslaved. In 1832, Bibb sent 31 of them to Liberia. When he died in 1839, his will freed 65 others, who were also given money and land. His white descendants included a U.S. senator and the originator of Bibb lettuce.

Granville Clark, a lawyer and president of Historic Russellville Inc., and genealogist and museum director Michael Morrow began restoring Bibb House nearly a decade ago. Along with four other historic buildings located in Russellville’s Black Bottom, an area settled by freed black people before the Civil War, it became part of the SEEK Museum (Struggles for Emancipation and Equality in Kentucky).

Clark once fought to the Kentucky Supreme Court for the Bibb House, which had changed hands several times, to be a public charitable trust and hoped it could serve as “a realistic memorial to the Old South.” But deciding what that means is a whole different fight. And not simply with white people.

I did not know if I had it in me.


3.

The invitation to come to Russellville had kicked around Facebook for months before I saw it. It was the first reunion of the descendants of Richard Bibb and the descendants of the people he enslaved and emancipated.

My first thoughts came out in a string of curse words. Miss me on those plantation happenings, I told my cousins, but part of me couldn’t let it go. My father’s mother was Susie Bibb, and this was the first time I’d heard a word about her people. The first time I’d ever heard tell of any such thing as white Bibbs. A couple of white descendants were working on a documentary and would be filming at the reunion. I felt the ground shifting beneath me as I considered my options.

A copy of a sign advertising the sale of two boys on display at the SEEK Museum in Russellville, Kentucky.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

I have constructed a life with the resources and standing that allow me to encounter white people on my own terms — to decide for myself when and where I enter. But the Bibb reunion would be a departure from that. It represented something aching and unresolved that put me and mine on the shoulders falling down like teardrops side of a power dynamic. Something painful and frightening.

Clark emailed me a photo of Catherine Bibb — or Granny Kate, as she was known — taken around 1900, when she would have been in her early 60s, and said we might be related. Of all the money and land left to the enslaved people who Bibb freed when he died at 86, Catherine, who was 3 at the time, was given the most: 250 acres. That preferential treatment supports the family oral history that she was Richard Bibb’s daughter.

Granny Kate was fair-skinned, with straight dark hair. She founded a school and a church on the land given to the formerly enslaved on the outskirts of Russellville, in what became known as Bibbtown, where she acted as the unofficial mayor. Granny Kate looked like my grandmother, Momma Susie.

She stared out from the photo and I felt implicated in her gaze. Dead black people are always judging. Having put their own burdens down, they’re always asking the rest of us what we’re going to do.


4.

I can read stories of the white Bibbs in American history books. But my black grandmother isn’t in those books. Susie Bibb was an American original, and she demands to be accounted for and remembered.

Susie was one of nine siblings raised in the coal mining and railroad town of Centralia, Illinois. She was the smartest of them all in math, she used to say, but the family had no money for college. So she wept bitter tears and got married at 18.

My grandfather was a hotel chef who eventually opened a restaurant and tavern in the black part of town. My grandmother, who specialized in making pastries from scratch, worked there when she was younger. But I rarely remember her leaving the house as I got older, and rarely smiling. My grandparents’ front door was never locked, and a steady stream of people would walk in, morning to night, and stand before Momma Susie to ask for money to pay bills, to buy diapers, to tide them over until payday. If she liked the terms — high interest rates or food stamps, as I recall — she’d leave the room to reach under her mattress for money. If she didn’t like the terms, she’d tell them she didn’t have it.

A reunion guest looks at a display of photographs and drawings showing the enslaved people freed by Maj. Richard Bibb. On the mantel from left to right: Andrew Bibb, Catherine Bibb Arnold and Martha Bibb.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

She never used any kind of muscle. She simply never lent again to anyone who didn’t repay her.

Momma Susie doted on the dogs, which she cooked breakfast for and might bite her grandkids if we got too close. So she’d yell at us, reasonably, to get our damned asses out of their way. She’d warn us, too, about men, husbands especially, or sometimes white people. But mostly she’d preach — often in loud, compound expletives — about the importance of college, about getting your education so you didn’t have to depend on anyone, and about having your own money. She was a bitter black woman, and she spoke bitter black words into three generations of college graduates and postgraduates.

Momma Susie’s black family is not to be mistaken for that of the white sons of Richard Bibb: pro-slavery U.S. Sen. George M. Bibb turned Treasury Secretary Bibb, or John Bigger Bibb, who developed Bibb lettuce.

Lord, don’t you get mad about it — there was a U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bibb, but Susie Bibb loan-sharked in her pajamas from an armchair in her living room for most of my childhood.

These facts are always in historical conversation. Seven generations from Maj. Richard Bibb, these facts remain grafted onto us. They were the fire last time. They are the fire this time. They explain almost everything.


5.

Richard Bibb fought with the Virginia militia in the Revolutionary War, after which he inherited land and enslaved people. He moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he was a land speculator and acquired around 200,000 acres from Kentucky to Arkansas. He later moved to Logan County, where the former Episcopalian became a Methodist lay minister with anti-slavery leanings. He grew tobacco, had a whisky still, raced horses and became one of the richest men in Western Kentucky. When his first wife died, he and his second wife moved from the country into Russellville. He was heavily involved in the American Colonization Society, which sought to send black people “back” to Africa, where the people he’d enslaved had never been. (On the 1832 trip to Liberia, a number of children died of cholera before they got there.)

His will, which freed everyone he’d enslaved, also gave them tools, livestock, $5,000 and roughly 3,000 acres, which the executor, his son John Bigger Bibb, deeded to them 40 years later. John’s brother George wrote a legally famous letter advising him how to continue to control the money and the land.

An 1897 Louisville Courier-Journal article about Richard Bibb said:

“Since his youth he had cared for them, and before that they or their parents had belonged to his father. He believed slavery was wrong and was taking the initial step toward putting into execution a long cherished plan. He was about to send one-third of his slaves to Liberia; the others he intended to liberate at his death. He had read a chapter in the Bible and had given out a hymn, and when his prayer was finished, many a black face was bathed in tears, and the slaves gathered about and shook Old Master’s hand for the last time and heard the accent of his kindly voice.”

This idea of Bibb as an emancipator is a source of local and white Bibb family legend. It is noted on the plaque in front of Bibb House and was an animating fact of the reunion. To me, it was simply a reminder that a complex 250-year system of human trafficking and violent plunder could only be sustained by intersecting applications of pressure and release. It just meant that Richard Bibb was arguably better than some. The gauzy lore feels like the columns and porch added to the Bibb House decades after the Civil War to lend the whole enterprise an air of magnolia.

“In an old conventional view, Kentucky was supposed to be more benign in its slavery,” said Jack Glazier, author of Been Coming Through Some Hard Times: Race, History, and Memory in Western Kentucky and a retired Oberlin College anthropology professor. He calls it a self-justifying myth. “It was without question a brutal and depraved system. That’s very much the case in Western Kentucky,” where tobacco farming required large numbers of people.

The slave quarters in the attic of the Bibb House, which is now the SEEK Museum in Russellville, Kentucky.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

After the Civil War, there was an out-migration to Illinois, said Glazier. “There’s a real story there.”

It’s the part of the story where I come in.

My cousin Marvin Vaughn, a financial analyst for an energy company in Houston, drove to the reunion with his mother, Sharon Bibb Vaughn. His grandfather, Morris, and Momma Susie were brother and sister.

As we sat in the car watching people go in and out of the Bibb House, Marvin told me a story that Morris had told him about Charlie Bibb, our great-grandfather, about whom the only thing I’d ever heard was that he was mean and yellow. “I guess he got tired of his kids talking about that they were hungry,” Marvin said. He went to the grocery store in the white part of Centralia, said his children were hungry and asked the owner if he could get some food and pay him back later. When the grocer said no, Charlie B. bagged the food anyway, and when the grocer tried to stop him, “Great-grandpa Charlie knocked him to the floor and told him, ‘Look here, I need to feed my kids. When I get the money I will repay you, and this is what I owe you.’ ”

I hadn’t known my grandmother had gone hungry. It explained some of the preoccupation with money that ran through our family. Explained other stuff as well.


