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Fear should not be a deal breaker when debating tough topics

Perhaps a documentary about reparations 'takes the stink off the word,' filmmaker says

Whitney Dow and Erika Alexander are touring the country in support of “The Big Payback,” their documentary about efforts to study and achieve reparations for Black Americans.
Whitney Dow and Erika Alexander are touring the country in support of “The Big Payback,” their documentary about efforts to study and achieve reparations for Black Americans. (Monica Schipper/Color Farm Media via Getty Images file photo)

Is healthy debate a thing of the past? You know, when people can disagree without being disagreeable, respect one another and work toward a solution that might involve compromise.

You’d be forgiven for giving up on the concept or thinking it never existed, especially as discussions of what books should or should not be on school library shelves turn into school board shouting matches with teachers subject to interrogation or relegated to the sidelines. And don’t even try to have a civil chat on where COVID-19 may have originated or what could be the most effective treatment. That’s the best way to start a fight while ignoring the next pandemic that could be right around the corner.

That’s why it was interesting to talk with the directors of “The Big Payback,” which premiered on PBS in January. Erika Alexander and Whitney Dow didn’t exactly choose an easy topic as the subject of their documentary. The two are traveling across the country, with recent stops at historically Black colleges and universities in North Carolina, to foster debate and perhaps understanding of reparations, a topic that could charitably be called controversial and one that’s been making recent headlines.

The film spotlights the push by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, for HR 40, which would establish the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans.” The bill, named after the post-Civil War broken promise of “40 acres and a mule” to the formerly enslaved, itself has a long history: It was first proposed in 1989 by then-Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, who died in 2019.

In the film, the congresswoman’s fight on the federal level is paired with the ultimately successful effort of Robin Rue Simmons, a former alderwoman in Evanston, Ill., whose community advocacy targeted the very real racial discrimination in housing laws and policies — history that determined current disparities in her city, history that could be documented with facts and figures. That the solution eventually reached was criticized by some for its narrow focus, for being too much or too little or much too late, is also the point.

It was, however, a start for Evanston, and it happened only because of healthy debate.

“The Big Payback” is a fascinating look at people doing the work, and it comes with a discussion guide that fills in background you might not have learned in school.

When I caught up with the co-directors at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, Dow was optimistic. The project, he said, was “not an advocacy film for reparations, but an advocacy film for conversation.” The award-winning documentary filmmaker and educator said he has learned a lot in work that has centered on race and identity in the past two decades.

Alexander said making the film and touring has also taught her a lot, much of it from the students who express different opinions on the issue. Young people, Black people — well, no group is monolithic, something we all need to remember.

The actress and creator, who made her directorial debut with “The Big Payback,” is perhaps best known for success performing on the TV shows “Living Single” and “The Cosby Show” and movies such as “Get Out.” Not as well known is her work with Color Farm Media, an organization she co-founded that has helped diversify media representation, with producer credits that include “John Lewis: Good Trouble.”

That a white man and a Black woman directed the film and are leading conversations on finding common ground at a time when so much of party and political division comes with racial code words — from “woke” to “equity” — that have strayed far from their original meanings, is remarkable.

Maybe a film about reparations “takes the stink off the word,” or at least Alexander hopes so.

Courtesy of a San Francisco reparations study that mentioned millions for descendants of the enslaved, many are weighing in on exactly what it means, what is owed and to whom. The president of the city’s NAACP branch cautioned against letting premature headlines about large sums distract from what he sees as priorities, “investing in housing, education, healthcare, economic empowerment and cultural centers for San Francisco’s dwindling Black community,” according to NPR.

The ensuing debate has not been pretty.

However, in 2021, when Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, a state with a task force studying reparations, authorized the return of a portion of tony Manhattan Beach to the descendants of the Black family run off their shorefront property nearly a century ago, it was widely seen as justice, a historical wrong made right, despite the impossibility of restoring lost generational wealth.

Reparations have been awarded — in Germany, to survivors of the Holocaust; in this country, to those victimized in Japanese American internment camps. In those cases, actual victims received compensation, and debate is understandably more complicated when those enslaved are no longer alive.

But the effects of this country’s history of redlining, segregation, denial of GI Bill benefits and home loans and more persist. It’s why a debate that dates to the Civil War era is worth having.

Traveling from city to city, to meetings and college forums, seeing so many young people involved in their communities, advocating for a variety of causes, Alexander said she’s learned that people just want to be seen and heard, and “don’t have to agree on everything to make forward progress.”

As a high school debater, before a tournament, I remember how difficult it was to prepare to debate both sides of a tough topic, not knowing whether I would be tasked with arguing for or against. It was scary but ultimately rewarding, and I always learned something new, something that sometimes challenged my own preconceptions. It broke my brain, which was a good thing.

Is that what people are so afraid of?

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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