The subject is scalding hot, untouchable as public policy. Even the brave run from it. And it is only a question:

Should the U.S. government pay reparations to the descendants of slaves?

"Just a question," says Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), cool, dispassionate, like he's teaching high school science. "We ask questions about everything. What's in space? What's underneath the water? How did the Earth begin? Interesting questions. But this one has been studiously avoided."

Few questions challenge us to consider 380 years of history all at once, to tunnel inside our souls to discover what we truly believe about race and equality and the value of human suffering.

Ever since Dutch traders brought 20 captive Africans to Jamestown, Va., in 1619, slavery has been entwined with American history--shaping it, tarnishing it, burdening it with the legacy of truths rarely told. Where is it taught that eight of the first 12 American presidents were major slaveholders?

Just a question.

Slavery.

Reparations.

Questions.

Facts: Emancipation brought freedom, but not parity. The civil rights movement knocked down Jim Crow, but vestiges remained. Affirmative action created opportunities, but racism persists.

So why shouldn't the great-great grandchildren of those who worked for free and were deprived of education and were kept in bondage not be compensated?

Ask one question and it leads to another and another and a few more. Why should American taxpayers who never owned slaves pay for the sins of ancestors they don't even know? And what about those whose ancestors arrived here long after slavery ended? And how would the economy be affected? How do you put a price tag on 2 1/2 centuries of legalized inhumanity? In what form would reparations be paid? How would you establish who's a descendant?

Questions start debates. Which is all Conyers wants. A raging debate.

He is speaking from an anteroom off the floor of the House Judiciary Committee, which this day is debating, by comparison, something tame--physician-assisted suicide. Conyers is the ranking Democrat on the committee, a 34-year veteran of Capitol Hill, dean of the Congressional Black Caucus. But these credentials are not worth diddly when it comes to the subject he has sat down to discuss.

In every legislative session since 1989, Conyers has introduced a bill that would establish a commission to examine slavery and its lingering effects on African Americans and contemporary U.S. society. The commission would comprise historians, legal scholars, genealogists, economists, lawmakers--the brightest minds to be found. Hearings would be held across the country. A report would be issued with recommendations for Congress to act on. Should the U.S. government issue a formal apology for sanctioning slavery? Is a debt owed to the descendants of black people who helped build this country but spent their lives in forced servitude? These questions would be addressed.

"All we're trying to do is compile a body of intelligence and data on the subject," says Conyers. "The most organized body of material on the subject in American history."

You would think a man in his position could at least get a subcommittee hearing on his bill. But the legislation, known as the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, has never been debated in Congress. It doesn't matter if Democrats or Republicans are in charge. The bill just sits.

Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, did not return phone calls, but here's what he said on the subject several years ago: "The notion of collective guilt for what people did [200-plus] years ago, that this generation should pay a debt for that generation, is an idea whose time has gone. I never owned a slave. I never oppressed anybody. I don't know that I should have to pay for someone who did [own slaves] generations before I was born."

Here's what Jack Brooks, the now retired former Democratic chairman of the committee, says by phone from Beaumont, Tex.: "It just didn't seem like it was very urgent or very useful. . . . It just looked like a long shot to me. . . . I don't even think Conyers was pushing it that much. He never mentioned it to me, I don't believe. . . . What do they want to do? Look up all the descendants of slaves and pay them a lot of money, I guess. . . . I think it would be a waste of the committee's time. . . . Wouldn't be much public support. . . . Conyers, of course, would like it. But he'd be about the only one."

Of the 435 members of the House, Conyers has managed to get but 31 co-sponsors for his bill. Not even all the members of the Black Caucus are on board. In fact, two black Democrats on the Judiciary Committee--Mel Watt of North Carolina and Bobby Scott of Virginia--have declined to follow their Democratic leader.

Watt issued a "no comment" on his nonsupport. Scott will only say that he has put his energy into the issue of juvenile crime. "You can't focus on everything," he says.

The rejections don't deflate Conyers. He leans back in his chair, stares at the ceiling. He is solemn, but it's a wily solemnity, as though he has queried the gods of restitution and knows something the rest of us don't.

"I always like to talk to members about it," he says of his bill, "but I'm not pushing it because our day will come."

Not pushing it? Even some Conyers supporters think this strategy is wrongheaded. If the bill's not a priority of its sponsor, why should anyone else take it seriously?

Conyers leans forward. His tie is loosened, his pants are hiked up, you notice his socks sag to his ankles. Looking at him, a 69-year-old warrior of so many civil rights battles, one is reminded of those sage elders who hold court in black barbershops on Saturday afternoons.