Something else Uncle Morris told Marvin: His grandfather was the son of a slave owner in Kentucky. It was another story I’d never heard.

Marvin came to the reunion because something bothered him. If the white Bibbs were so wealthy, “Why did we get such s— portions?” If we had gotten a fair share, how might that have changed our lives? These are Bibb family questions, but they stretched out across America like the arms of Jesus. Marvin came to the reunion because he wanted to land on some truth and help put a face to it. “We could be a part of the family that they don’t even talk about,” he said.

And neither did we.


6.

Two months ago, the white ancestors who hovered over my features never crossed my mind. I couldn’t name one.

But that was about to change.

Suddenly, I wanted to hear the stories. I wanted to see the documents and learn what had happened to these people and what that said about me.

The morning before the reunion, I pulled up to Michael Morrow’s research office in the Black Bottom, three blocks from the Bibb House.

Maurice Hardy (left), his wife, Latisha (right), and their son, RayShawn Payton-Kilgore, explore the upper room of the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

“I’m Lonnae O’Neal, my people are from Centralia, Illinois,” I said to Morrow by way of introduction. “My grandmother was Susie Bibb. Her father was Charlie Bibb.”

“Her father was Charles Smith Bibb,” Morrow said, correcting me. “And his mother was Pocahontas Wright.”

Morrow held the door open for me, but I needed a minute. I had never heard my great-grandfather’s full government name. Had never heard of my great-great-grandmother at all.

Morrow, 57, was raised on stories of Bibbtown. He had a speech impediment, so he hung around old people, who were less cruel and would let you listen as long as you sat still. He dropped out of college to care for his sick mother. He worked at a neighborhood food hall, did a little bootlegging and some such, but he remained fascinated by family histories and started keeping notes. People got word and started giving him their artifacts, and telling him their stories.

In a few keystrokes, he pulls up documents where my great-great-grandfather is listed as mulatto on the 1850 census in Russellville. In 1860, he’s listed as black. By 1870, John and Pocahontas lived in Centralia, where John and Pokey, as they called her, were listed as white, and they had a 6-year-old son who’d been born in Russellville, and a 2-year old daughter and an infant son who’d both been born in Illinois, as were the seven children who followed.

“Now let’s do one more thing. Let’s go to 1900,” Morrow said and showed me a census record for Charles Smith Bibb, 13, the first name where I know where I am. Then he shows me a later census with the names of my grandmother and her siblings as children. “The amazing thing is, we got the slave documents. We can prove this all the way back to slavery,” Morrow said. To a woman named Old Keziah. But the documents also leave some unanswered questions, including the identity of John Bibb’s father. Morrow has been putting the pieces together for decades, and he thinks there’s a good chance my great-great-grandfather John was the son of one of the white Bibbs.

It was too much life to hear about in one day. And we hadn’t even gotten to the reunion, which would start the following day. I closed my eyes and pictured Granny Kate, who I asked for strength.

“I think one of the reasons why African American people tend to stay away from this is because of the trauma,” Nicka Sewell-Smith, a genealogist and consultant for Ancestry.com, told me later. (Sewell-Smith also shared that her great-great-aunt Sarah was married to a different John Bibb.) People are getting killed because of race now, “and I’m going to introduce additional trauma, historical trauma, into my life?” she asked.

It’s a history that can’t be sanitized. “So we just move away from it because it’s painful and we don’t know what to expect, and we have to check our emotions,” she said. “You don’t want to lash out at someone who’s not involved just because you don’t know how to properly process, and a lot of our experience has been to just deal with it and push it down.”

Sewell-Smith reads part of Richard Bibb’s will, which frees those he’s enslaved on Jan. 1, 1840, nearly a year after he died. Some of those emancipated seemed to sell their land, but it’s hard to say since slavery was still law and some of those who’d been emancipated were re-enslaved. John Bigger Bibb moved to Frankfort, where he continued enslaving people as he perfected his lettuce. He had agents look after the land and the formerly enslaved, doling out piecemeal the $5,000 that Richard Bibb left them and not officially handing over the property until 1881.

“There was a monetary value placed on us, and because money was involved, people were going to document things,” she said. “There’s a tangibleness of slavery that you get when you can see the names of your people associated with these enslavers.” She was plainspoken, but I had a hard time following her. I think it was because I was unable to think of my ancestors as fungible. I kept attaching them to the names of my children, then viscerally resisting the thought. I eventually succumbed to the sadness of it all.

Clark, 64, who attended segregated schools until sixth grade, calls the SEEK Museum a chance to teach a history of both slavery and emancipation that he hadn’t learned growing up.

We’re “lucky to have a site that does deal with both edges of that story,” Clark says. “It wasn’t emancipation that was as pure and as perfect as you want it to be, but it lets us talk about these things.” He thinks America may finally be ready to have these conversations. But I have my doubts. I am reminded of recent stories of white anger over talk of slavery, also known as American history, during plantation tours. (This, by the way, is partially why black people prefer to sit with each other at lunch.)

From 1883 to 1908, 14 people were lynched in Logan County, the second most in Kentucky. In 2008, Morrow put up an exhibit about the 1908 lynching of four men in Russellville that led to a change in postal laws to prevent people from sending postcards of hanging, swinging, charred bodies through the mail. The men killed hadn’t been involved in the argument over wages that had left a white overseer dead; they simply passed a resolution at their local hall to help the accused raise money for a lawyer.

Morrow got a call when somebody finally cut down the “lynching tree” 20 years ago.

Descendants of Richard Bibb look at old photos and maps in the front room of the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

The night before the reunion, as part of Western Kentucky’s annual 8th of August emancipation celebration, a statue of Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first black female journalist credentialed to cover the White House, was unveiled in Russellville’s Black Bottom neighborhood, which is on the National Register of Historic Places but had a tough time getting the city to pay for streetlights and sewers. Several of Russellville’s elected officials were there. None of them is black. Of the nearly 7,000 residents of Russellville, nearly 20% are black, and more than half of those residents live below the poverty line.

The Black Bottom sits on a flood plain and has a history of getting deluged. A half-mile away, the Confederate Monument, erected in 1910, which is also on the National Register, sits atop a pedestal.

Sometimes, white people tell themselves fictions, but they need us to play along. When we disbelieve them or don’t co-sign, they turn punitive or murderous. And that’s why we didn’t believe them in the first place.

“I don’t want everybody to come together and have a Kumbaya moment,” Morrow said of the reunion. “Our people have had so many Kumbaya moments. I want everybody to come together and be real about what has happened. If they are real, maybe people can go back and start changing things.”

They are asking for our truth, I told Morrow, but I don’t think they really want to hear it.

“I don’t think it makes any difference whether they want to hear it or not,” he replied.


7.

Rachel Knight and her brother, Jonathan, are descendants of Richard Bibb’s daughter, Lucy Slaughter, and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their grandmother chronicled their family history in the 1960s with a lengthy entry on the major. After the 2017 white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left a young woman dead, Rachel, a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University, wanted to learn more about their family history. Jonathan, a filmmaker, was looking to make his first documentary. A woman they’d known growing up happened to be a professor of African American studies at the University of Kentucky and connected them with a black doctoral student and journalist to help produce it.

Traci Ellis delivers a speech at the Bibb House near the end of the day’s events.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

“Our country hasn’t dealt with issues of our country being founded on slavery,” Rachel Knight said. And neither had their family. “Our family had a history of enslaving people,” but growing up in the North, “we don’t talk about that history that much.” When she found her grandmother’s entry about Richard Bibb, “I was like, well, why isn’t that a story that we talked about?” When she learned the Bibb House was still standing, she and her brother brainstormed about adding something meaningful.

