Sania Anwar | Unearthing Justice:  Book Review of Katherine Franke’s Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition

By Sania Anwar

Left: February 1968 front cover of a monthly student newspaper founded by the New York Urban League for students of Harlem Prep, Newark Prep, and the Street Academies.  The inside page of this issue has an article titled, “Columbia Invites 119th St. Academy Students to Jail.”  Two students of the Academy were on campus selling copies of the newspaper when they were invited inside John Jay Hall by Columbia students to talk to the president of the floor.  As they were talking to him, the dormitory supervisor approached them with three campus security guards.  “Each time the student tried to explain he told them to shut-up and threatened to put them in jail.”  They were arrested after the dormitory supervisor called the police and said “they were disturbing the peace and had not been given permission to be in the building.”


“Free! The most piteous thing amid all the black ruin of war-time, amid the broken fortunes of the masters, the blighted hopes of mothers and maidens, and the fall of an empire—the most piteous thing amid all this was the black freedman who threw down his hoe because the world called him free. What did such a mockery of freedom mean? Not a cent of money, not an inch of land, not a mouthful of victuals—not even ownership of the rags on his back. Free!”

— W.E.B. Du Bois[1]

The word ‘repair’ is a homonym: in its everyday use it means ‘to amend, restore, or fix,’ but an archaic use refers to ‘a return – in place or in time.’

In “Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition,” Professor Katherine Franke presents a compelling case for both forms of repair for the United States – a return to the past, towards the end of the Civil War, to memorialize emancipatory potentials from endeavors in Black self-governance and to propose methods to “repair the enduring afterlife of slavery.”  By returning to the moment of emancipation when such potentials were thwarted by denying owed and promised reparations, Franke shows that reparations are necessary for what “we can do now to heal a national wound left festering for 150 years.”

Repair offers critical insight and support for reparations during a pivotal time in U.S. history, when political support for exploring reparations, if not reparations themselves, is the highest in many decades.

On April 14, 2021, a bill, H.R. 40 – to create a commission to study slavery and its ongoing harm and to propose forms of repair, including through reparations – cleared a House committee vote in Congress, the furthest it has ever gone in the over thirty years since it was first introduced by Rep. John Conyers Jr.  The disregard of opportunities to reckon with the past is in itself a harm and an additional reason to address the past.  The bill was appropriately named after another overt abandonment of what was owed to Black people – ‘40 acres and a mule’ from General Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 reserving “forty acres of tillable ground” from confiscated lands for each Black family, land which was then granted to returning white plantations owners by Andrew Johnson’s proclamation.  ‘Forty acres and a mule,’ is an example of how the repeated echoes of a historical event transforms it into a metaphor – in this case, of continued injustice, discrimination, and disregard of the government towards Black lives and personhood.

At the 2019 hearing on H.R. 40, Mitch McConnell objected to the notion of reparations and said, “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea.”  This statement contains two familiar responses to conversations about reparations: justice delayed should continue to be denied, and justice for Black people will be punitive for white Americans.  These responses summon Du Bois’s powerful metaphor of ‘the veil’ in order to dismiss and distance conversations on reparations: “this Veil, between Then and Now, between . . . Black and White – between You and Me.”[2]  Ta-Nehisi Coates responded to McConnell’s statement: “What they know, what this committee must know, is that while emancipation dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open. And that is the thing about Senator McConnell’s “something”: It was 150 years ago. And it was right now. . . . .  Because the question really is not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.”

In Repair, Franke writes, “crimes against humanity should not have a statute of limitations.”  This is especially true when there is no temporal disconnect and the harm is ongoing; any given moment is the right, if delayed, moment to confront it.

A Tale of Two Communities

“It is time we acknowledge that being emancipated without any resources with which to make that freedom meaningful is like telling the person stranded on a deserted island without a boat that they are free to leave.”

