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The Blank Check of History: Mary Francis Berry and Memory Debts

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Abstract:

In 2005, Mary Francis Berry published My Face is Black is True, a historical account of Callie House and the Ex-Slave Pension Association—an early twentieth-century reparations movement in which former slaves sought redress in the form of pensions from the federal government for their unpaid labor and service in the Union Army. Admittedly, Berry’s book was inspired by the success of Randall Robinson’s 2000 treatise, The Debt, and the renewed interest in reparations for slavery amongst a broad coalition of African American academics and activists. To counter loud conservative critiques that contemporary African Americans claims for redress were without merit or precedent, Berry turned to Callie House to show that African Americans have been demanding reparations since Emancipation and always understood the symbiotic relationship between receiving compensation for unpaid labor and the path towards full citizenship.

Through Berry’s retrospective reading of African American reparations movements, however, her book also serves as a model of what I call “mnemonic restitution.” Unlike material restitution which seeks compensation in the form of wealth (land, monies, or trusts), mnemonic restitution seeks memory justice (museums, memorials, or apologies) and challenges the purposeful and ‘polite’ national amnesia around slavery as well as those practices of racism that uphold the cultural exclusion of all blacks, naturalized or native born, that live in the United States.

As such, while material restitution might be the ultimate wish-fulfillment of her book, she posits “history” as a form of reparations to reconcile the post-Civil Rights African American crisis of representation, recognition, and membership in the public sphere. In order to resolve this crisis of ongoing black disenfranchisement, Berry (and Robinson) fills in, what Jacques Le Goff notes, the “archive of silence,” to produce a meta-narrative for the post-Civil Rights African American reparations movement while locating an alternative genealogy for African American claims of national belonging.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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MLA Citation:

Tillet, Salamishah. "The Blank Check of History: Mary Francis Berry and Memory Debts" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD, <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509646_index.html>

APA Citation:

Tillet, S. M. "The Blank Check of History: Mary Francis Berry and Memory Debts" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509646_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: In 2005, Mary Francis Berry published My Face is Black is True, a historical account of Callie House and the Ex-Slave Pension Association—an early twentieth-century reparations movement in which former slaves sought redress in the form of pensions from the federal government for their unpaid labor and service in the Union Army. Admittedly, Berry’s book was inspired by the success of Randall Robinson’s 2000 treatise, The Debt, and the renewed interest in reparations for slavery amongst a broad coalition of African American academics and activists. To counter loud conservative critiques that contemporary African Americans claims for redress were without merit or precedent, Berry turned to Callie House to show that African Americans have been demanding reparations since Emancipation and always understood the symbiotic relationship between receiving compensation for unpaid labor and the path towards full citizenship.

Through Berry’s retrospective reading of African American reparations movements, however, her book also serves as a model of what I call “mnemonic restitution.” Unlike material restitution which seeks compensation in the form of wealth (land, monies, or trusts), mnemonic restitution seeks memory justice (museums, memorials, or apologies) and challenges the purposeful and ‘polite’ national amnesia around slavery as well as those practices of racism that uphold the cultural exclusion of all blacks, naturalized or native born, that live in the United States.

As such, while material restitution might be the ultimate wish-fulfillment of her book, she posits “history” as a form of reparations to reconcile the post-Civil Rights African American crisis of representation, recognition, and membership in the public sphere. In order to resolve this crisis of ongoing black disenfranchisement, Berry (and Robinson) fills in, what Jacques Le Goff notes, the “archive of silence,” to produce a meta-narrative for the post-Civil Rights African American reparations movement while locating an alternative genealogy for African American claims of national belonging.


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