We are all Debtors, and the Debt shall Set us Free

Picture caption: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina, founded 1816 by freemen, including Denmark Vesey. In 1822, Vesey was hanged for his involvement in planning a revolt that would kill slaveholders in Charleston, free black people, and sail to Haiti, then the only black republic in the Americas.

One Saturday morning in August 2002, I walked up a busy avenue in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn to Sista’s Place, a local gathering site for all of us who would board buses to Washington D.C. to attend the Millions March for Reparations. The gathering was spurred by the UN World Conference Against Racism held in Durban the previous year, which had declared the transatlantic slave trade, slavery and colonialism to be “crimes against humanity,” and resolved that reparations were in fact due the descendants of enslaved Africans. The Millions March gathered people from around the country to Washington, DC to demand payment of the portion of this large debt owed by the United States government, corporations and related entities.

Many speakers spoke convincingly that day, outlining the strong legal, political, ethical, emotional, and economic reasons that the great debt owed black people in this country ought to be acknowledged, calculated and paid. But for me the most moving part of the trip was the long bus ride, from Brooklyn to Washington, which was full of lively discussion between friends and strangers, each telling personal stories of generational loss and callous disinheritance at the hands of their own countrymen. As one of the youngest people on the bus, and a woman traveling alone, I stayed quiet and listened closely to the older people, who had a clear sense of what crimes had been committed, what debts accrued, and what dues they had paid and continued to pay. I felt an overwhelming sense of kinship with my fellow travelers. I realized that what bound us as brothers and sisters, what made us black in America together, was not simply some dubious theory of shared blood—that old “one drop rule”—but the unshakeable conviction we all had that a great and heartless robbery had taken place, and that we, our ancestors, and our descendants, were owed a great debt. We also knew that because our countrymen would never fully acknowledge this debt, much less make us whole, we would be avoided, mistreated or neglected out of guilt or shame, and eventually despised. Yet I came to understand that day that despite this great, unacknowledged debt, or maybe because of it, to be black means that one pays higher dues in America: one is born owing.

In “The Way to Wealth,” an essay from his mid-1700’s self-help classic Poor Richard’s Almanack, Benjamin Franklin, that revered theorist of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant capitalism, advises that a man must always pay his debts, or better yet, avoid incurring them entirely. Why?

But, ah, think what you do when you run in debt; you give to another power over your liberty. If you cannot pay at the time, you will be ashamed to see your creditor; you will be in fear when you speak to him, you will make poor pitiful sneaking excuses, and by degrees come to lose your veracity, and sink into base downright lying; for, as Poor Richard says, the second vice is lying, the first is running in debt.

For Franklin, to be free means specifically to be without debt. To be a debtor means becoming a sniveling liar, beholden to one’s creditor. He warns us again: “Your creditor has authority at his pleasure to deprive you of your liberty, by confining you in gaol for life, or to sell you for a servant, if you should not be able to pay him!” To be a free citizen, one must live a life in which no debts could accrue, and in which one would not be bound to any man. Descendants of actual slaves—about whom Franklin was most pointedly not speaking—were not able to afford the same ethics around debt. To escape slavery often meant that slaves had to make a terrible compromise: if they were lucky enough, they would get to buy their own freedom from their masters in installments with money earned through even more hard work, above and beyond their regular uncompensated duties. And once they were free, within their poor circumstances, they would have to make hard choices about which of their loved ones they could afford to bargain for next. In other words, they would have to buy their loved ones back as slaves. And these terrible contracts were tenuous at best, depending as they did upon the “goodwill” of the slave owners and the owners’ families. At a moment’s notice, payment plans and terms could be changed, prices raised, or contracts canceled. In many cases, slaves even needed proxies (usually white men, liberal abolitionists posing as slave owners) to negotiate and deliver payment on their behalf. In one particularly cruel case from the late 1700’s, Denmark Vesey was allowed to buy his own freedom from his Charleston, South Carolina master, but then was prevented from buying the freedom of his wife. Even as a free man, every child he and his wife had would be slaves, belonging to this master. In this scenario, despite Franklin’s anti-debt admonishments one might understand Vesey’s willingness, even desperation, to become a debtor, no matter the price. Becoming a debtor would be the only chance for himself, his wife and his children to be free together. And even that opportunity was denied them. Meditating on the philosophy of Franklin and the story of Vesey, it would appear that from the founding moments of our country, taking on risky debt for white Americans has meant becoming somehow less free, more beholden to powers beyond one’s control, while for the descendants of slaves, accepting the position of debtor under unfair terms has been simultaneously an inescapable condition of life, a way of realizing familial bonds and sometimes the only path to freedom.

When we speak about student loan debt today, we must acknowledge the historical inequalities that persist in the way that debt and its penalties are meted out. We must also acknowledge that because of these different lived experiences of debt, we do not all have the same attitudes towards debt, and that debt is as much a cultural and moral phenomenon as it is a simply economic one. Or it might be more accurate to say that our lives do not all operate according to same economic principles. How else can we explain the strange fact that in the last 14 years 50% of black college students graduated with more than $25,000 in debt, compared with 35% of white students? Why, on average, do black students leave college with higher debt, $28,692 while the mean debt for white students is $24,742? How is it that a large amount of that extra debt burden is related to the fact that white households have more than 15 times the wealth of black households? And when these black students eventually graduate and attempt to find work with their hard-earned degrees, why is it that they face discrimination in a racially polarized job market and have a harder time finding paying work in the fields[1] for which they were ostensibly prepared by their costlier educations? Finally how can we explain that 69 percent of middle class black people can expect to become poorer than their parents, compared with 34 percent of white people? I think it is safe to say that for black students and white students, debt carries different histories, opportunities and consequences. We are very different types of debtors. For some of us debt means a galling and unprecedented descent into precarity and, eventually, slavery. For those of us still living the legacies of slavery, taking on disproportionate amounts of debt is unavoidable, and our lives are already more precarious than most.