— Katherine Franke, Repair

Franke begins Repair by referencing glossy travel-magazine portrayals of the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina with their invented “palliative history” sanitizing slavery and muting the extraordinary promise of Reconstruction era.  But it is Franke’s own engrossing portrayal of two locations in the South – the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Davis Bend, Mississippi – that takes the reader on a journey through time and place, through paths paved with majestic hope and fraught with disappointments.  Her account of the months around and following emancipation of Black people in these locations presents an intimate glimpse into what was and what could have been.  The captivating narrative enfolds almost like a two-part play – skillfully projecting the emotional score underlying a plot with a fully developed cast of characters – with each part set in a different location but unfolding concurrently.  Repair invites the reader/audience to imagine “what freedom would have looked like if formerly enslaved people had been given a stronger voice in shaping what it meant not just to be freed, but to be free.”

Emancipation did not mean freedom; in many places it failed to mean end of slavery. A fundamental theme of Franke’s account of the experience of Black people immediately following abolition is to distinguish true freedom from the thwarted emancipation that followed the declared end of slavery, which she refers to as freed-dom.

Franke reminds the reader that “slavery and freedom were not a binary” and to be freed was starkly different than to be free – as was obvious from the freedmen’s[3] legal categorization as “contraband” early on in the Civil War.  This distinction led to the “tainted” Black freed-dom that followed slavery’s abolition and continues to weigh down Black citizenship with a badge of inferiority.  “White supremacy saturated the meaning of Black freedom every bit as much as it justified the enslavement of Black people,” writes Franke, because “the course and contours of Black emancipation were charted by white people who refused to respect the humanity of enslaved people and thus locked Black people into a truly inferior second-class status once they were freed.”

The theme of the book is constructed around two rarely-considered but perhaps the most central inquiries in today’s quest for reparations and racial justice, as posed by Franke for the reader:

“At what junctures were other, more robust, forms of Black freedom imaginable, and indeed possible? Have the possibilities that lay in that more robust form of freedom been lost to history, or can we recuperate a more ambitious idea of freedom today?”

Repair meticulously recounts events in two moments of emancipation and landownership: in Port Royal, South Carolina, and Davis Bend, Mississippi.  Both served as “models for Reconstruction” after white plantation owners had fled and the Northern troops sought ways to settle the swarms of Black refugees. While Black freed-dom at Port Royal was overseen by white missionaries and governmental agents, Davis Bend offered a more autonomous opportunity, “free from white oversight.”  Both these opportunities were reflections of the initial intent and promise of the government to redistribute land to the freedmen, as the key to full emancipation.  Even though some redistribution had been undertaken at Sea Islands and at Davis Bend as a form of reparations, Franke notes the disappointing ways in which the land reparations were not only thwarted but taken back when the lands were redistributed to former plantation owners by the Andrew Johnson administration.

At Port Royal, the clouds of white interference moved in swiftly to throw the potential of Black emancipation in shadows.  The financial demands of the war mandated that the plantations at Port Royal continue to produce cotton.  Franke captures the tragedy of the freedmen – many of whom had begun to plant corn and potatoes in their own lands – being told by Northern managers of freed Black labor that they had to return to the cotton fields: “so great was the ex-slaves’ hatred of cotton that among the first things they did when their former masters fled was destroy many cotton gins, with the aim of never ‘planting cotton for white folks again.’”  Adding to the tragedy and trauma in this newly gained freed-dom was the government’s failure to pay the promised wages to the freedmen.  “It’s hard to distinguish free from enslaved labor,” writes Franke, “when you work for a wage but never get paid.”  Even though it was claimed that the cotton plantation was now “voluntary,” Franke notes that what was left out from that claim was that the compliance was bought at the price of a punitive tax for refusal to plant cotton.  Thus “the new land settlement policy kept Black workers tied to wage labor, working on the island’s cotton plantations—exactly what the Northern administrators wanted.”

Following his March to the Sea, General William T. Sherman met with about twenty Black representatives in Savannah along with the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.  Rev. Garrison Frazier was nominated as the spokesperson for the Black leaders.  Frazier’s astute and prescient responses to the officials’ queries are noted in Sherman’s memoirs:

Question. State what you understand by slavery, and the freedom that was to be given by the president’s proclamation?