He mentions that he wrote the original legislation calling for a national holiday to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., four days after the civil rights leader was assassinated in 1968. Everyone and his cousin hooted it down. They said Conyers was young and naive. In 1983, the federal holiday was established.

The point: Causes that are worth the struggle require an investment of time. You have to whet the public's appetite, soften opposition, build a case. Turn some folks around. Sometimes the case has to be built behind the scenes first. With scholarship at universities. Lawyers documenting precedents. Meetings in neighborhood basements, firing up the grass roots. All of that is happening now with reparations, says Conyers.

"I see this as a subject in incubation that is probably going to continue to grow until we finally have to approach it and deal with it like all the other controversial issues we deal with."

Promises Unkept

It is hard to find an African American who has not heard of "40 acres and a mule." The phrase has survived Reconstruction and made its way onto baseball caps and hip-hop song sheets and even into comedy routines--a kind of cultural signifier for something promised but never delivered.

Forty acres and a mule. The original reparations package.

On Jan. 16, 1865, four days after meeting with black ministers in Savannah, Ga., Gen. William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15. Thousands and thousands of newly liberated slaves were fleeing plantations and following his Union Army through Georgia. This was becoming a problem.

So with the War Department's blessing, Sherman set aside land along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts for black settlement. Each family was to receive 40 acres, and Sherman later offered the loan of Army mules. Word of this deal spread throughout the South, and within six months 40,000 freed blacks had settled on hundreds of thousands of acres of land.

Several months later Congress passed a bill establishing the Freedmen's Bureau to oversee the transition of blacks from slavery to freedom. The bureau had under its control 850,000 acres of abandoned and confiscated land, and it had men such as Gen. Rufus Saxton, a former abolitionist who was committed to creating a class of black landowners. But that summer President Andrew Johnson began allowing former Confederates to reclaim their property.

This would become history's pattern in succeeding decades: As blacks sought to obtain their due, every small advance, it seemed, was trumped by a setback. Lawmakers such as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens introduced reparations bills in Congress in 1866 and 1867. No luck. In 1915, Cornelius Jones sued the U.S. government, arguing that it had profited from slave labor through a federal tax on cotton. Since the slaves had never been paid, Jones calculated they were owed $68 million. Jones lost his suit.

Even King took up the cause of government reparations for blacks, a little-known fact of his civil rights advocacy. In his 1963 book, "Why We Can't Wait," King wrote that while "no amount of gold could provide adequate compensation for the exploitation of the Negro in America down through the centuries," a price could be placed on unpaid wages.

King was perhaps on to something, but he also was very busy fighting battles on other fronts.

At about the same time, however, a Detroit activist named Ray Jenkins took up the fight and wouldn't let it go. He could be called the father of the modern black reparations movement. In 1963, he formed a one-man organization called Slave Labor Annuity Pay. He distributed leaflets, made speeches, sent letters to black organizations and personalities. Ultimately, he talked Conyers into introducing his bill. Just wore him down.

Jenkins was inspired by the memory of his grandfather, Will Mobley, a former slave who died in 1958 at age 103.

To think, the Founding Fathers could have saved Grandpa Mobley from a childhood of subjugation when they wrote the Constitution. Ended slavery in 1790, spared the country this awful inheritance. Instead, the founders made people with dark skin a "property right" of white privilege. Blacks as capital assets. Blacks as the materials for a $3 billion industry. Sold at an average price of $778 per person right before the Civil War. That's $14,428 in today's money. The cost of a basic farm tractor. To think, if slavery existed today, somebody's grandpa could be traded for the contemporary equivalent of a mule.

Oh, the thoughts that would go through Ray Jenkins's head.

He could never forget how much his grandfather struggled. As a sharecropper--the bridge from slavery--he had to give so much of what he earned to the plantation owner that he never could escape debt. He would go door to door with a sack of corn on his back, selling ears for a penny apiece.

"I never got over it," says Jenkins, 72. "When he died, the relatives had to pass the hat to bury him. That kind of shook me up."

So Jenkins waged his campaign, so persistently that he earned the nickname "Reparations Ray." A million bucks for every African American, he proposed. He just made up that figure.

"People laughed themselves to death when I told them we were trying to get some money from the government," Jenkins recalls of those early days. "But when the Japanese got their $1.2 billion, they stopped laughing."

In 1988, Congress apologized to Japanese Americans interned in camps during World War II and authorized payments of $20,000 each to roughly 60,000 survivors. Canada followed with its own apology and a $230 million reparations package to Japanese Canadians. All of the sudden, the notion of winning reparations for black Americans didn't seem so crazy.

