Criticism & Features

Year 2021: 30 Books

Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? by Jesse McCarthy: 2021 Criticism Finalist

By J. Howard Rosier

Cover of Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul; a slanted view of a man in an oil painting

Who Will Pay Reparations On My Soul?: Essays by Jesse McCarthy (Liveright)

The title of Jesse McCarthy’s debut essay collection, Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?, reads as both a philosophical inquiry and a rallying cry. Yet rather than a jeremiad or a dialectical treatise, the book’s titular essay is a judicious dissent aimed at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations.” Though justified historically, Coates’ call for retribution in the form of monetary compensation perpetuates the unintended consequence of quantifying Black lives by their monetary value, according to McCarthy: essentially the same problem presented by slavery. Instead, he advocates for changing the social conditions that put reparations on the table in the first place—individuals “born squeezed between what Hobbes would have recognized as a war of all against all,” and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, “a society that has shamefully crowned America with the highest carceration rate in the world.” Detailed, semantical arguments such as these are unlikely to grab headlines, but the precision and earnestness of McCarthy’s critique elevates him to a long and illustrious pantheon of Black intellectuals who consider the nuances of their collective humanity deathly serious. 

A penchant for pecision and moral clarity courses throughout Reparations. Whether McCarthy is training his eye on Trumpism’s wave of white supremacy (“[a]n argument about whose blood is in the soil of this country is not an argument a white supremacist is going ton win”), or musing over the aesthetics of trap music (tracks that begin, then end, “like weather,” serve as “the funeral music that the Reagan revolution deserves”), he is profoundly concerned with what the subject in front of him actually is, how it functions, and its implication on intellectual life. He also appears after something larger, though. In contextualizing a prolific and fertile era of Black creativity as of the American intellectual tradition, rather than a contrarian element, McCarthy is performing the difficult work of making the distinction between “black art” and “art” irrecognizable. Any comments regarding the superfluousness of such an effort are quieted by current events. “The City of a Hundred Hills” that McCarthy references in his essay on Harlem’s ghosts and the proliferation of Black culture may have been taken from W.E.B. Du Bois’ vision for Atlanta, but it also speaks to a natural universality—one where said culture is not merely acknowledged, but thriving, already. 

J. Howard Rosier is the chair of the criticism committee at the National Book Critics Circle. He teaches in the New Arts Journalism Department of the School of Art Institute of Chicago.

Buy this book at Bookshop.