[Frazier]. Slavery is receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent. The freedom, as I understand it, promised by the proclamation, is taking us from under the yoke of bondage and placing us where we can reap the fruit of our own labor, and take care of ourselves and assist the government in maintaining our freedom. . . .

Question. State in what manner you would rather live —whether scattered among the whites, or in colonies by yourselves?

[Frazier]. I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over . . . .”

A few days after this meeting, Sherman issued his Field Order no. 15, setting aside confiscated Confederate lands and appointing Brig. Rufus Saxton – who features frequently in Repair as a supporter of the freedmen’ right to own land – to divide it up, giving forty acres to each family.  Franke writes, “this is what most of the freed people imagined freedom would look like: land, tools, and complete independence from white people.”

But here again the swelling hope was pierced by the pendulum swing of disappointment.  Sherman’s order promised only possessory title.  The tragedy of Lincoln’s death was compounded by what followed in his place – the administration of Andrew Johnson, the restoration of land to pardoned Confederates, and the end of Reconstruction – along with its promise, its hope, and acknowledgement of its legacy for American democracy.

Johnson’s veto of the bills reserving public lands to make good on the promise to the freed people and authorizing Freedmen’s Bureau’s powers sounded the death knell to any hope of true freedom following abolition of slavery.  Franke observes how Johnson’s message of white innocence – despite the documented and reported deception, fraud, and greed of many villainous white landowners – “elevated concerns about injustice suffered by white people unfairly charged with discrimination over the legitimacy of claims of bias lodged by freed people.”  This set the stage for the sentiment that would become the bedrock of opposition to acknowledging and addressing ongoing racial inequality and discrimination.

Both Franke and Du Bois refer to these two endeavors in Black freedom and landownership as “utopian experiments,” implying they were a ‘test’ or an uncertain undertaking, as they were possibly considered by the Northern army men and officials involved.  For the freedpeople, these moments must have been endeavors undertaken with belief or hope in their continuity.  The reader is left imagining the certainty in that continuity, but for the impediments, barriers, and disappointments which thwarted such potentials.  In other words, Repair compels one to continuously re-orient the present as the function of the past through various qualities of time: “past futures,” “lost futures,” and “everlasting pasts.”[4] Franke insists that “this is precisely why it is imperative that we return to the history of incomplete emancipation at the end of the Civil War: to recover possible futures, and to reactivate those futures now, via reparations.”

For a clearer depiction of ‘lost futures,’ through lost economic opportunity and self-determination, Franke presents the events at Davis Bend.  These events were nothing short of remarkable, both in their closer proximity to true independence and in the irony of the events being located on the lands of the “father of the Confederacy,” Jefferson Davis, and his brother Joseph Davis.  Joseph, influenced by British socialism, had developed a modicum of self-governance on his plantation though providing comparatively better housing and incentives for cotton picking and also by setting up a ‘slave court.’   He regarded himself the “benevolent patriarch who had a responsibility to serve as a moral example and steward for his slaves.”

After white owners, including the Davis brothers, had fled the plantations, private entrepreneurs were initially brought in – to a disastrous result – to manage the lands and the cotton crop.  It was subsequently ordered – through another Special Order no. 15, that of General Thomas – that Davis Bend would be confiscated “for military purposes,” and “to furnish land for freedmen for their own cultivation.”  White people were prohibited to land on any part of the colony without written permission.  As an “independent Black colony” for the refugees, this endeavor was “enormously successful” and profitable.

Although disbanded after only one year, Franke describes the significance of this remarkable example: “this experiment provided an alternative blueprint for emancipation, a path ultimately abandoned, but one that would have laid the way for a very different story of Black freedom, citizenship and reparation structured around separation and independence from white people rather than integration with and subordination to them.”

“The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people . . . .  The first decade was merely a prolongation of the vain search for freedom, the boon that seemed ever barely to elude their grasp—like a tantalizing will-o’-the-wisp, maddening and misleading the headless host.”

—- W.E.B. Du Bois[5]

Even though the reader is aware of the inevitable doom in the quest for true freedom and in these splendid moments of emancipation, Franke’s masterful retelling of the events at Port Royal is enthralling in its dramatic irony.  It tells the story of the burgeoning hope of the freedmen, their quest for an elusive freedom – Du Boise’s “tantalizing will-o’-the-wisp” – and their continuous resistance which becomes the foundation of American democracy.

