From The Debt: Introduction

I looked straight up and immediately saw the callous irony, wondering if the slaves who had helped to erect the structure might have bristled at it as quickly as I. The monumental fresco covering 4,664 square feet had been painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1864, just as the hideous 246-year-old American institution of slavery was drawing to a close. According to the United States Capitol Historical Society, Brumidi’s Apotheosis of George Washington had been painted in the eye of the Rotunda’s dome to glorify“the character of George Washington and the principles upon which the United States was founded.”

Symbolizing the carapace of American liberty, sixty-odd robed figures are arranged in heroic attitudes around a majestic Washington, before whom a white banner is unfurled bearing the Latin phrase E Pluribus Unum, or one out of many.

But all of the many in the fresco are white.

Beneath the eye and around the rim of the Capitol dome stretches a gray frieze depicting in sequenced scenes America’s history from the years of early exploration to the dawn of aviation.

The frieze figures are not all white. Native Americans appear in several of the scenes. In one, the only depiction of an act of violence, a Native American holds back the arms and head of another Native American, as still another Native American coils to bludgeon the pinioned figure. Hmmm.

Although the practice of slavery lay heavily athwart the new country for most of the depicted age, the frieze presents nothing at all from this long, scarring period. No Douglass. No Tubman. No slavery. No blacks, period.

At ground level, set back into the circular stone wall are several huge oil paintings. We see the explorer de Soto discovering the Mississippi River. Next, an elaborately gowned, kneeling Pocahontas receives the baptismal sacrament amidst English gentry in a soaring sanctuary. And there is Columbus triumphantly landing in the Americas.

No reference is made to blacks or slavery in any of the paintings. In the whole of the Rotunda, only a small bust of Martin Luther King Jr. intrudes on an overall iconography of an America that is self-consciously homogeneous and pleased with itself. The King bust is a poor likeness of the man. Its aspect is forlorn. The shoulders sag. The head is bowed, implying surrender, not prayer. The eyes look into the floor, as if the figure understands but cannot quite bear what is going on around it in the Rotunda. A nearby statue of a standing, upward-gazing Thomas Jefferson serves to underscore the King figure’s meekness. It was Jefferson who gave to a friend the contract to build the Capitol. The tall statue’s countenance is proprietary, of the Rotunda if not of the country.

After completing the fresco in the eye of the dome, Brumidi spent many years painting frescoes and oils for the interior of the Capitol. In his words, he wanted to“beautify the Capitol of the one country in which there is liberty."

The frescoes, the friezes, the oil paintings, the composite art of the Rotunda—this was to be America’s iconographic idea of itself. On proud display for the world’s regard, the pictorial symbols of American democracy set forth our core social attitudes about democracy’s subtenets: fairness, inclusiveness, openness, tolerance, and, in the broadest sense, freedom.

To erect the building that would house the art that symbolized American democracy, the United States government sent out a request for one hundred slaves. The first stage of the Capitol’s construction would run from 1793 to 1802. In exchange for the slaves’ labor the government agreed to pay their owners five dollars per month per slave.

Slaves were not only made to labor on the Capitol building but also to do much of the work in implementing Pierre-Charles L’Enfant’s grand design for the whole of the District of Columbia. L’Enfant had decided to place the Capitol building on Jenkins Hill and the President’s Palace (later the White House) on another hill, which was at the time covered by an orchard. Slaves were used to clear a broad swath of forest between the sites for the two buildings.

I looked up again at Brumidi’s celebration of the“principles upon which the United States was founded”and visualized the glistening backs of blacks with ropes and pulleys heaving the ponderous stones of the dome into place. I then went down a floor to a gift kiosk run by the Capitol Historical Society to look for books about the Capitol’s construction. I found two: In the Greatest Solemn Dignity and Uncle Sam’s Architect: Builders of the Capitol. Neither book mentioned anything about the use of slave labor.