Morrow and others questioned the siblings about the proposed documentary before agreeing to cooperate. “I trusted them to do what’s right,” Morrow said. I had no such trust. As a journalist, I’m always on the lookout for the ways whiteness, power and self-interest align.

I told Jonathan Knight I’d only learned there were white Bibbs a few weeks before and he seemed surprised. “I don’t mean this to sound harsh,” I told him, “but you all aren’t centered in our lives.”

He and his sister worried a film could seem exploitative, so they were trying to listen to criticism and challenge their own privilege. “Of course it’s hard,” he said. “But I really want to be up for doing it.”

“In my experience, white people don’t have the muscle for this conversation,” I said. Jonathan assured me that they did. I decided to take him at his word.

I noted that they’d asked my cousin, attorney and author Traci Ellis, to facilitate a discussion about race, and that white people were good for asking black people to do work — physical, emotional, spiritual — for free. “Black people are always you all’s raw material,” I said. The “you all” wasn’t specifically Jonathan and Rachel. It was a collective, a cohort of whiteness, organized in a system of racialized privilege. The royal you all.

Rachel owned her house in Brooklyn, New York, and I pointed out that my daughter lived in a Brooklyn townhouse split into three apartments where she splits her rent with two roommates. I felt angry, though she had done nothing to me. So few white people show up for these conversations that the ones who do come in for a lot of the work of the race. I wondered aloud if we were going to talk reparations.

After hours of talking, Rachel, who hadn’t been feeling well all day, looked peaked, and I felt for her. “It’s a lot, I know,” I said. “It’s a lot for us too.”

Speaking our racial truth can feel physically, socially or financially unsafe. There’s a wide berth we often give white people so as not to make them uncomfortable or angry. But in the shadow of the Bibb House, I couldn’t do it. The black ghosts of Russellville weren’t having it.

I don’t know if she got it. But I finally understood why I’d come to the reunion: to give the white Bibbs, as stand-ins for the people who baked inequality into America, their bags to carry. And all their crosses to bear. The ones that have been forced on black people that rightfully belong to the whole nation.


8.

The morning of the Bibb reunion, I wore a green dress to remind me of the green chair my grandmother sat in as she received borrowers. I lingered in the hotel parking lot praying to Momma Susie that I might represent her at this gathering.

Chairs and tables covered the front lawn and dozens of people, black and white, from 28 states, were milling about, with more steadily arriving. The center hall of the Palladian-style Bibb House museum features two pairs of iron shackles under glass that were found in the dirt on the grounds. In an adjacent room, a copy of an enlarged notice hangs on the wall: “One or two likely Negro boys, about 10 years old” for sale.

I forced myself to approach a middle-aged white woman in one of the upstairs rooms.

Old shackles found on the grounds of the Bibb plantation house on display at the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Michelle Anderson, a schoolteacher from Redlands, California, was a descendant of Lucy Booker Bibb and Thomas Slaughter. She was there with her son and daughter-in-law, both professors at Knox College in Illinois.

Her cousin took a DNA test, which is how she found out about the reunion, the documentary and Richard Bibb. The stories are powerful, “but you know it’s historically what it is, and we just embrace it to understand and, you know, make at least sense of it today.”

It all sounded perfectly reasonable, but I wanted to get away. The shackles. The 10-year-old boys for sale. The picture of Granny Kate staring at me. Minute by minute, this place felt oppressive, frightening and surreal.

I excused myself to talk to Latisha Hardy, from Louisville, Kentucky. She was there with her husband, Maurice, and their son. Until a few months ago, she hadn’t known there were white Bibbs either.

Maurice had white people in his Georgia family tree and understood the push-pull of wanting, but not wanting to be there. “It gives you feelings you don’t want to feel,” he said. “Because you know their money is built off your work.”

I sought out my cousins Ellis, from Oak Park, Illinois, and her sister, Amber Johnston, from outside Atlanta. Their late father and my late father were brothers. “This is opening up some stuff I didn’t even know I felt,” said Ellis. “I’m trying to hold that in.” To not come unglued thinking about “the wealth and the atrocities that happened in this house.”

White people kept coming up to her, “and they’re being appropriate, and wanting to talk and wanting to engage, but I feel like I need a minute,” said Ellis. “I might need forever.”

Ellis said she thought of Charlie Bibb, who had been an abusive man, and how abuse ran through the Bibb family, “and I never interrogated that further.” But now, she was thinking of “post-traumatic slave syndrome” and generational trauma. Her son, Jalen, 25, had visited the lynching exhibit the night before, and this morning he decided to stay at the hotel instead of attending the reunion.

Several Bibb descendants gather in front of Arnold’s Chapel Church, which was founded by Catherine (Granny Kate) Bibb in Bibbtown.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Her sister, Johnston, said they left Atlanta three hours late because she obsessed about retwisting her nearly waist-length hair. It’s similar to how black people dressed up for demonstrations and marches. It’s part of the armor we don.

When the formal program began, Morrow talked about discovering Maj. Bibb’s will and how he’d made finding the Bibb descendants his life’s work. “The Bibb family and these Bibb slaves have went all over America and done all kinds of things,” he said. The Bibb story is “a story about race. It’s a story about family. It’s a story about slavery. It’s a story about wealth. It’s a story about abuse. It’s a story about neglect.”

Ellis stepped to the lectern on the Bibb House lawn and told the hushed crowd, “When I pulled up, voices started in my head. Normally, I don’t hear voices.” She sat alone in the house’s 110-degree attic, the sleeping and work quarters for the enslaved, and she held a quilt. Spending time in the building and on the grounds, she said, “one of the strong feelings I had was rage.” She urged us to honor our feelings and have a “courageous conversation” about race.

My cousin asked the descendants of the enslaved what they would want to say to the descendants of the slave owners. And much later, when the moment was far behind us, I thought of plenty of words.

They went like this:

We are not like you.

We are not going to do to you what you did to us.

We are not going to burn your teenagers alive or put your grandmothers to work scrubbing our floors. We won’t break every bond of fellowship or citizenship to gain advantage, and then lie to ourselves and others about how precisely we’ve hoarded privilege in every institution of American society. We won’t call the police every time we feel uncomfortable or are made to share space. You are so afraid of us, of our anger and emotion, only because you know what you would do. It’s everything you’ve already done. This is why you’re always marveling at our power to forgive, because you, yourselves, do not.

That’s what I would have said later.

But in that moment I had just two bitter words. I said them out loud. And I meant every bit of them.

My cousin Sharon whipped her head around and tried to shush me, but I just faced forward steadily. I didn’t apologize. I said what I said.

I believe it was the ghost of Susie Bibb, answering my prayers.

Ellis had us break into groups and gave us a series of questions about race. My table included Michelle Anderson’s son, Jon, a scholar of African languages and linguistics at Knox College, and his wife, Nathalie Haurberg, an astronomy and physics professor at the college.

Toward the end of the program, I asked our table if white people talked to each other about race and what they said. Anderson stood up to tell the full group his answer: “No, I don’t think those conversations really happen. I think they happen in small circles, but in general, they are missing and I think a lot of people wish it would all go away. Each of us, as the white cousins here, as I will refer to them, are only where we are in life because of our black cousins, and we need to face those privileges that we have lived with for 200 years as the result of this house and the house across the street.”

Traci Ellis’ grandson, Christian, who is almost 2, takes a nap during the family reunion at the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Ellis ended the program by facing the house to tell the ghosts of those enslaved by Richard Bibb that we had returned. That we were their wildest dreams.

I was spent, more invested than I’d wanted to be in desiring something meaningful to come from this gathering. I hugged those who’d sat at my table. A few white people came up to talk to me about their family, to share their opinions on race relations, what they’d done in the civil rights movement, and about the president. I could hear them better this time.