A recent quantitative study of working conditions of US artists today conducted by artist collective BFAMFAPhD, find that “working artists” are around 80% white and over 50% male. This is a premise that the Artists as Debtors platform must address. Must we accept that the “working artist,” the catalyst around which the Artist as Debtor movement is organized, is primarily white and mostly male, most likely of middle to upper class parentage? Or can we agree that a large part of the agenda must be first and foremost to redefine “working artist” in such a way that the data, theory of debt, and solutions we produce are already inclusive of a broader range of life experiences and subjectivities? As a black woman artist, likely with a very different history, experience and sense of indebtedness from my white and male counterpart, I cannot see how to productively participate in this movement without at least an honest group effort to address these difficult questions.

Returning to the stories of slaves who had to purchase their freedom, I ask myself how they could reconcile themselves with having to pay this great and unjust debt. It turns out this issue was a matter of great anguish among black families. After all, black people, bought and sold as currency, could themselves be used to settle debts.[2] Could one become truly free by trading for oneself and one’s family members as currency, and thereby accepting the very premise under which one had initially been enslaved? To decide whether it was worth it to buy the freedom of mother or brother, or daughter was already a tragedy, not to mention the crushing odds against success in this difficult endeavor. I imagine that one way to deal with such a perverse situation would be to come to a more creative, less humiliating understanding of the meaning of debt. These families were not simply paying the master for their freedom: With each payment they were reinforcing bonds of love and responsibility between each other. They paid these Faustian dues not because they respected the master’s terms—it went without saying those were deplorable—but because they owed it to their family members. The debt was both the cost of freedom, and the basis of family. This reasoning might explain Denmark Vesey’s desperation to gain the opportunity to go into debt to buy his people back.

When I think about my own overwhelming student debt, I can easily see it as the cost of my freedom. I am in the first generation of women in my family to have the most expanded set of life choices—to have, believe it or not—the least expensive dues to pay for her freedom. I come from a line of women that descend back into slavery, and who had to make deals with much worse devils than today’s US government-backed loan sharks. Some of these women paid with their lives, and the lives of their children. When I see that huge Sallie Mae loan balance, all $100,000 of it, which I may never be able to pay off, I count it not simply as the cost of a PhD, but as the cost of getting a chance at self-defined freedom, and it suddenly seems pretty cheap to me.[3]

Now let us complicate matters a little, beyond black and white. The US is the largest debtor nation in the world.[4] So of course, artists are debtors. All USAmericans are debtors. As citizens of the empire, we have all been made debtors by our country’s policies, domestic and foreign. We owe debts we do not pay. We owe the descendants of slaves, and we owe the indigenous of this land. (Remember those GI Bills, and suburban mortgages and cheap educations that helped to create middle class whiteness in America? Well, they came at the expense of the peoples of the inner cities. Somebody owes for that too.) We owe the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We owe just about all of the Americas and Africa, and our debts mount daily. At the same time we hold these nations to ransom, making them into debtors under unfair conditions. The “Franklinian” conflation of freedom from debt with powerful imperial citizenship, creates a paradox in which we can descend headfirst into debt at the expense of others, while being simultaneously unable to accept that we have created these debts and to see ourselves as debtors. It seems to me that we need a new and more robust conception of debt, and a new non-imperial notion of citizenship: one that can allow us to be debtors together, to share the burden more equally, to pay what we owe directly to whom we owe it, and in this way to forge true bonds of solidarity with our enslaved neighbors around the world.

If I have learned anything from the experiences of my ancestors, it is that the condition of being a debtor under unfair conditions is potentially very powerful, because the acknowledged debt is exactly what links us together. Our brutal history—the open wounds of it—has made us all debtors. Could we now find ways to go beyond avoidance and indignation as reactions to indebtedness, to transform our debts into meaningful relationships based on mutual care and responsibility? The example of the Debt Collective, which buys up student loans in bulk, is inspirational to me and it is a start. But I can also imagine a movement in which we student loan debtors demand the right to buy the freedom of our brothers and sisters around the world. We could ask that our trillion dollars’ worth of collective student loan debt be turned to the service of reparations worldwide. I would happily work to pay loans that I knew were going towards purchasing the freedom of all my brothers and sisters. To me, this re-imagination of the meaning of debt, and introduction of new subjectivities and sensibilities around debt is the task not only of artists, but of all creative, caring people. If that’s the kind of freedom-work we want to do as Artists and Debtors, I’m down!

[1] Some fields are worse than most: For example, nationwide, 90% of museum staffs are white, and the city of New York just commissioned a study to determine the extent and causes of the extreme whiteness of the audiences, staff and boards of its cultural institutions.

[2] They are still being used as currency both literally—to feed the prison industrial complex—and figuratively: They are made to carry the heaviest debt loads and with that the burden of always owing some white folks somewhere an explanation.

[3] Dear reader, please understand that I know this big debt burden is a raw deal. However, I come from a long line of black folks who understand that the path freedom is a treacherous negotiation, and you get off the plantation in any way you can, and never look back. The escape may make you a fugitive and outlaw your whole life!

[4] According to US News and World Report, the USA is the largest debtor nation in the world, with a public debt of over $14.3 trillion.

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