How much is a smile worth? Is it worth more if that smile was stolen centuries ago, stamped out by an iron bit that pierced the mouth of its victim, starvation often being the least of the wearer’s afflictions?

It’s a painful memory from our country’s past. But for scholar Marcus Hunter, the sweeping allegory is meant to illustrate that reparations for the descendants of enslaved peoples aren’t only about money. Infrastructure of equity, he says, is what the reparations movement ultimately seeks.

The scholar’s latest book, “Radical Reparations: Healing the Soul of a Nation,” is delivered in creative nonfiction, a form of allegorical commentary inspired by civil rights attorney and scholar Derrick Bell, to whom Hunter’s book is dedicated. Hunter, who holds the Scott Waugh Endowed Chair in the Division of Social Sciences, uses parables to approach a topic steeped in negative connotations by some, and in doing so hopes to disarm readers by “tickling” their imagination. 

Readers will meet Sambo, a young African boy whose untimely death is memorialized in the 17th-century English town he’s shipped to as chattel. They’ll also be transported to Jubilee, South Carolina, a fictitious place where a large Black community and a unique Reconstruction era trajectory positions the region to secede from the U.S. by 1965. 

The book came out Feb. 6, on the heels of a whirlwind few years for Hunter. He co-authored a renewed push for congressional legislation, along with U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, that would establish a Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation; was appointed to the National Black Justice Coalition board of directors; worked on U.S. Rep. Cori Bush’s “Reparations Now Resolution”; and took a lead role in planning this June’s historic Equity March in Washington, D.C.

UCLA Newsroom caught up with Hunter to discuss the book and hear what’s in store for the upcoming march.

When did you start working on “Radical Reparations,” and what planted the seed?

I started this book in 2009 when I started my dissertation research. During that time, I discovered the Freedman’s Bank, which was established and signed into law in 1865 by Abraham Lincoln as a national bank for Black people. At its peak, it had 24 branches across the United States and upwards of a billion dollars of Black people’s money by today’s estimates.

By 1871, it had so much money that Congress amended the charter so it went from savings to savings and loans. But the loans were given to white customers, not the Black patrons. Only 60% of those funds have ever been paid out.

We hear about 40 acres and a mule. We don’t hear about the Freedman’s Bank. Forty acres and a mule is a promise, versus your actual money in the bank. So that led me on reparations. I started to travel and try to figure out what all is entailed in reparations. I went to Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and all through the U.S. South.

How did you land on parables to distinguish this book from some of your previous ones?

I realized that if people were going to interact with this topic, I needed to write about it in a way that was inviting and that allowed them to draw their own conclusions.

In the first chapter, I present a metaphor about my idea of the seven areas of reparations. Imagine America is a beautiful mansion on a beautiful block. Except when you go inside, there are piles and piles of dirty laundry everywhere. P for political reparations; I for intellectual reparations; L for legal reparations; E for economic reparations; and S for spatial, spiritual and social reparations. Piles.

In each parable, some combination of the seven forms is happening. These are not histories deprived of reparations, but instead have some form of it. Jubilee has spatial reparations, for example. They’re also on the verge of getting legal reparations. 

What do you think people get wrong about reparations?

One of the biggest misconceptions is that it’s a money-only conversation. I think the other misconception is that people think it will never happen. 

What’s important to me about enslavement or slavery, or even land dispossession, is to ask “Can you actually repair that?” To me, there is an acceptance in saying that there are certain things you can’t repair. 

But I think it’s important for people to recognize that what you want to do is build up an infrastructure of healing, repair and support that lasts in perpetuity. Not just because you can never repay, but because now you have something that acknowledges that inhumanity happened and that it was government-sanctioned, authorized and constitutionalized.

We’re saying that’s a part of us, and we have a setup that is meant to deal with outcomes and consequences of that. And I think that’s a radical reparative framework. 

The final chapter of the book is titled “Better Have My Money” in reference to a Rihanna song. What’s the significance, and why did you make that choice?

I think it’s very powerful to have a woman from Barbados, which is a country that has asked for reparations from the United Kingdom publicly, singing a song that is as close to what I could call a reparations anthem. 

There’s a message that I think speaks to the fact that global slavery is at the root of our current human condition, and that a lot of people around here feel old. A lot of people around here feel disrespected. A lot of people have had their money taken from them. A lot of people have had their families taken from them.

That is the reality I think the song gives voice to. I’m hoping that this book is also a welcomed accompaniment to a very popular song and helps people see the connection between shouting that out while you’re hearing it in a club and what activists are shouting out right now. It’s not very different. 

You’re also the executive director of the United by Equity organization hosting the Equity March in Washington, D.C., this summer. How are you connecting this event to your book? 

Yes, the Equity March! It will be held June 15, noon to 5 p.m. at Black Lives Matter Plaza. Everybody’s welcome! Part of why I link the march and the book is because I know that, if you’re successful as a writer, then you’re probably able to touch somebody with these kinds of topics. And the first thing that people who are touched often say is, “What can I do?”

Usually you say something like, “Find out who your congressperson is” or “Make sure to vote.” I want people to do all those things, but I also want them to know there’s an activation event that they can go to on Juneteenth to demonstrate to the president and the vice president, and all the elected officials in D.C., that there is unfinished business. We who have been chosen to survive the unsurvivable have a mandate to collectively build a more inclusive and beautiful world. If not now, when? If not us, who?