The Lines – of Color, on Paper, and for Land

“[T]he emancipation of the Negro slave in America becomes through his own determined effort simply one step toward the emancipation of all men.”

—– W.E.B. Du Bois[6]

The story of the freed people is entangled and entwined by lines – drawn, etched, and divided.

Some lines were permanent.  The “color line,” identified as “the problem of the twentieth-century [and as we know, also of the twenty-first]” by Du Bois, separates various modes and protections of citizenship and connects the past to the present, drawn as a vector – representing the permanence of racism – and not as a segment with end points.  But resistance to injustice can be found in listening to and amplifying voices of those who “survived as complete, defiant, though horribly scarred beings.”[7]

Some lines were emancipatory.  When Lincoln instructed tax commissioners to allow a preferred right to purchase land at a specific price for those who had resided on the land for the last six months or were currently cultivating it, the tax commissioners’ office was overrun by freedmen’s claims – often made collectively.  Franke notes the incredible power in the act of signing the claims.  She recounts her own awe in touching the documents with the “X” marked for most freedmen’s signatures and the “ink smudges bearing witness to hands undertaking this remarkable act of freedom.”

Some lines were disorienting.  The land at issue was marked out with lines in perfect rectangular plots in anticipation of the auction.  According to Franke, “this absurd project of imposing modernist order on the chaotic topography ignored existing plantation boundaries that had been in place, in some cases, for well over a hundred years and respected the unruly salt marsh terrain.”  The freedmen “expected to bid on plots of land they were familiar with, not absurdly concocted rectangles fashioned in the style of French arrondissements.”  A small fraction of the freedmen was able to buy land at the two auctions, resulting in immense heartbreak and devastation, as the rest faced “either entering into labor contracts with the new white owners or being ejected from the land altogether.”

The events surrounding the 1862 Direct Tax Act illustrate the tragically elusive nature of freedom for the freedmen and the impressive quality of their resistance as acts of democratic citizenship.  The Confiscation Act of 1862 allowed for sale at auction of land confiscated for unpaid taxes to “loyal citizens.”  Despite the cruel injustice of marking land for purchase by freedmen – when that land ought to have been theirs by right – without wages they were owed, Franke points out the “historically underappreciated” remarkable fact that the “Port Royal land auction should be understood as the first “acts of citizenship” by freed people.

When the pardoned landlords returned to get their lands pursuant to Johnson’s 1865 proclamation, the freedmen resisted.  They held meetings and signed pledges to not contract with white owners.  They sent a petition to Johnson, asking for at least an acre and a half of land, to no avail.

Franke sets the painfully poignant scene when General Howard arrives to convince the freedmen to “leave their farms, but not the islands,” as they were needed as contract laborers.  The Black families had gathered in a Church and the angry group refused to come to order until a Black woman started singing and everyone joined in: “Nobody knows the trouble I feel—Nobody knows but Jesus.”

Franke’s writing carefully traverses the tragedy in freedmen’s freed-dom as tied to the deceptions and limited benevolence of white men, and invites the reader to imagine a different timeline where the freedmen’s success, unencumbered by outright interreference or conditional benevolence, was extrapolated into the future.

Reparations, as restorative justice, can be about both reckoning and gratitude.  Although unjust enrichment claims are rarely considered for reparations, part of excavating historical truth is acknowledging the debt owed by the nation to freedmen and freedwomen for establishing the potentials and principles of democracy in the United States, and for saving it, time and time again.

W.E.B. Du Bois identifies the immeasurable “gifts of black folks,” beyond the “black labor that established the modern world commerce which began first as a commerce in the bodies of the slaves themselves,” and through the “brawn and brain” that tilled the soil into prosperous land, the military contributions of the Black soldier, the work of the unskilled and skilled labor, the “economic independence and self-expression” of Black women, the Black culture and literature, and one of the greatest gift of all, that of American democracy through Reconstruction, for it was the “determination to be free and an active part of American democracy that forced American democracy continually to look into the depths . . . .”

