Natalie Zemon Davis lecture series - Joan Scott: The Judgment of History. Reparation: The Movement to Reimburse Victims of Slavery in the U.S.
"As a historian, I know that there is no closure for history, that the repressed returns, sometimes as tragedy, sometimes as farce. Still, I think I (naively) held to the popular belief that there was a certain finality to history’s judgment. We often use the words “the judgment of history,” or we suggest that we need to be “on the right side of history.” The moral stance implied in those words draws enduring distinctions between good and evil, justice and injustice, equality and inequality, right and wrong—as if in her wisdom, Clio will rescue us mortals from the errors of our ways. In these lectures, I am interested in the paradoxical operations of the judgment of history, particularly as the imposition of that judgment was seen as a means of closing the future to the wrongs of the past and in this way establishing the singular linearity of history’s path. What aspects of the past were repudiated? How and in what terms? What of them remained? How account for the remainders? And what do they tell us about the ways in which the moral and the political are inextricably intertwined in the idea of history itself? I take as my cases three examples of the way the realization of justice was defined in the discourse of the judgment of history." (Joan W. Scott)
Reparations for slavery: redeeming past promises
This lecture takes up the movement for reparations for slavery in the U.S. An ongoing demand from before the Civil War to the present, the movement for reparations in the early twenty-first century called for recognition of an old judgment of history—about the immorality of human bondage—in the present. In this case, it was not only monetary compensation that was at stake, but the exposure of the failure of a modern democratic nation to abide by the judgment of history. Reparative justice for its proponents meant recognition of the fact that the institutionalized racism of the nation continued to be at odds with a judgment that history had long ago rendered; it was an indictment of an evil formally repudiated—a past disavowed—but perpetuated nonetheless by law and custom. Reparation had to do with recognizing and perhaps even repairing injustice (but not forgiving it), and also with insisting on adherence to a moral standard that had yet to be realized. History had made its judgment; the point now was to enforce it. The reparations movement strategically appealed to a linear conception of the progress of history even as it exposed the emptiness of its very premises.
In these lectures I maintain that “race-thinking” as an aspect of nationhood informed the judgments at Nuremberg (despite condemnation of the excesses of Nazism). In South Africa, the central challenge was how to realize Arendt’s “political nationhood” in the post-apartheid state. For the reparations movement in the United States, the point was to reveal the extent to which “race-thinking” prevailed despite its constitutional repudiation.