I returned to the Rotunda and took a seat on one of the low-backed cushioned benches arranged around the curved wall of the large room. I took out the notes I had made from a telephone discussion with William Allen of the Architect of the Capitol office. Allen had said that arkose sandstone blocks—in all likelihood the ones into which the huge and heroic oil paintings are set—were brought by slaves and oxen from the Aquia Creek quarry in Stafford County, Virginia. They had been mined and loaded onto boats by slaves and brought forty miles up the Potomac River before being unloaded near the old Navy Yard, which is very close to TransAfrica’s former office on Eighth Street S.E. On the construction site, stone blocks that could not be handled by oxen were handled by slaves and pulleys.

My reverie was interrupted by a group of Asian tourists who stepped in front of me to peer up into the dome. (They credit America as America credits itself.) The worn and pitted stones on which the tourists stood had doubtless been hauled into position by slaves, for whom the most arduous of tasks were reserved. They had fired and stacked the bricks. They had mixed the mortar. They had sawn the long timbers in hellishly dangerous pits with one slave out of the pit and another in, often nearly buried alive in sawdust.

The third phase of the Capitol construction (the second occurred after 1812) would take place during the Civil War, just as Brumidi set about to paint the first of his“liberty”frescoes for the building. During the war, slaves dislocated in the turmoil gravitated to Union soldiers, who often brought them to Washington to be put to work on the Capitol. William Allen called them“spoils of war”and“contraband slaves.”When I asked him about the term“contraband slave,”he grew quiet as if questioning for the first time the purpose of my general inquiry about the use of black slave labor.

Atop the dome of the Capitol stands the Statue of Freedom in the figure of a Native American female warrior clad in a star-festooned helmet and flowing robes. The statue was designed for $3,000 by Thomas Crawford in Rome, Italy, in 1856. In 1863, it was cast in bronze in Bladensburg, Maryland, at a foundry owned by Clark Mills, whom the government paid $23,736 for his work.

Philip Reed, a slave owned by Mills, was given the responsibility for casting the Statue of Freedom and loading its five sections, each weighing more than a ton, onto reinforced wagons for the slow trip to the east grounds of the Capitol. There, Reed and other slaves reassembled Freedom to make certain that all of its pieces would fit together. The task of assembling Freedom took thirty-one days. The statue was then disassembled, hoisted, and reassembled by slaves on the tholos, a pedestal on the dome surmounted by a globe.

I sat on the bench musing for a good while. I love buildings. My earliest ambition was to be an architect, driven perhaps by a child’s yearning for immortality. Buildings are in some respects like people. They run the gamut from hideous to beautiful. Some are powerful. Some are weak. Most are terribly ordinary. A few are works of surpassing genius. Virtually all provoke emotional reaction: awe, inadequacy, lightheartedness, revulsion, exaltation, boredom.

Buildings are like people in other ways as well. They are usually successful at revealing only what they wish the viewer to see. They embody human characteristics. They have souls, memories, traditions, and larger meanings that sum up to well more than the inert materials that constitute them. They clothe themselves in veneers of deceitful finery. They cornice. They gild. They dazzle. They inspire. They lie. And they keep their secrets very well. Beneath the grandeur, I thought as my eyes were drawn back up into the dome.

A full half of the people on the floor were looking up with me. Most of them were white Americans. At least a fourth of them, though, were tourists who appeared to be from either India or Pakistan, from Japan perhaps, and from western Europe. These upturned faces, bathed by the sun’s rays streaming through the clerestory windows in the dome’s hatband, looked to be in worship, transfixed.

I could not completely place myself outside this spell. Everything about the room was dwarfing—the scale of the art, the size of the round chamber, the height and sheer majesty of the dome. It had all combined to achieve the Founding Fathers’ objective, which was, I am certain, to awe. And to hide the building’s and America’s secrets.

I thought, then, what a fitting metaphor the Capitol Rotunda was for America’s racial sorrows. In the magnificence of its boast, in the tragedy of its truth, in the effrontery of its deceit.

This was the house of Liberty, and it had been built by slaves. Their backs had ached under its massive stones. Their lungs had clogged with its mortar dust. Their bodies had wilted under its heavy load-bearing timbers. They had been paid only in the coin of pain. Slavery lay across American history like a monstrous cleaving sword, but the Capitol of the United States steadfastly refused to divulge its complicity, or even slavery’s very occurrence. It gave full lie to its own gold-spun half-truth. It shrank from the simplest honesty. It mocked the shining eyes of the innocent. It kept from us all—black, brown, white—the chance to begin again as co-owners of a national democratic idea. It blinded us all to our past and, with the same stroke, to any common future.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century African Americans lag the American mainstream in virtually every area of statistical measure. Neither blacks nor whites know accurately why. The answer can be found only in the distant past, a past as deliberately obscured as the Capitol’s secrets.