Buried Voices and Power

Franke’s excavation of the past through narration is as convincing as it is moving because it is deliberately derived, deciphered, and delivered from the often-overlooked perspective of the freedmen and freedwomen.  It is easy to imagine a different account unfolding through someone else’s pen, an account elevating white benevolence of the military officers or abolitionists whose lives, accounts, aspirations, and responsibilities intersected with the Black lives at the moment of emancipation.   But Franke goes beyond the history in the words of those with the means to write it – “relying as much as possible on primary sources that give voice to people for whom being freed was a new and often frustrating experience.”  She finds and reveals the lived realities of the freedmen and freedwomen – their resilience, toils, hopes, and uncertainties, and the ever-present disappointments from broken promises.

Early on in the book, Franke promises to not hesitate in noting the “gendered implications of life in the contexts” she sets out to explore.  Throughout the book, she delivers on the promise, noting the experiences and amplifying the voices which are often left to the margins, first in living and then in the record of life itself.

Repair places the enslavement of Black people and its continued legacy and consequences within its rightful context of white supremacy and not as “a bug we could isolate and excise from our national story.”  Franke writes:

“White supremacy is the founding value of American society that metastasized in laws and customs supporting the enslavement of Black people, in Black Codes that secured their subordinate status after slavery was formally abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment, and in old and new Jim Crow laws that secured a separate and unequal status for African Americans on the books and in practice until today.”

In addressing white paternalism during emancipation, often cloaked and cast as benevolence, Franke analyzes the use of “legally structured institutions such as the contract labor system” as “the seeds of the notion of the good Black, the civilized negro, the successful product of moral uplift, who never completely achieves the full civility and subjectivity of white men, but rather is asked to mimic what those men are by nature, always and already.”

Repair also presents and contrasts the government’s dealings with Native Americans during the same time period. While freedmen were being denied what they needed to be free – land – and were being tied down using contract labor, Native Americans were being denied their demands – contracts and treaties – and were being tied into second-class role through the use of land allotments.   Tribal culture and heritage – including the custom of holding land in common – was targeted and destroyed using land allotments that would thwart and curtail Native American mobility.  Franke offers a scathing account of white supremacy and its contradictory manifestations for its continued preservation and interests: “for the government, freed Black people weren’t civilized enough to handle land ownership, yet land ownership was thought to be the right tool to civilize Native Americans.”

Excavating Memories and Justice

Amidst a sprawling white concrete city block called the Plaza de la Memoria in Santiago, stands an unobtrusive three-story modern building, the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights).  The beautiful copper-and-glass façade is symbolic of the fragility and power of the contents within – archives of memories documenting the human rights abuses of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship.  The purpose is to have a space for “dialogue and critical reflection on the past to promote a culture of human rights” and for “democratic valuing becoming the shared ethical foundation.”  The exhibitions – contained within rooms such as the room of Ausencia y Memoria (Absence and Memory) and Nunca Más (Never More) – and the programs are “a form of reparation to the victims and a site of education.[8]”  The Chilean Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Rettig Report of 1991 had recommended reparations through projects and policies that support memory, such as museums and memorials, and through “significant legal, financial, medical and administrative assistance.”  During recent protests in the country calling for constitutional reforms, ‘Nunca Más’ took on another life, making demands on the present and the future under the slogan, “Nunca más sin nosotras” (Never again without us women), reflected in a feminist anthem performed worldwide against gender-based violence and policing.