Rachel looked stronger, I thought. She was glad they had helped convene the reunion.

The next day, eight carloads of black Bibbs, the extended Knight family and a couple of others toured Bibbtown. I sat with Amber’s children on the steps of Arnold’s Chapel Church, founded by Granny Kate. The last resident of Bibbtown, Marilyn Gill, had died a few years earlier in a fire so hot it melted coins. Her nephew died of a heart attack a few weeks after that.

“Some of you all might still own property here,” Morrow told us. “More brains are better than one, and I’m hoping you all can start to sort this out.” He hoped we would help find out about every acre Maj. Bibb gave the black Bibbs and who was heir to what in 2019. That we would join the struggle for truth, and the land beneath our feet. We are each other’s harvest.

I followed Jonathan back to Russellville until it was time to turn down a different road. I pulled up alongside him. Hard to know what to say through open car windows to a man whose ancestors had enslaved yours. So we just said goodbye. I was glad to have met him. It was a start, I thought.

Or maybe it was no such thing at all.

At some point, my cousins will likely do a more sophisticated DNA test to figure out more precisely if and how we might be related to Maj. Richard Bibb, and perhaps we’ll figure out if we have a claim to some of that Bibbtown land.

But it felt like such an old fight. And at that moment I was ready to get back home to my carefully curated black life, where the ground was steady beneath my feet and the old ghosts were much more quiet.

Could fines stop white people from calling the police on folk ‘being black’ in public? Economic penalties have worked before in the fight against racism

Kenzie Smith was setting up a grill with a friend at a lakeside park in Oakland, California. Smith was participating in the celebrated art of barbecuing, something he and his family had enjoyed at the park for years. But another typical American drama unfolded when Jennifer Schulte, a white woman, called the police on Smith, who is black. The reported offense was using charcoal in an undesignated area of the park.

The drama did not end violently, as have so many other altercations between racist whites and innocent black men and women. The police made no arrests, and they did not fine Smith. Yet the incident underscores the hard truth that many whites are incapable of understanding racism and their complicity in it.

Schulte has been shamed, as have the multitude of other whites who called the police on other African-Americans in a string of “while black” altercations at Starbucks, a Waffle House, golf courses and countless other spaces across the nation. We say their names. We share and repost hilarious memes that mercilessly (yet rightfully) mock whites who call the police to report people “being black” in public spaces. Yet this is not enough. Public shaming raises awareness and helps some cope, but it does not exact the cost that eradicating racism requires.

Yet, Schulte needs to be held accountable. The few vocal calls for white accountability through penalties are not misguided. By targeting the bottom line, policies can moderate racist behavior. If whites have to pay for their ignorance, they are likely to think twice. If whites can finally see that racism negatively affects them and that racism is bad for business, or personal finances, the beloved community may not be achieved. But it puts us on the path toward a masterful feat: millions of woke whites.

Monetary penalties have effectively curbed overtly racist actions before. In cities across the American South, where racism and segregation were most visibly entrenched, black protest pressured many white businesses to stop the practice of segregation before the law changed.

Even before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, bastions of segregation that sought to avoid the tarnished images of Jackson, Mississippi, or Birmingham, Alabama, understood that overt racism was bad for business and development.

In the cradle of the Confederacy, Mayor Lester Bates of Columbia, South Carolina, ushered in the desegregation of public spaces and businesses in August 1963, nearly one year before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. After a crippling economic boycott, Bates called together a coalition of moderate whites and civil rights leaders. Following the example of Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, who carefully built on the image of Atlanta as “a city too busy to hate,” Bates encouraged white business owners and city leaders to allow patrons of color to shop, dine and enter public spaces without the overt discrimination that defined Jim Crow.

But economic penalty was and remains far from perfect. It does not change the hearts and minds of the most recalcitrant racist whites.

Take, for instance, Maurice Bessinger, former owner of the infamous Columbia barbecue establishment Piggy Park. Bessinger was an avowed segregationist and Confederate flag and souvenir aficionado long after the city desegregated. Bessinger’s bottles of barbecue sauce, which were nationally distributed, featured the Confederate flag. The flag was draped over restaurant foyers. Racist epithets and Confederate literature could be found on tables, tacked to the wall and repeated by staff. As calls for the removal of the Stars and Bars resounded, Bessinger’s boisterous support for the former Confederacy only increased.

Business suffered as a result. The family estimates the business lost more than $20 million throughout the 1980s and 1990s as people refused to purchase Bessinger goods. The backlash pushed Bessinger’s sons to remove the symbolic representation of the past once their father retired. Most of the Bessinger sons worked to distance themselves from their controversial father, removing all Confederate memorabilia from their stores and products.

Politicizing where you eat and what you buy makes an impact. But codifying financial penalties can place even more pressure on whites today.

Politicizing where you eat and what you buy makes an impact. But codifying financial penalties can place even more pressure on whites today.

Since it is illegal to file false police reports and occupy law enforcement and professional first responders for superfluous, racist purposes, there is a legal need for local governments to step in too.

Still, financial penalties and economic protest do not address the more systemic issues and certainly do not fulfill calls for reparations. The remnants of segregation and the Confederacy remain. The grips of slavery still pervade. Racism is still a reality. It’s in our barbecue.

However, racist whites need to be held accountable, and we know that monetary penalties can curb racist behavior.

The penalty for filing false claims is a good place to start. Like reporting fallacious and untruthful information to the police, calling law enforcement and first responders for trivial matters negatively affects the public good in myriad ways. A long track record of police brutality also suggests calling the police on racist premises jeopardizes black lives.

Penalties vary by state, from $500 fines and up to 30 days in jail in South Carolina to $1,000 fines and up to one year in jail in New York. Given our history, this seems to be a minor price for racist individuals to pay to help eradicate individual and institutional racism.

While financial penalties are far from perfect, they are an effective pre-emptive measure. The recent incident in Oakland teaches us that racism continues to run rampant and many whites are largely clueless about how it operates. But it also shows us that when whites are confronted with a penalty, we have the ability to think twice. Fining Jennifer Schulte and other offenders is an option worth considering.

24 books for white people to read beyond Black History Month These great reads will help any reader discover the rich range of the African-American experience

For many years I was a clueless white guy. I suffered from one-ness. What I really needed was two-ness, and maybe three-ness and four-ness. I came to see my whiteness not as privilege but as insufficiency, thanks to W. E. B. Du Bois and his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk.

In a remarkable passage, the great scholar, author and activist described the Negro as “a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eye of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideas in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Here is the good news. I am not there yet, but I am gaining on two-ness. My white skin is no longer a prison of cluelessness. With the help of African-American friends and colleagues, I am beginning to see America through the eyes of not the Other but others. Through their generosity, I have been invited to ask questions. I heard or saw things I didn’t understand. I did not yet know how to learn, nor did I have the courage to ask a question that might come off as racist. My fear was met by encouragement from the likes of Rev. Kenny Irby, DeWayne Wickham, Dr. Karen Dunlap, Keith Woods, Dr. Lillian Dunlap. “Don’t worry,” they indicated by one means or another. “Ask away. No one is going to leave the room or show you the door.”

Some of my clueless questions:

“When I see a police car, unless I am speeding, I think protection. Tell me why when you see a cop car you may think oppression?”

“I don’t get the absence of so many black fathers in the lives of their children. What is up with that?”

“I have learned to hate the N-word. When I hear it from black rappers, should I be offended?”

“I keep running into this idea of ‘good hair’ vs. ‘bad hair.’ As someone with very bad hair, I think that anyone with any kind of hair has good hair. What am I missing?”

There came a time during these interrogations when I felt a little fatigue setting in from my colleagues. And then Karen Dunlap, my boss and president of the Poynter Institute, made it explicit. It gets tiring, she explained, bearing the burden of white people’s ignorance about black people and African-American culture. “You know,” she gave me a Sunday school teacher look, “you could read something.”

