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If the U.S. government ever grants African-Americans reparations for the chattel slavery of their ancestors, Lydia Ann Douglas wants to make damn sure white people don’t get any.
So to separate the truly deserving from the opportunists, Douglas has penned Reparations: The Qualifying Exam, a short humor manuscript organized like a test that administers questions about black culture and politics. According to Reparations, if you have plastic covering your furniture, own a Chi-Lites album, or have a can of cooking grease on your stove, you’re in. But if you can’t name a book by Queen Afua or list the dietary aids of Dick Gregory, don’t even try to pass.
“It wrote itself—it was very spontaneous,” says Douglas, a 44-year-old Washington-area filmmaker, photographer, and educator.
Douglas says the inspiration for Reparations struck a few years ago when she and a writer friend were walking through Dupont Circle and started talking about reparations, joking that there should be a test to determine eligibility. After a long riffing session, Douglas went home and spent the entire night typing out such potential questions as “Are your lights, cable, phone, or gas currently in your child’s name?” and “Do you have ANYTHING on Lay-A-Way?”
Her motivation was also semiserious, though. “I was tired of hearing about white people trying to get scholarships because they’re one-sixteenth Native American—no,” Douglas says. “You all have to jump through some kind of hoops.”
After she’d completed the bulk of Reparations, Douglas put it aside for a while to focus on the other projects of her nearly 15-year-old one-woman visual-media production company, Peazey Head Productions. But she says that everyday occurrences she had previously taken for granted kept forcing their way into her manuscript. For instance, after she was approached by a street salesman hawking scents with bizarre names, Douglas added a question asking test-takers to identify incense and fragrance oils readily available in their neighborhood.
“I was waiting for the bus, and this man comes up—‘Sista! I got incense! Oils!’” Douglas says. “And he starts naming all of these scents: Patti LaBelle, Lil’ Kim, Lick Me All Over…They say the truth is stranger than fiction.”
Douglas may soon be selling her work alongside such vendors, because Reparations has been turned down by two literary agencies so far. And after enduring the process of looking for a financier for her documentary Nappy, which won an honorable mention at Arlington’s Rosebud Film and Video Festival in 1998, she’s prepared to take photocopies of Reparations to the bus stops herself in search of sales. “I get the feeling that mainstream publishers won’t appreciate it.” Douglas says.
Reparations has already got at least one fan, though: Chicago-based poet and teacher Toni Asante Lightfoot, who has used Douglas’ manuscript to facilitate discussion in one of her ninth-grade creative-writing classes. Lightfoot says Reparations is successful because it doesn’t make use of “ghetto” stereotypes.
“She puts in facts—it’s not a ‘You know you’re ghetto if…’ thing,” Lightfoot says. “It’s ‘By the way, you owe us something.’ It does take some righteous digs. It’s not happy-go-lucky buffoonery.”
But to find out whether Reparations has crossover appeal, Douglas has been testing her manuscript on a diverse group of people. And she’s found that even if her readers have never been spanked with a shoe, subscribed to Jet, or greased anyone’s scalp, they still can appreciate her work.
“I think white people will love it,” Douglas says. “I showed it to a few [white] friends, and they laughed and said, ‘Yeah—I didn’t pass.’” —Sarah Godfrey