In 1782, as the Revolutionary War raged on and the design of what would become the Great Seal of the United States was finalized, a Black woman named Belinda Sutton petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for reparations from her enslaver and won.
Sutton claimed that she had been “denied the enjoyment of one morsel of the immense wealth, part whereof hath been accumulated by her own industry.” She successfully argued her claim and was granted 15 pounds and 12 shillings per year from the wealth accumulated by the Royall family on the Ten Hills Plantation as restitution for her 40 years of enslavement.
Unbeknownst to her, Sutton and her petition (which can be read in full at the end of this article) would set the stage for a centuries-long movement to repair the harms of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and chattel slavery. She also helped those who came after her envision what justice and equity in a post-slavery world could look like.
Throughout history, successful movements have impressed their values, beliefs, and narratives among a wide range of people, motivating them to both make meaning of and bring forth a new reality. Historical stories are important in that they expose the sins of our past. However, when told in isolation, they leave audiences feeling overwhelmed instead of inspired.
Inspiring stories about our past linked to our collective future, on the other hand, open portals to the world that awaits us. These are the types of stories we must tell more of and build power around.
The movement for reparations, in the context of slavery both in the U.S. and globally, has always been what Adom Getachew, an Ethiopian American political scientist at the University of Chicago, calls “worldmaking projects” that seek the complete judicial, political, economic, and cultural transformation of society. At Liberation Ventures, the transformation we seek is comprehensive racial repair—catalyzed by a financial and non-financial reparations process that centers Black Americans.
In our view, one of the main reasons why reparations and other worldmaking projects do not receive a critical mass of attention and funding is due to society’s disappointing inability to view our current reality as something that can be reconstructed. As a collective, we lack the imagination to realize such projects.
As historian James Fraser notes, “our inability to look at things as if they could be otherwise is one of the greatest problems of our society.” Progressive social movements have done a good job in keeping historical stories alive, particularly those like Sutton’s. We have been less successful in narrating or visualizing the future and the steps we must take to get there.
Dreaming as a Practice of Architecting the Future
Dreaming gets a bad reputation. It is often relegated as an unattainable ambition, ideal, or aspiration that exists solely in our thoughts or something that is simply suitable for school-aged children to do. But dreaming is a deliberate practice we try to embody in our work, because it creates the space to imagine not just what it would take to build the world we want, but also what that world looks like. It is central to our theory of how building narrative power helps achieve policies that are viewed as “unattainable.”
If we want to achieve a reparations process for Black Americans and create a new reparative world, perhaps we need to imagine what lies on the other side of reparations. To get ourselves thinking about the future we’re striving to co-create, we simply asked ourselves, “What are 10 things all Black people deserve?”
We named emotional concepts, such as love, care, vulnerability, belonging, and tenderness. Basic necessities, such as education, adequate housing, affordable health care, access to capital, and clean air. And opportunities that are widely seen as luxuries: time to read, write, listen to music, create art.
While simple, this question helps spark what sociologist Charles Mills called our “sociological imagination” and allows us to simultaneously interrogate our historical understanding of deservedness in the U.S. while also painting a picture of our desired future.
Black death, exploitation, and dehumanization have been embedded into America’s cultural norms since its founding. When we think about what Black deservedness looks like in this context, we are humanizing Black bodies and reenvisioning our pain as worthy of repair. When mass atrocities, like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, happen, we are told to “never forget,” but Black people, who have continuously been subjected to the worst forms of dehumanization, are often told to move on. A reparations process seeks to transform this way of thinking.
Unfortunately, the demands of capitalism make it difficult for us, particularly Black people, to carve out the space for intentional dreaming and worldmaking. Worldmakers need the time to create, read, and ideate about what awaits us on the other side of true liberation. As Robin D.G. Kelley states in his 2002 book, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, “Without new visions, we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.”
Any U.S. reparations program must go much further than closing the Black–white wealth gap, as that is just one of many indicators of the effects of slavery and anti-Black racist policies. It must also repair the political and cultural dimensions that created the conditions for the gap to exist and grow over time. The hard work of creating a new world relies on three key things: knowing and honoring our past, engaging and improving the present, and imagining an entirely new future.
A New Patchwork of Stories
In a survey that Liberation Ventures conducted in summer 2021, we found that when we provided people with a more detailed definition of what reparations means, support rose significantly, and the number of people who opposed reparations was cut in half.
This is a significant finding about a topic that has long been regarded as unrealistic, as it suggests there is a notable information gap among the public on the topic. More excitingly, it indicates that addressing this information gap and telling better historical and future stories could increase support for reparations. Therefore, our storytelling around the topic of reparations must be expansive in ways that allow people to see themselves in a new world that awaits them.
A Pew Research study found that while 77% of Black Americans support some form of reparations, only 37% believe it is possible in their lifetime. People are so accustomed to inequality—and the patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism that fortifies it—that it is hard to envision a world where reparations are possible.
If we can simultaneously tell more stories of the past when Black people thrust this nation forward toward its espoused ideals while also painting a vivid picture of our shared liberated future, we just may be able to increase both the support and hope that reparations are not just a dream, but an attainable goal.
In his most recent book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, author and historian Clint Smith visited Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia, one of the country’s largest mass gravesites of former Confederate servicemen. Upon leaving the cemetery, he wondered “if we are all just patchworks of the stories we’ve been told.” He then asked what it would take to confront a false history, even if it meant shattering the myths we have internalized.