Read something. Yes, read something!

And so I have. Over the past two decades I have developed quite a nice collection of what I might generally describe as African-American literature, some of it written by white journalists or scholars but most of it created by black poets, playwrights, scholars, novelists, essayists and critics. My collection is now large enough to be displayed, and I recently did just that in the library of the Poynter Institute.

I am not claiming this to be an expert collection of works, and certainly not a model one. But it is my collection, and I believe it has made me a better friend, colleague, parent, citizen and human being. I offer this list, with brief annotations, at the END of Black History Month to encourage readers not to limit their learning to the shortest month of the year.

So please learn, grow — and enjoy.


  • My Soul Is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South, by Howell Raines. A superb oral history of the key moments and key figures of the struggle.
  • The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride. “What color is God?” a dark-skinned boy asks his light-skinned mother. “God is the color of water.”
  • Reporting Civil Rights (Parts One and Two) Library of America edition of great American journalism on race and social justice, 1941-1973.
  • The Authentic Voice: The Best Reporting on Race and Ethnicity, edited by Arlene Morgan, Alice Pifer and Keith Woods. Rich examples reveal the power of inclusiveness in all the stories we tell.
  • The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America, by Raymond Arsenault. A great biography of a great American artist by the historian who also gave us Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
  • Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Phillip Hoose. Before Rosa Parks became an American icon, a young teenage girl, Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her seat on a bus. Written for young readers, but important for all.
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. First came slavery, then came segregation, then came mass incarceration.
  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Framed as a letter to his adolescent son, the author digs down to consequences of the continuing exploitation of black people in America. By the author who has made the most eloquent case in favor of reparations for continuing effects of slavery.
  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. “Stares unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery.” Another must-read is The Bluest Eye, a terrifying novel about cultural definitions of beauty and the tragedy of self-hatred.
  • Fences, by August Wilson. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, this play depicts what it means for a father to love his son — even at times when he doesn’t like him.
  • Woodholme: A Black Man’s Story of Growing Up Alone, by DeWayne Wickham. An orphan, black and poor, grows up to be one of America’s most prominent newspaper columnists.
  • Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African-American Writing, edited by Deirdre Mullane. If I had to recommend a single volume, this anthology would be it: more than 700 pages of history, literature and insight.
  • In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, by Alice Walker. Glowing essays expressed in what the author of The Color Purple calls “Womanist Prose.”
  • March (Books One, Two and Three), a trilogy, graphic-novel style, on the life and times of congressman John Lewis, with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. A work for adults and young readers.
  • Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, by Condoleezza Rice. This family memoir by the former U.S. secretary of state carries us back to when she was 8 years old and her young friends were murdered in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
  • Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, by Taylor Branch. Widely hailed by critics of all races as “a vivid tapestry of America.”
  • Race Matters, by Cornel West. From W. E. B. Du Bois to Cornel West, African-American intellectuals have helped Americans of all colors understand the sources of racism and the need for change.
  • The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson. The 1912 short novel narrates what it means for a person of mixed race to “pass for white” within the system of American apartheid.
  • The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Winner of a Pulitzer Prize. The stories behind the stories of civil rights, including the inspirational courage and leadership of African-American journalists and publishers.
  • On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, her poetry captures a unique vision of the love and spirit of those who struggled against segregation.
  • Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver. Bought this as a college student in 1968 along with Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! by Julius Lester. Written from a California state prison by a key figure in the Black Panther movement.
  • Black and White Styles in Conflict, by Thomas Kochman. Are black people and white people the same — or different? Turns out, the answer is “both,” according to the white sociologist who drills down into American culture to reveal the sources of our misunderstanding.
  • The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin. Framed as a letter to his young nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation. A searing call for justice.
  • The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. The poet was black a black man in a white world, a gay man in a straight world. His experience of two-ness created, I would argue, one of the most impressive bodies of poetry in American history. Were there not an unofficial color line in the Pulitzer Prize judging, he would have won — and more than once.

In building this list, I emphasize again that it is only special in that it is mine, and in that it has led me to a place I wanted and needed to be. There are countless worthy works not on my list, and countless more that are soon to be written. If I may borrow a phrase from the late Julius Lester: Look out, Whitey! Read some of these books and, who knows, you may get a clue. May there be two-ness in your future — and more.

‘Survivor’s Remorse’ recap: Making a case for reparations Wealth, philanthropy and the question of ‘good’ white people

Season 4, Episode 7 | “Optics” | Oct. 1

Talk about perfect timing.

The writers and executive producers of Survivor’s Remorse must be cackling with glee at how prescient its latest episodes have been. Last week was the furthest the show has gone in exploring Cam’s nascent interest in athlete activism, pitting him in a possible showdown situation with his team owner and boss.

This week’s episode is about the harder to see, and harder to acknowledge, byproducts of white supremacy. It starts with M-Chuck, who, after getting invited to a private, advance tour of Atlanta’s new Museum of African-American Life with Chen, raises her trademark ire.

They haven’t even finished walking across the parking lot when she does it. M-Chuck (Erica Ash) is pissed that Atlanta’s new museum of African-American history is called the Leonard Moskowitz Museum of African American Life. Her rant about the building’s name is essentially a skewering of narcissism and a need for, if not absolution, loudly signaling that you are one of the “good” white people.

Atlanta’s fictive museum of African-American life is a stand-in for the newly opened Blacksonian, where the Walmart brand appears prominently in the lobby. But the message of Optics is broader than that. It argues that white people are often guilty of taking something that’s supposed to be about blackness and black people and making it about themselves, status and reputation-building. And the wealth that allows them to do this, of course, is a side effect of the advantages bestowed by the omnipresence of white supremacy. (This is why it was so important that Brad Pitt and Plan B understand the value and importance of getting out of the way.)

M-Chuck, incensed by the fact that Moskowitz (Saul Rubinek) has plastered his name across the front of the museum, presses Chen (Robert Wu) for a meeting with Moskowitz.

“How would you feel if you went to the Holocaust Museum and it said ‘Brought to you by Tyler Perry?’ ” she asks.

Moskowitz gets defensive, telling M-Chuck that Jews were also oppressed by “whiter white people” (true) and were also enslaved by Egyptians (also true). He brings up common arguments: Your brother is rich, how could he possibly be oppressed? And: You’ve had a black president, which means black people are clearly doing better. Plus, Jewish kids are obsessed with hip-hop. Black kids are not going around milly rocking to klezmer, he argues.

The most powerful, subversive and truthful thing that Survivor’s Remorse writers did was to put these words in the mouth of a man who sees himself as an ally, rather than a swastika-waving, “blood and soil”-chanting, tiki-torch-wielding racist. Optics offers a critique of white liberalism that echoes Get Out, Brit Bennett’s essay for Jezebel, I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail.

[Mike Wise: Gregg Popovich’s speech about white privilege felt like a personal rebuke]

Recently, I had a wonderful conversation with writer and professor Crystal Fleming about this topic. Fleming is an associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at State University of New York, Stony Brook, and author of Resurrecting Slavery and the forthcoming How to Be Less Stupid About Race.

“White supremacy … exists not only on the right among conservatives or Trump supporters, it exists on the left. It exists pervasively and systematically throughout our society,” Fleming said. “What tends to happen is, even in the so-called liberal discourse, is a focus on progress, is a focus on things that have changed, rather than a focus on, No. 1, the fact that, again, white supremacy continues to exist and, two, that it doesn’t just exist in certain pockets of society or, you know, in a Klan rally.”

As M-Chuck faces off with Moskowitz, she tells him, “This museum is not yours. It’s ours. So if you’re going to give it, give it graciously.”

Moskowitz fires back: “And if you’re going to receive it, receive it graciously.”

Oof. Wasn’t Jelani Cobb just talking about how “ungrateful” is the new “uppity”? It’s one thing to see the words. It’s another to see the idea reflected on a screen.