In the neighboring country of Argentina, preservation of memory is embedded in national identity.  The phrase Nunca más is often used in reference to the ‘Dirty War’ period of state terrorism.  The report issued by the 1983 Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas (National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons) – one of the first truth commissions on human rights violations – titled Nunca más continues to be a national bestseller and is incorporated into school curricula in a country where memory helps to “build spaces for agency, citizenship, and repair.”[9]

When the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (the Memorial) was opened in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2018, it was the first such memorial to the horrors of slavery and was the result of efforts by the civil rights group, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).  In the glaring absence of any commission or governmental efforts to investigate, repair, and educate from the past, EJI has undertaken years of research to issue reports on slavery, Reconstruction, lynching, and segregation in America.  EJI’s founder and the author of ‘Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,’ Bryan Stevenson, identified why “the most punitive society on the planet” found it difficult to acknowledge its destructive legacy: “People do not want to admit wrongdoing in America because they expect only punishment.”  The Memorial contains a haunting display of 800 steel boxes suspended from the roof, each displaying the name of a lynched Black victim.  Here, land stands in as memory and truth.   Soil samples from lynching sites, displayed in rows upon rows of large glass jars, evoke the legacy of racial violence in shades of somber earth.

A few weeks ago, New York City unveiled a Racial Justice Commission to propose policy recommendations, including the “bold” policy of reparation payments to Black city residents in order to “dismantle structural racism for all New Yorkers.”

This will not be the first time the city has had the opportunity to reckon with its past.  The past – in all its gritty truth – was literally unearthed in Lower Manhattan in 1992 during a construction project through the discovery of one of the largest colonial-era burial ground for enslaved African people.   It was only after prolonged protests and congressional lobbying by the city’s Black community that the construction project was halted.  Arising with the dead through the protests and the ceremonies honoring the buried were the calls for a debt owed: “like the syncopated rhythm of African percussion that filled the air, there was also the drumbeat of a word, one freighted with centuries of anger and controversy. Reparations.”  A visitor center was opened in 2010.  In reporting on the opening, an article asked the question America has yet to answer: “Among the scars left by the heritage of slavery, one of the greatest is an absence: where are the memorials, cemeteries, architectural structures or sturdy sanctuaries that typically provide the ground for a people’s memory?”

The harrowing shadows of an unacknowledged past continue to wreak havoc for Black lives. The museum associated with the Memorial in Montgomery, called ‘The Legacy Museum:  From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration’ is the physical embodiment of how past and present are elided into an inescapable time-continuum of violence. It allows visitors to reflect on the destructive and persistent legacy of slavery – lynching, segregation, discrimination, policing, and the prison system which is, according to Angela Davis, “a receptacle for all of those human beings who bear the inheritance of the failure to create abolition democracy in the aftermath of slavery.”[10]

“Justice is, in part, a form of remembrance.”[11]  Franke notes the importance of not only resurrecting memory, but also of resisting its repression through ongoing democratizing processes.  She writes, “collectively forgetting about slavery cuts off certain political projects in the present.”  This resistance plays out in ongoing movements and struggles against racial inequality and police violence.  Therefore, the “memory of repression [becomes] an important site of contestation between civil society and the state, thereby becoming fundamental ground for democracy.”[12]

The Right to have the Right to have Property Rights

Inheritance is a quality shared on both ends of an unequal system of economic legacies.  Disparities – like wealth, land, and capital – are not only inherited but are accrued and compounded over generations.

“Yet rights, are not rights, are not rights,” writes Franke, because property rights “serve a keystone function” and are necessary “not only to the creation of personal wealth and well-being, but to the creation of civic personhood.”  The theft and loss of the “keystone right” to property from Black people is what emanates the premise of Franke’s case for reparations for investment in collective repair.

The making-whole of white slave-owners through compensation provided at law in 1891, the denial of any “compensation for the [freed people’s] confiscated labor, dignity, and life,” the theft of land belonging to freedmen, and the contract labor – the “blueprint for Black freed-dom in the post–Civil War period” – writes Franke, “secured a postbellum socioeconomic structure within which white people would accumulate wealth through property ownership, while Black people’s relation to property resulted in their generations-long impoverishment.”

The following numerical representation offers a glimpse of the ongoing profound economic disparity across the color line:

The median White family has 41 times more wealth than the median Black family.

The median Black family is on track to reach zero wealth by 2082.

The Forbes 400 richest Americans own more wealth than all Black households.

For Franke, reparations can begin with her own generation.  She cites the staggering amount of wealth, $59 trillion, which will be transferred from 93.6 million estates in the Unites States from 2007 to 20061 – “the greatest wealth transfer in US history.”  In 2020 alone, Americans are projected to inherit about $765 billion in gifts and bequests, excluding wealth transfers to spouses and transfers that support minor children.

