Disturbing the Peace: Cultural Narratives and Reparations

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Disturbing the Peace: Cultural Narratives and Reparations

 African Americans' pursuit of reparations began in the eighteenth century and continues in the present. At the twilight of the twentieth century, African American slavery and reparations for that experience became a controversial topic in popular and public discourse. Inevitably, the conversation turned to economics, specifically monetary compensation. Responding to this now-global controversy, Nigerian scholar Chinweizu observed that reparations are not primarily about money. Instead, he insists, reparations are about psychological repairs, institutional repairs, educational repairs, self-made repairs, repairs of all types. Drawing on Chinweizu's conception of reparations, "Disturbing the Peace: Cultural Narratives and Reparations" examines Toni Morrison's Beloved, Ernest Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying, Sidney Lumet's The Wiz, Spike Lee's Get on the Bus, and Marc Forster's Monster's Ball as cultural narratives that illuminate the pitfalls of pursuing reparations that are restricted to the legal arena. 

 While this dissertation responds to a historical-political project, I do not offer these cultural narratives as political instruction on how to pursue reparations. Rather, this project examines how individuals and communities within these cultural narratives pursue reparations outside of the legal arena.  Despite popular representations of the pursuit of reparations as being primarily about money, I argue that the pursuit of reparations is also a narrative pursuit that disturbs the highly imagined peace of national unity. As such, investigating cultural narratives for the ways in which they engage and revise popular notions of reparations encourages a more expansive approach to identifying and repairing racial injuries for individuals and communities. Narrative does more than calculate debts; it reminds individuals of what they owe both to themselves and to the communities they inhabit, reminds them that their lives and their histories are more than notations in slave ledgers, and reminds them that they are, first and foremost, human beings. Against this legal history, the cultural narratives under consideration in "Disturbing the Peace" suggest, as does Chinweizu, that reparations depend on communities' willingness and/or ability to initiate self-made repairs.