It takes another white person, Moskowitz’s wife, to persuade him that his actions were both wrong and offensive. M-Chuck telling him wasn’t enough.

These ideas also show up in the B-plot of the episode, as Reggie (RonReaco Lee) is trying to persuade Chen to give him access to his real estate deals. Reggie is hosting the weekly rich guy poker game in his basement (the same group to which he lost enough money to buy a house).

After Reggie has once again taken a beating in the poker game, he pressures Chen to let him invest in his business deals. And here, things get complicated. Chen informs Reggie that the relationships he has with his millionaire friends are “friendships of convenience.” His relationship with Reggie and his family, on the other hand, is personal and valuable to him in a different, much more priceless way. He doesn’t want to destroy that. Reggie still wants in on Chen’s next development deal, despite the fact that the stakes are much higher for him if things go wrong. The chasm between Reggie’s upper-middle-class net worth and those of his poker buddies is a great example of the difference between being rich and being wealthy. Or, as Chris Rock would say, “If Bill Gates woke up with Oprah’s money he’d jump out a f—ing window.” It also illustrates how difficult it is to bridge this wealth gap if you’re starting from behind. It’s damn near impossible.

White supremacy is not just the practice of neo-Nazis but also “the social and political and economic dominance of people socially defined as white,” Fleming said. “So we’re talking about systemic access to resources, and that this is something, again, that even … among Democrats and liberals, people don’t want to talk about it. It’s easier to talk about racial disparities without admitting which groups are actually being systematically disadvantaged and advantaged by those disparities.”

The folks behind Survivor’s Remorse have already aired an episode called Reparations. Off the strength of Optics, I wouldn’t mind seeing them attempt to make a case for them. Then again, maybe they already have.

‘Survivor’s Remorse’ recap: The family secrets start to spill out Missy learns about a prenup and Chen finds out the truth about Father Tom

Season 4, Episode 6 | “Reparations” | Sept. 24

Well, this was a little uncomfortable.

Survivor’s Remorse has begun to unleash the Big Questions of its fourth season. And the ones presented by the Reparations episode are good ones: Just what are our obligations to our fellow man? And how do we determine them?

Written by Victor Levin and directed by Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Reparations looks at those questions from both personal and existential angles. Let’s run them down, relationship by relationship:

Missy and Reggie

We know that Missy (Teyonah Parris) and Reggie’s (RonReaco Lee) marriage is not a relationship of full transparency, given how little Missy knew about Reggie’s father before he turned up bleeding in the hospital. But that lack of communication seemed more about respecting boundaries: Reggie didn’t want to be bothered with his father, and he didn’t want to bother Missy with him, either. It didn’t seem to matter to him that they all share the same last name, or that Missy and Reggie’s relationship has clearly been affected by Reggie’s relationship with his father.

But now we’re getting into trickier territory: money. Reggie lost $123,000 in a high-stakes poker game and called it a “business expense.” He didn’t hide it from Missy, but he didn’t discuss it with her either.

That was enough to spark an eyebrow raise until Reggie dropped a bomb: Missy’s father made him sign a prenuptial agreement, and neither one of them told her.

So now we’ve got questions about Missy and Reggie’s obligations to disclose things to each other, and also about whether Missy’s parents are obligated to treat her like an adult. Missy’s parents, played by Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Vanessa Bell Calloway, think they don’t need to treat her like an adult until she starts behaving like one. Their reasoning is that they’re protecting the wealth they’re planning to pass down eventually. It will be hers one day, but it isn’t yet, and to them, Missy hasn’t done much to demonstrate her adulting abilities. She quit her job as a lawyer to play housewife to Reggie and work the charity circuit. Or, as Missy’s mother put it: “You might call yourself a feminist, but you live like an Eisenhower-era wife.” And that raises yet another question: What are Missy’s obligations to her own feminist principles?

Cam and the world

Cam (Jessie T. Usher), doesn’t really belong to a person. Sure, he’s dating Allison (Meagan Tandy), but Cam belongs to Atlanta. He belongs to his teammates. He belongs to black people. He belongs to a whole list of larger groups before he’s accountable to Allison in the way Reggie and Missy are accountable to each other. Part of that is because Reggie and Missy are married and Cam and Allison are not. But it’s also because Cam really is a sort of public servant. He sees himself, his celebrity and his wealth as tools for improving the world on a range of issues, be it “frozen nostril” kids, prison reform, clean water or his latest cause: pensionless black ballplayers who were the victims of a racist basketball league.

Cam feels obligated to everyone because of his large fortune. His role as a franchise player makes him uniquely suited to serve as team representative (an official intermediary between players and team management) because he has some clout. And because of that clout and his money, Cam can help the black ballplayers who came before him and have no retirement fund.

As Reggie reveals, Cam is spending nearly 25 percent of his pretax income on charity. He’s doing it not just because it makes him feel good but because he’s started thinking about his legacy. Reggie, on the other hand, would prefer it if Cam started thinking more about his obligations to himself.

Cassie, Chen and God

The great thing about the relationship between Cassie (Tichina Arnold) and Chen (Robert Wu) is that it feels like a relationship between equals even though Chen is a billionaire and Cassie’s son Cam is merely one of many on his payroll. Still, it’s clear that Cassie is struggling to fully trust Chen, even after he defended her to his kinda-racist parents and repeatedly demonstrated his devotion to her.

The more M-Chuck (Erica Ash) delves into the history of who fathered her, the more Cassie has burrowed into her Catholicism. And because Chen wants to make Cassie happy, he’s happy to indulge in spending on various saintly statues, even if he doesn’t know why he’s buying them.

But this week, thanks to M-Chuck’s big mouth, Chen now knows why Cassie’s recommitted herself to her faith: She’s leaning on it to help deal with the emotions dredged up by the revelation that she was raped by three boys when she was 17, a gang rape that resulted in M-Chuck. How much of that is Cassie obligated to tell Chen? Obviously, it’s up to her what she wants to reveal and when (or it would have been, had M-Chuck not inadvertently spilled the beans).

But on some level, Cassie’s trauma isn’t just hers once it affects her relationship. Chen only worried that Cassie was cheating on him because he didn’t know she’s been seeing and texting her priest. And he didn’t know that because then Cassie would have had to explain why she’s been seeing Father Tom so much. OK, so leaving your partner in the dark when you’re in a committed relationship seems unfair. But what exactly is Cassie’s obligation to Chen, especially if they aren’t married? Is anyone ever completely honest in a relationship? Should they be?

O.J. Simpson gets parole and other news of the week The Week That Was July 17-21

Monday 07.17.17

Country rock artist Kid Rock is still pretending to run for U.S. Senate. Professional model Jeremy Meeks, better known as viral star “Prison Bae,” offered this advice to former football star O.J. Simpson: “Stay out of trouble.” The Carolina Panthers fired general manager Dave Gettleman, and instead of receiving heartfelt messages from his former players, Gettleman was laughed at, given the side-eye emoji, and called a “snake.” An American Airlines spokesperson clarified that it was mechanical issues and not a passenger’s passing gas that forced the evacuation of a plane the day before. Walmart apologized for a third-party vendor describing the color of a wig cap on the company’s website as “n—– brown.” A D.C. crime robot drowned itself. Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick, who is hated by many despite rocking a fade haircut, said the first thing embattled quarterback Colin Kaepernick needs to do to repair his image is to “cut his hair” and “try to be presentable.”

Tuesday 07.18.17

Kaepernick posted the definition of “Stockholm syndrome” to his personal Twitter account. According to a new poll, 22 percent of Americans say they would still support President Donald Trump if he “shot someone on 5th Avenue.” Dallas Cowboys receiver Lucky Whiteside was reunited with his dog by Texas rapper Boogotti Kasino; in a profanity-laden video posted to his Twitter account, Kasino, who’d previously made a video demanding $20,000 for the dog’s safe return asked, “F— I look like stealing a god damn dog, bro?” In gentrification news, a new “Instagrammable” New York City restaurant sells $12 cocktails alongside a “bullet hole-ridden wall,” a supposed remnant of the “rumored backroom illegal gun shop” of the previous ownership (the bullet holes are not real). A Republican mayoral candidate in Florida told an opponent, who is white, and “your people” that if they want reparations they should “go back to Africa.” Chipotle is getting people sick again.