Our answer to his question is that we need to build a true culture of repair: a comprehensive, reconstructive, radical, revolutionary reparations program rooted in Black liberation, the likes of which the world has never seen before. This is how we build a just world.
When Sutton petitioned for compensation for her years of enslavement, she gave us a glance of what repair might look like. Now, the questions at hand, both from a policy and storytelling perspective, is how do we bring about such repair at scale, and what would a world that has built a culture of repair look like?
We know that this is a question that no one Black person can answer. It will require our collective power. But what we can say now with confidence is that what awaits us is a future worth fighting for.
Belinda Sutton’s Petition
“Commonwealth of Massachusetts
To the Honourable the Senate and House of Representatives in General Court assembled.
The Petition of Belinda an Affrican, humbly shews:
That seventy years have rolled away, since she on the banks of the Rio de Valta received her existence – the mountains Covered with spicy forests, the valleys loaded with the richest fruits, spontaneously produced; joined to that happy temperature of air to exclude excess; would have yielded her the most compleat felicity, had not her mind received early impressions of the cruelty of men, whose faces were like the moon, and whose Bows and Arrows were like the thunder and the lightning of the Clouds. – The idea of these, the most dreadful of all Enemies, filled her infant slumbers with horror, and her noontide moments with evil apprehensions! – But her affrighted imagination, in its most alarming extension, never represented distresses equal to what she hath since really experienced – for before she had Twelve years enjoyed the fragrance of her native groves, and e’er she realized, that Europeans placed their happiness in the yellow dust which she carelessly marked with her infant footsteps – even when she, in a sacred grove, with each hand in that of a tender Parent, was paying her devotions to the great Orisa who made all things – an armed band of white men, driving many of her Countrymen in Chains, ran into the hallowed shade! – could the Tears, the sighs and supplications, bursting from Tortured Parental affection, have blunted the keen edge of Avarice, she might have been rescued from Agony, which many of her Country’s Children have felt, but which none hath ever described, – in vain she lifted her supplicating voice to an insulted father, and her guiltless hands to a dishonoured Deity! She was ravished from the bosom of her Country, from the arms of her friends – while the advanced age of her Parents, rendering them unfit for servitude, cruelly separated her from them forever!
Scenes which her imagination had never conceived of – a floating World – the sportingMonsters of the deep – and the familiar meetings of Billows and clouds, strove, but in vain to divert her melancholly attention, from three hundred Affricans in chains, suffering the most excruciating torments; and some of them rejoicing, that the pangs of death came like a balm to their wounds.
Once more her eyes were blest with a Continent – but alas! how unlike the Land where she received her being! here all things appeared unpropitious – she learned to catch the Ideas, marked by the sounds of language only to know that her doom was Slavery, from which death alone was to emancipate her. – What did it avail her, that the walls of her Lord were hung with Splendor, and that the dust troden underfoot in her native Country, crowded his Gates with sordid worshipers – the Laws had rendered her incapable of receiving property –and though she was a free moral agent, accountable for her actions, yet she never had a moment at her own disposal!
Fifty years her faithful hands have been compelled to ignoble servitude for the benefit of an Isaac Royall, untill, as if Nations must be agitated, and the world convulsed for the preservation of that freedom which the Almighty Father intended for all the human Race, the present war was Commenced – The terror of men armed in the Cause of freedom, compelled her master to fly – and to breathe away his Life in a Land, where, Lawless domination sits enthroned – pouring bloody outrage and cruelty on all who dare to be free.
The face of your Petitioner, is now marked with the furrows of time, and her frame feebly bending under the oppression of years, while she, by the Laws of the Land, is denied the enjoyment of one morsel of that immense wealth, apart whereof hath been accumilated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.
WHEREFORE, casting herself at the feet of your honours, as to a body of men, formed for the extirpation of vassalage, for the reward of Virtue, and the just return of honest industry – she prays, that such allowance may be made her out of the estate of Colonel Royall, as will prevent her and her more infirm daughter from misery in the greatest extreme, and scatter comfort over the short and downward path of their Lives – and she will ever Pray.”
Trevor Smith is a writer, researcher, and strategist focused on topics such as racial inequality, wealth inequality, reparations, and narrative change. He is currently the Director of Narrative Change at Liberation Ventures, a field builder fueling the movement for Black-led racial repair, where he is building the ‘Reparations Narrative Lab’ (RNL). The RNL is a first-of-its-kind creative space designed to build narrative power behind reparations. He is also the creator, curator, and editor of a newsletter titled Reparations Daily (ish) and working on his first book, Lethal Stereotypes: How the Stories We Tell Take Black Lives. He can be reached at https://trevordsmith.com/
Aria Florant is constantly traversing worlds – Black and white, grassroots and corporate, ethnic studies and finance – and building bridges in between. She is Co-Founder and Managing Director of Liberation Ventures (LV), which accelerates the Black-led movement for racial repair. Prior to LV, Aria served public and social sector clients at McKinsey & Company, and helped found the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility. She was also an organizer in East Palo Alto, California, focusing on youth development and civic engagement. In 2017, she helped launch the first-ever round of programs at the Obama Foundation. Aria received a BA from Stanford University, an MBA from The Wharton School, and an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School. She can be reached at www.liberationventures.org