Solutions to our racial problems are possible, but only if our society can be brought to face up to the massive crime of slavery and all that it has wrought.

Now never begins yesterday. To set afoot a new and whole black woman and man, we must first tell the victims what happened to them—before and after America was new.

Insights crystallize often under the oddest circumstances. Like a melodic idea to a composer, a light pops on for no apparent reason, allowing understanding where one has been well trained not to have it. In a small village in western Turkey a while back, I watched a dervish whirl in his mesmerizing dance, performing a ritual a thousand years old. I have witnessed such time-honored practices in forty-five countries across the world. Seeing disparate peoples in far-flung cultures held safely above the abyss by the stout rope of their traditions, I have always been left, as I keenly was in the case of the whirling dervish, with a feeling of sweet sadness, perhaps envy even. For the armaments of culture and history that have protected the tender interiors of peoples from the dawn of time have been premeditatedly stripped from the black victims of American slavery.

No race, no ethnic or religious group, has suffered so much over so long a span as blacks have, and do still, at the hands of those who benefited, with the connivance of the United States government, from slavery and the century of legalized American racial hostility that followed it. It is a miracle that the victims—weary dark souls long shorn of a venerable and ancient identity—have survived at all, stymied as they are by the blocked roads to economic equality.

This book is about the great still-unfolding massive crime of official and unofficial America against Africa, African slaves, and their descendants in America.

I do not honor here with much attention the diversionary noises between protagonists and antagonists over notions of affirmative action. For while I support affirmative action, I believe that those who would camp blacks in an exitless corner expending all energy defending its thin dime do the black community no service.

It is, again, not that affirmative action concepts are wrongheaded. They indeed are not. They should remain in place. But such programs are not solutions to our problems. They are palliatives that help people like me, who are poised to succeed when given half a chance. They do little for the millions of African Americans bottom-mired in urban hells by the savage time-release social debilitations of American slavery. They do little for those Americans, disproportionately black, who inherit grinding poverty, poor nutrition, bad schools, unsafe neighborhoods, low expectation, and overburdened mothers. Lamentably, there will always be poverty. But African Americans are over-represented in that economic class for one reason and one reason only: American slavery and the vicious climate that followed it. Affirmative action, should it survive, will never come anywhere near to balancing the books here. While I can speak only for myself, I choose not to spend my limited gifts and energy and time fighting only for the penny due when a fortune is owed.

At long last, let America contemplate the scope of its enduring human-rights wrong against the whole of a people. Let the vision of blacks not become so blighted from a sunless eternity that we fail to see the staggering breadth of America’s crime against us.

Solutions must be tailored to the scope of the crime in a way that would make the victim whole. In this case, the psychic and economic injury is enormous, multidimensional and long-running. Thus must be America’s restitution to blacks for the damage done.

As Germany and other interests that profited owed reparations to Jews following the holocaust of Nazi persecution, America and other interests that profited owe reparations to blacks following the holocaust of African slavery which has carried forward from slavery’s inception for 350-odd years to the end of U.S. government-embraced racial discrimination—an end that arrived, it would seem, only just yesterday.

For centuries blacks have fought their battles an episode at a time, losing sight of the full ugly picture. Seeing it whole all but defies description.

I have tried in these pages to sketch the outlines of a story that stretches from the dawn of civilization to the present. The dilemma of blacks in the world cannot possibly be understood without taking the long view of history. I have, by necessity, painted basic themes with a broad brush and make no claim to comprehensiveness. (For those with an appetite for more information, a resource list follows the text.) Here my intent is to stimulate, not to sate. To pose the question, to invite the debate. To cause America to compensate, after three and a half centuries, for a long-avoided wrong.

Reprinted from The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks by Randall Robinson by permission of E. P. Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2000 by Randall Robinson. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.