Wednesday 07.19.17

Wu-Tang Clan member RZA was tapped as Chipotle’s newest spokesman in the face of the company’s latest food safety crisis. Rats fell from the ceiling at one of the company’s Dallas restaurants. Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch has the top-selling jersey in 14 states, including South Dakota and Alaska. In one of WWE’s most daring stunts since “blowing up” CEO Vince McMahon’s limousine in 2007, the wrestling executive’s son, Shane, was in a helicopter that made an emergency landing in the Atlantic Ocean. Inmates at a Florida correctional facility are being denied toilet paper. In the name of science, FiveThirtyEight, who forgot to send an invite, got drunk off of margaritas. The showrunners of Game of Thrones, a show that has more computer-generated dragons than black people, have been tapped to create a Civil War-era series that “takes place in an alternate timeline, where the Southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal.” Trump said French President Emmanuel Macron “loves holding my hand.”

Thursday 07.20.17

Former O.J. Simpson attorney F. Lee Bailey is now broke, lives with a 62-year-old hairstylist and works as a consultant upstairs from his girlfriend’s salon. O.J. was paroled. A Texas woman, who is about to snitch, was caught with $2 million worth of liquid crystal methamphetamine after she thought it would be a good idea to drive over the speed limit. New York Jets quarterback Josh McCown, who has a career 18-42 record, said the “future is bright” for the team, which went 5-11 last season. “Despacito,” the most streamed song in music history, was banned in Malaysia because of raunchy lyrics like “you’re the magnet and I’m the metal.” Rapper Meek Mill said he was “off the s—s” when he ignited his beef with Drake back in 2015. Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze abruptly resigned from the school after it was revealed he used a university-provided cellphone to dial a number associated with a female escort service; four days earlier, Freeze tweeted, “Dear God, I worship You today for the forgiveness of my sins, a love like no other, grace and acceptance, and the blessing of life!!”

Friday 07.21.17

Freeze was offered “lifetime access” to adult-themed webcasting website CamSoda (Warning: NSFW); the site said “camming is a healthy alternative to escorts and the next best thing.” Leonardo DiCaprio, a courageous, humble and common man, will take a commercial flight instead of a private jet to his environmental foundation’s gala. A tweet by R&B singer SZA that simply read “Lol nah” received 20,000 retweets and nearly 27,000 likes. In a move that will prove most damaging to Saturday Night Live, White House press secretary Sean Spicer resigned. Thirty years after Spanish artist Salvador Dalí’s death, his famous mustache was still intact after his body was exhumed to perform a paternity test. Professional golfer Sergio Garcia, competing at the British Open, sent his tee shot near some bushes and hurt his shoulder after swinging his club at the offending shrubbery. A Chicago Cubs writer tweeted that Cubs pitcher Jose Quintana “took LSD into work today and said he wasn’t even sure where the players’ entrance was to Wrigley.” LSD is also a Chicago street.

This Juneteenth, #40Acres40cities is reclaiming land as a form of reparations No one is getting a mule, but a free people can occupy land

Monday marks Juneteenth, otherwise known as freedom on CP time.

Yes, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. But it wasn’t until June 19, 1865, that the word made it to Texas, in the form of an order read by a Union Army general.

“Blacks greeted the news with the overwhelming joy that accompanies receiving the answer to a life-long prayer,” wrote Judson Jeffries, professor in the African American and African Studies Department at Ohio State University, in “Juneteenth, Black Texans and the Case for Reparations.”

White Texans, on the whole, were not as elated. One celebration of the newly freedmen was interrupted, Jeffries wrote, “when a (white) sword-wielding man nearly cut a black woman in half on the street.” In another instance, a black man who “leapt high in the air to express his delight” was shot between the legs by his slave master.

The reparations of 40 acres and a mule promised to freed people? It never arrived. This year, the Black Land and Liberation Initiative wants black folks to collect on that debt — not in the form of the beast of burden, but the one thing that they’re not making any more of.

On this Juneteenth, in cities across the country, black people will reclaim places and spaces as part of #40Acres40Cities, a direct action coordinated by the BlackOUT Collective and Movement Generation. Reclamation could take the shape of a pop-up park or a community festival in an empty lot. Or it could be the takeover of a space with contested ownership.

Black people’s connection to the land is as deep as it is tenuous. We farmed the land, reaping crops and generating profits for slave owners, profits that undergird families and businesses that exist to this day.

Yet at the same time, we are vulnerable, be it to gentrification, predatory lenders, subprime mortgages or government policies that discriminate against black farmers. The #40Acres40cities action focuses on the South and Midwest, where the concentration of black people is higher. And while the Movement for Black Lives’ website lists some of the participating cities, the exact location may stay secret until the direct action occurs.

“You can’t say, we’ll be at this corner for an occupation,” said Chinyere Tutashinda, co-director of the BlackOUT Collective. “For black folks, when we think about liberation and equality, we have to understand that capitalism won’t get us free,” she said. “In order for it to continue to exist, someone has to be oppressed. … And because of racialized capitalism, it will almost always be black people.”

So while the Black Land and Liberation Initiative’s action Monday is about building communities, the larger mission is to confront the systems, institutions and people who built their wealth on the exploitation of black bodies and labor.

Speaking of wealth, just this month, the Federal Reserve announced that household wealth is up for the first quarter of this year, to $94.8 trillion. But rising tides have never lifted all boats. For every $1 of wealth the average black family has, the average white family has $13, a racial wealth gap that has grown since the Great Recession ended.

But the tropes that conservatives usually rely on to explain this disparity fall short. Here’s what doesn’t close the racial wealth gap, according to a 2017 report: attending college, working full time, spending less or raising kids in a two-parent household.

“We find that white adults who don’t graduate high school, don’t get married before having children, and don’t work full time still have much greater wealth at the median than comparable black and Latino adults — and often have more wealth than black and Latino households that have married, completed more education, or work longer hours,” wrote researchers in “The Asset Value Of Whiteness: Understanding The Racial Wealth Gap.”

Home ownership is often a path to wealth creation, but just over 40 percent of black people own their home, compared with 71 percent of white people.

Not surprisingly, the racial group that benefits most from the status quo believes little should be done. Just over 65 percent of black people but only 21 percent of white people believe the country’s wealth today is “significantly tied to work done by slaves,” according to a 2016 Marist poll. And 58 percent of blacks and 15 percent of whites believe the U.S. government should pay reparations to the descendants of slaves.

If what we’ve done has gotten us what we have, then it would take something almost unimaginable to repair the gap. Something like reparations. While reparations are usually visualized as a check for the descendants of African slaves, land is a suitable option, said Jeffries, who, with several others, started the first Juneteenth celebration in Lafayette, Indiana, 16 years ago.

Every year for more than 20 years, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, has introduced legislation to study the impact of slavery on African-Americans and suggest remedies — such as reparations.

His bill fails every year, and there’s no reason to think his 2017 bill will be the exception. Right? “I don’t see any reparations on the horizon,” said Jeffries, “but I didn’t see Obama on the horizon either.”

The fight for reparations can be a useful decoy in solving America’s racial wealth gap ‘Baby bonds’ is a more politically viable answer to the disparity in black and white wealth

Reparations can help close the racial wealth gap — just not the way you might think.

America’s racial wealth gap should leave us all gloomy. For every dollar owned by the median black household, the median white household owned $13. And for every dollar owned by the median Latino household, the median white household owned $10. Those numbers are from a recent study, The Asset Value of Whiteness, produced by researchers at the think tank Demos and Brandeis University, based on data from 2013.