Identifying real estate investment as “the great wealth-generating machine” for her parents’ generation, Franke describes how generation after generation, Black Americans have been “systematically locked out of this unique opportunity to buy in, sit tight, and get rich,” and thus leading to the massive wealth gap between white and Black households.  She proposes treating the enormous wealth accumulation due to be transferred to her generation as “having been held in a constructive trust for the benefit of the descendants of slaves and other Black Americans who have borne the badge of inferiority imposed by American slavery.”

In proposing collective property-based solutions as reparations, Franke goes back in time and cites as inspiration the very first community land trust, created in 1968 by “civil rights activists seeking a way to assist African Americans in rural Georgia, and continuing the tradition first established by the women of the Combahee River Colony almost a century and a half earlier.”  Franke also refers to the contemporary proposals put forth by the Movement for Black Lives including the “divest/invest approach to justice—urging divestment from the structures that produce and perpetuate race-based inequality and investment in Black community institutions that enable human flourishing rather than waste.”

By casting reparations as one form of repair, and acknowledging various forms of and approaches to reparations themselves, Franke leaves space for the series of inquiries and commitments that will be required in order to begin the process of repairing this nation.  “Any one approach does not eliminate the possibility of others,” she writes, because “just as the horror of slavery took many forms, so should its repair.”

Land has been the fulcrum to this nation’s legacy of racial inequality upon which the torque of white supremacy keeps pivoting.  Land is central to Franke’s argument for reparations – because of what it meant to the enslaved and freed people, its role in potentially shoring up freed people’s vulnerable freed-dom, its representation of the debt owed and theft by the government, and its role in the legacy of economic racial disparity.  Therefore, there is both grounded and poetic justice in Franke’s concept of constructing reparations from land-based intergenerational wealth as collective property-based solutions for “reinvestment in communities that have essentially been abandoned by modern society.”

Cultivating Abolition Democracy

Du Bois, the creator of ‘Black counter-memory’[13] understood that memory signifies knowledge, power, and relevance.  “History is behind us, memory lives on with us,” writes Franke, and “the problem we have in this country when it comes to making amends for slavery is that we have relegated it to history, thereby vanquishing it from memory and its horror from any relevance to our present.”  The amnestic failure of the nation is two-fold in its refusal to reckon with its past: it fails to perceive the ongoing consequences of the botched abolition of slavery and also allows false narratives sanitizing the violence in slavery and muting the exceptional promise of Reconstruction.

In Repair, Franke describes the many moments, in the distant and not-so-distant past, when the federal government had failed to consider reparations. Today, in addition to H.R. 40, there are local efforts which reflect an increasing diffusion of support for exploring reparations.

Two years ago, Robin Rue Simmons, member of Evanston City Council in Illinois, introduced reparations legislation and the City Council agreed to create a reparations fund.  A few weeks ago, Evanston’s City Council approved a Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program as the first initiative of the 2019 reparations fund.   Evanston’s program, although not a substitute for the reparations owed by the federal government, is historic in being the first of its kind in the nation in the 150 years since slavery’s abolition.

Coincidently, Franke grew up in Evanston.  As she puts it, “there must be something in the water.”   Or in this case, perhaps in the soil.

Theodor W. Adorno writes, “the past will have been worked through only when the causes of what happened then have been eliminated.”[14]  To repair something suggests a process with non-linear temporality: each moment of ongoing repair of the past unfolds in the present, it is undertaken in the present from knowledge or experience of the past, and it is constructed in the present for the future.  This construction of ongoing repair is an essential feature of abolition democracy.

“[]Abolition-democracy went beyond [the freedom of the emancipated slave] because it was convinced that here was no logical stopping place; and it looked forward to civil and political rights, education and land, as the only complete guarantee of freedom . . . .”

