Disrupting the Timeline: A new take on "A Case for Reparations"

Andrew Boge
Andrew Boge

When The Atlantic published “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2014, the essay’s rich weave of storytelling, data, analysis, and history—delivered through masterful writing and innovative digital graphics—had a major impact on both academic and popular discourse on issues of race in America. The idea of, and justifications for, financial reparations as repayment for the slavery and historic economic oppression of Black Americans are now central to our national discussion of race.

Among the scholars who have been influenced by “Reparations” is Andrew Boge, a PhD student in the Department of Communication Studies and a member of the Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. As a critical race theorist, he appreciates, and has studied and taught, the ideas in the essay. But there’s another way of understanding the work that fascinates him—its rhetorical power.

“Looking at ‘The Case for Reparations’ from a rhetorical level offers a new way of understanding the work,” Andrew says.

How did Coates so persuasively argue his case that it changed the world? How did he construct a piece of popular journalism in a way that reflects, as well as imagines, a new model of power and identity? How did he so significantly alter how race and racism manifest in popular discourse?

Screenshot of timeline title slide
The front door to the new digital timeline

While studying the work in a seminar with Professor Natalie Fixmer-Oraiz, Andrew started to zero in on an intriguing answer to these questions—Coates’s use of time and chronology. He has a scholarly essay exploring the idea about ready for peer-review and publication.

Andrew points out that instead of using a linear chronology—starting with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and moving forward year by year—“Reparations” jumps back and forth through time. It is filled with events that relate to each other not through chronological proximity, but in ways that illuminate deeper connections and shared themes among those events. The effect is a holistic picture of racism in America that is considerably more difficult to refute or ignore than if it had been presented as discrete events isolated in time.

When Andrew learned of the opportunity to pitch a project and apply for a summer fellowship with UI Libraries’ Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, he went for it and was accepted. During the summer of 2020, he worked with staff at the studio to begin creating a digital “timeline” of all the events in “Reparations.” Of course, it couldn’t just be a linear timeline—to accurately reflect the essay, he needed to present them digitally jumping around in time.

When finished, the resulting project—"Disrupting the Reparations Timeline”—will be an interactive website, where a user can explore the essay’s content event by event, through podcasts, imagery, and text. When one hits the “next” button, instead of moving to the next event in chronological order, the timeline might jump back a century, or forward a decade, to an event that is connected thematically. This format allows for many different narratives to emerge from within the overarching one articulated by Coates.

See "Disrupting the Timeline" in Action:

gif of timeline in action

Andrew hopes the digital timeline can be a new tool for teaching “A Case for Reparations.” As he refines the project, he also hopes the timeline will develop to not just focus on Coates’ prose, but expand to think about the call for Black reparations more broadly through the lens of time.

“It uses time as a resource for having conversations about the essay,” he says.

Andrew Boge, from Johnston, Iowa, by way of Hastings College in Nebraska, studies under the doctoral supervision of Darrell Wanzer-Serrano and Jiyeon Kang, with an expected completion date of 2023. He was a 2019 Obermann Public Good Fellow.