Our path to this inequity began centuries ago: Slavery. Segregation. Redlining. We don’t appreciate how much programs like the GI Bill disproportionately helped white World War II veterans attend college and buy homes with guaranteed mortgages. This and other federal policies intentionally bolstered a largely white American middle class while crippling that of people of color.

A country in which wealth is so unevenly distributed along racial lines reproduces racial stratification generation after generation. As the study notes, if “a substantial racial wealth gap persists, white households will continue to enjoy greater advantages than their black and Latino neighbors in meeting the financial challenges of everyday life and will be able to make greater investments in their children, passing economic advantages on.”

Crucially, the report refutes theories that a lack of personal responsibility explains the gap. Minorities should just attend college more. Raise their children in two-parent households. Get full-time jobs. Spend less money. None of these appreciably closes the racial wealth gap, though.

How can we ameliorate this situation? I see two ways forward.

One way is to champion universal policies that help all racial groups but disproportionately help people of color because they disproportionately lack wealth. An idea called “baby bonds” is the best version of such a policy.

The other way is to push for race-conscious policies such as reparations. The former provides a more viable route, given political realities, but reparations can be a strategic decoy that eases the acceptance of baby bonds. We must walk both paths if the racial wealth gap is to ever be closed.


William “Sandy” Darity Jr., a Duke economics professor, and Darrick Hamilton, an economics professor at The New School in New York, came up with the idea for baby bonds.

Each newborn child would be granted a bond, a federally funded trust fund of sorts. The poorest child would get, say, $60,000, with the amount dwindling to nothing for the children of the richest families. The money would be put in an interest-bearing account that becomes accessible upon adulthood and could only be used for wealth-building activities, such as going to college or putting a down payment on a home. They figure the program would cost about $60 billion per year, which, Darity and Hamilton wrote in an academic paper, is “less than 10% of the non-war spending budget for the Department of Defense.”

Some might contend that baby bonds, by focusing on wealth rather than race, unsatisfactorily address a racial problem. But, Darity and Hamilton argue in their paper, “Since the distributions of white and non-white wealth are so disparate — 85% of black families have wealth holdings below the median white family — wealth can be an effective non-race-based instrument to eliminate racial inequality.” Darity told me he thinks baby bonds “could go a long way toward closing the racial wealth gap.”

The universality of baby bonds also gives it the potential to attract support from an interracial coalition of working-class people pursuing their own economic self-interest. Such a coalition could form a base that a political majority can rest upon. A poor white person in West Virginia would have as much reason to support this program as a poor black person in rural Alabama. Baby bonds might get people to appreciate their commonality with others who, because of race, rarely think of themselves as having the same interests.

Given our political climate, many will be pessimistic about the likelihood of forming such an interracial coalition. Although that sentiment is understandable, we have reason for optimism.

The current era in American politics can be compared to Southern Redemption, the period when white supremacist politicians regained power after Reconstruction. In the wake of Redemption, however, Southern populist movements in the late 1800s gained traction, getting poor white folk to ally with poor black folk by explicitly arguing that powerful white elites kept them both in poverty. These populist politicians carried a consistent and truthful message: White elites used racism to separate white and black folk who were mired in destitution yet could be lifted together through responsive lawmaking.

These times call for a similar movement, which will admittedly require a gargantuan effort. But the fact that politicians in the 1880s, two decades after the end of slavery, were able to join working people of different races should give us hope. Baby bonds — particularly because they focus on what people are most concerned with, the future of their children — can be a policy that drives this movement.


Reparations are the most prominent race-conscious means to address the racial wealth gap. But when can we conclude that a seed will never germinate? Black folk have been working the reparations land for more than two centuries with little to show for it.

During the Revolutionary War, Peter, a free black man behind British lines, was enslaved by William Steel, an American officer. Peter was freed after six months, but years later he sued Steel for back wages, one of the first claims for reparations for the atrocities visited upon black people. The court held that he articulated a viable claim but awarded him no money.

Toward the end of the Civil War, when black folk who freed themselves cried out for land of their own, Gen. William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 provided them a loaned mule and 40-acre plots on the Southern coastline. President Andrew Johnson later revoked it, however, returning the land to its original white owners.

In 1894, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate that would have paid a lump sum of at most $500 and monthly pensions ranging from $4 to $15 to formerly enslaved people and their children. This and comparable bills never received floor votes in either house of Congress, and the “pension movement” fizzled once World War I started. Reparations arguments bubbled up again during the 1960s. And in every congressional session since 1987, Rep. John Conyers has introduced a bill that would form a commission to study the effects of slavery and American apartheid and “recommend appropriate remedies.” This bill has gone nowhere. The struggle continues, but the goal is still far away in the distance.

Reparations were once just about slavery. Its proponents have updated the claim to include harm from Jim Crow, 19th- and 20th-century white-over-black governing and 21st-century racial discrimination. The underlying claim is simple: A series of evils have been inflicted on black people, causing various lacerations requiring healing. That healing, under the most-discussed scenarios, would come in the form of taxpayer-funded payouts. And therein lies the issue — the belief that white folk would ever take billions out of their pockets to specifically remedy the harm perpetrated upon black folk.

The reparations movement has never managed to get around that impasse, as many white people are loath to do right by black people without also reaping a benefit.

To flesh out the point, let’s examine Sherman’s field order. He devised it not to champion black interests but to aid himself: He needed a way to discard, while also providing for, the freedmen who had followed his troops during their march from Atlanta to the Atlantic Ocean. And he desired to punish the Confederates who started the war. He achieved both with one move. If he thought the order would have helped the freedmen but undercut the Union’s interests, Sherman would never have championed it, and President Abraham Lincoln would never have endorsed it.

Besides doing nothing to close the racial wealth gap regarding Latinos, reparations provide little to black folk — because it’s a dream that will never come to life.


Despite my pessimism about reparations, the movement can act as a strategic decoy to help popularize a policy like baby bonds.

Think back to Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement triumphs. He was one voice among many petitioning for racial equality. Several of the others who registered nationally came from his political left. Malcolm X and black power advocates like Stokely Carmichael helped King because they made his militancy appear moderate. King’s desire for black folk to be equal partners in American democracy departed dramatically from the status quo, yet he looked judicious in a sea of more militant aesthetics.

Advocacy for reparations can have the same effect: It can be the radical idea that makes baby bonds seem like a moderate panacea to the racial wealth gap.

Even so, reparations should be sold differently to be a better strategic decoy. Al Brophy, a law professor at the University of North Carolina and the author of Reparations: Pro and Con, told me that, “one time I flippantly suggested we should [put forward a reparations bill] in Congress and call it the ‘White Supremacy Maintenance Act.’ Call it something that will be acceptable to the voters and put something else in it.” I concur with Brophy’s main thrust. The times perhaps call for a marketing shift that plays to many white folks’ self-interest.

That new rationale for reparations should focus on how centuries of racism has created a market inefficiency that harms everyone. American capitalism underperforms since black folk, 13 percent of the country’s population, are unable to contribute as much as they should because of a lack of wealth. The injustices that black folk have suffered hurt all participants in our economy, not just black folk. Perhaps an unemployed white man from Cincinnati, for instance, would have a job if a black woman had the money to start a small business. Reparations for black folk, in other words, would redound to everyone’s benefit.

According to a 2016 YouGov poll, two-thirds of Americans oppose reparations. I don’t expect this new rationale to drag reparations across the all-important “50 percent in favor” threshold. This is a smart tactical shift, nonetheless, for two reasons. First, it could make reparations more popular, coaxing its opponents to favor a less radical idea like baby bonds. Second, selling reparations like this teaches white people to cease thinking about wealth as a zero-sum game — more wealth for people of color doesn’t necessarily mean less wealth for them.