— W. E. B. Du Bois[15]

For Du Bois, not only was there no logical stopping place for abolition democracy, but as Angela Davis explains, the abolition of slavery had only been “achieved in the negative sense.”  True freedom and abolition democracy would have required “economic means . . . [] access to educational institutions,[] . . . voting and other political rights . . . .  This failure to achieve abolition democracy meant that a “host of democratic institutions” which were needed to achieve full abolition did not materialize and in their absence institutions such as the prison have thrived.  Through the model of reparations put forth in Repair, the communities that are made most vulnerable by the consequences of incomplete abolition can begin the process of repair to “fully achieve abolition – the abolition democracy.”[16]

Repair is a vivid account of how the trajectory for freedom – as known and understood by the freedmen and freedwomen at the time – was for emancipated Black people altered throughout history and continued veering off-course.  By using two examples from moments of emancipation, Repair shows what true freedom would have required beyond the breaking of slavery’s chains: material resources, land, and community.  This freedom would have set in motion the building of institutions supporting abolition democracy, instead of ones embodying racial violence and structural racism which loom over and shadow Black lives today.  Throughout history, when given the opportunity to take a different road or to retrace and reckon with the past, the nation chose the path of injustice and inequality, propelled by forces and power of white supremacy.

Repair invites us to imagine and enact a course-correction, based on not only what should be in the future but what could have been and was in the past.  To repair necessarily means creation of something new by the very nature of making whole or mending.  The newness subsumes the repair and is strengthened by it, and that is abolition democracy – “the founding of a new society”[17] – built on true freedom.


Freedom will not come

Today, this year

Nor ever

Through compromise and fear.


I have as much right

As the other fellow has

To stand

On my two feet

And own the land.


I tire so of hearing people say,

Let things take their course.

Tomorrow is another day.

I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.

I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.


Is a strong seed


In a great need.

I live here, too.

I want my freedom

Just as you.

—- Freedom, by Langston Hughes, to whom an apology is owed.[18]


[1]W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk 170 (1903).

[2] W.E.B. Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois; Including Essays, Spiritual Writings and Poems 143 (1920).

[3] I mostly use ‘freedmen’ to refer to all freed people, men and women, as it was used during the time period under discussion.  I agree with Franke that “de-gendering identity, and freedom itself” would be anachronistic here.  I use freed people and freedwomen in a few contexts.

[4] Elizabeth Jelin, State Repression and the Labors of Memory 4 (2003).

[5] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk 17 (1903).

[6] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Gift of Black Folk 140 (1924).

[7] Derrick A. Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well 247 (1992).

[8] In a joint initiative with the University of Chile, the museum offers a diploma in Education, Memory, and Human Rights.  In one of the recent exhibits, school children write letters to their ancestors from during the time of the military dictatorship.

[9] Natasha Zaretsky, Acts Of Repair: Justice, Truth, and the Politics of Memory in Argentina 11-12 (2020).

[10] Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy 70 (2005).

[11] W. James Booth, The Unforgotten: Memories and Justice, 95 Am. Pol. Sci. Rev. 777, 777- 791 (2001).

[12] Zaretsky, supra note 9, at 41 (internal quotations omitted).

[13] Eric Martone, Creating a Local Black Identity in a Global Context: The French Writer Alexandre Dumas as an African American Lieu De Mémoire, 5 J. of Global Hist. 3, 395 (2010).

[14] Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism 90 (Henry W. Pickford trans., 2005).

[15] W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, 239 (1935).

[16] Davis, supra note 6, at 91-92.

[17] Allegra M. McLeod, Envisioning Abolition Democracy, 132 Harv. L. Rev. 1613, 1613 (2019).

[18]Columbia’s Overdue Apology to Langston Hughes,” is the title of a 1967 article published in The New Yorker.  Seven months after the writer’s death, Professor James P. Shenton (who taught a course on Reconstruction and invited W.E.B. Du Bois in the 1950s to his seminar) said at his memorial: “For a while, there lived a poet down the street from Columbia, and Columbia never took the time to find out what he was about.” He paused, and then continued, “For a while, there lived a poet down the street from Columbia, who even attended Columbia for a while, and yet he never received an honorary degree from here. When we buried him, then we gave him a memorial. But, after all, that’s the experience of the black man down the street from Columbia.”


Fonda Shen