The question of reparations for slavery has again risen its ugly head. Do we owe reparations to people who owe their very existence to the existence of slavery? Shouldn’t they be thankful they’re alive? Every time a Republican president addresses a hostile black audience, I long to hear him say, “Slavery was a terrible thing, but if it hadn’t happened none of you would have been born, and neither would any of your parents, grandparents, great grandparents and great great grandparents. Louis Armstrong and Willie Mays would never have been born, and Greensleeves would still be in the top forty.” But it never happens.
The real question is what would the United States now look like had there been no slavery, and the answer is everything would have been different because hardly any white people of European descent alive today would have been born. Six hundred thousand young men died in the American Civil War, most before they married and had children. What happened to the women who would have married them and had children by them? A small number likely remained spinsters and childless for life, but the majority married someone else and had children by their second choice. Think about a single case and multiply it by six hundred thousand over seven or eight generations: In a world where there was no US slavery, Alice married Aaron and had children survive to adulthood. But in the real world, the world we inhabit, Aaron died in the Civil War, and Alice married Barton. The children she would have had with Aaron were never born, replaced by the children she had with Barton. But in the world without US slavery Alice married Aaron and Barton married Nancy. So what happened to Nancy when the Civil War intervened and Barton married Alice? Nancy married Jacob and another stone was thrown into the pond. These ripples in the population pond begin as small circles but expand to include almost the entirety of the white population of the US of the latter half of the Nineteenth and on into the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries and beyond, in accordance with the iron rule of the exponential nature of an arithmetical progression. At some point in that relentless arithmetical progression most marriages and children born are the result of Aaron and six hundred thousand young men being killed in the Civil War. Had there been no Civil War it is not only Willie Mays and Louis Armstrong who would never have been born, it is me and most people of European extraction. Any speculation about what the US would look like today without slavery and without the Civil War must begin with this question: At what point did the history of the country begin to change because the majority of the people then alive were born because the Civil War never happened. Or maybe it happened before that. Would Washington have commanded the Army had he been born to a dirt poor farm family?
We’ll never know what might have been
Had Louis not been born
Would music be the same as now
Without that magic horn?
Would Washington have been in charge
To save an army torn
Had he been born and raised dirt poor
And not plantation born?
Would the Great War been not so Great
Had history been bent
And August ’14 White House said
The AEF be sent?
Would Lindbergh ever have been born
To fly to Le Bourget
The Wright brothers, would they be here
To show Lindberg the way?
I know determinists will shout
That someone else would fly
That someone else would make the same
Decisions where they lie
But I don’t know if everything
Is predetermined, so
I will confess the answers to
Those questions I don’t know