Research revealed other examples of reparations. The German government has paid $60 billion to settle claims from victims of Nazi persecution. Various groups of Eskimos, Native Americans, Aleuts and survivors of a 1923 massacre in a predominantly black Florida town have also received restitution--combined, more than $1 billion. In Australia, the government has apologized for its treatment of Aborigines after an official inquiry called it genocide. Compensation is being negotiated.

Knowledge is power.

Soon word spread that the impossible was perhaps plausible. The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N'COBRA) continues to sprout chapters, 26 to date, including one in Washington. The group's attorneys are preparing to file a reparations lawsuit. Last year, Bethune-Cookman College convened a mock trial in Daytona Beach, Fla., at which a biracial jury voted to award blacks reparations. Meanwhile, the National Commission for Reparations is seeking redress through the United Nations. And a growing number of scholars are publishing thought-provoking articles in economic journals and law reviews.

Economist Larry Neal, adjusting for inflation, calculates that unpaid net wages to blacks before emancipation amount to $1.4 trillion today. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley put the gains of whites from labor market discrimination--just from 1929 to 1969--at $1.6 trillion in present-day dollars.

"What I'm trying to do," says Richard America, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's business school, "is make reparations a serious mainstream public policy concept. It's not about guilt. It's not about blame. It's not about a lot of emotional stuff. This is a problem of accounting."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics should get involved, America says, so that an official historical audit can be done of income diverted to whites because of slavery, segregation and employment discrimination. He estimates that blacks are owed $10 trillion by their government.

The thinkers are not talking about cutting government checks to individuals. Most have grander ideas--free college tuition to African Americans for generations and generations.

One idea, broached by Time magazine columnist Jack White, is to start a reparations fund--a kind of New Freedmen's Bureau--that would finance such things as school construction, housing and job training centers in areas where slave descendants are a majority. White figures blacks are owed $24 trillion, based on unpaid wages denied 10 million slaves, doubled for pain and suffering with interest added. Installments could be made to the fund over the next 2 1/2 centuries.

"My bottom line is the form of reparations that makes sense is an impassioned recommitment to closing the opportunity gap," says Christopher Edley Jr., a Harvard law professor and an adviser to President Clinton on race relations. "That's the reparations we are due. Not 40 acres and a mule, but world-class schools for our kids."

Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer once proposed a deal: A one-time cash payment of $100,000 for every black family of four, to be financed through a 75-cent gas tax over 10 years, "in return for the total abolition of all programs of racial preference."

So now, not only are some blacks arguing for what they believe they are owed, but some whites are also arguing that reparations could be the vehicle for ending affirmative action.

Randall Robinson, president of TransAfrica, has joined the battle with a provocative book due out in January called "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks." Robinson has put up a reparations Web site (www.thedebt.net) that he hopes will draw young people to the cause.

"Let me try to drive the point home here: Through keloids suffering, through coarse veils of damaged self-belief, lost direction, misplaced compass, [expletive]-faced resignation, racial transmutation, black people worked long, hard, killing days, years, centuries--and they were never paid," Robinson writes. "The value of their labor went into others' pockets--plantation owners, northern entrepreneurs, state treasuries, the United States government.

"Were was the money?

"Where is the money?

"There is a debt here.

"I know of no statute of limitations either legally or morally that would extinguish it. Financial quantities are nearly as indestructible as matter. Take away here, add there, interest compounding annually, over the years, over the whole of the twentieth century.

"Where is the money?

"Jews have asked this question of countries and banks and corporations and collectors and any who had been discovered at the end of the slimy line holding in secret places the gold, the art, the money that was the rightful property of European Jews before the Nazi terror. Jews have demanded what was their due and received a fair measure of it.

"Clearly, how blacks respond to the challenge surrounding the simple demand for restitution will say a lot more about us and do a lot more for us than the demand itself would suggest."

"The issue here is not whether or not we can, or will, win reparations," Robinson concludes. "The issue rather is whether we will fight for reparations because we have decided for ourselves that they are our due."

'A Lot More to Talk About'

It is virtually impossible to overestimate the difficulty of the fight.

Let's start with the matter of a government apology for slavery.

Here's what President Clinton said during his trip to Africa last year: "Going back to the time before we were even a nation, European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade and we were wrong in that."

That's it.

And for that, Clinton was pilloried. "Here is a flower child with gray hair doing exactly what he did back in the '60s," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). "He is apologizing for the actions of the U.S."

Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) authored what he thought would be a simple congressional apology for slavery two years ago, a gesture of conscience in the effort to advance race relations. Then came the fiery reactions. Mail ran 60-40 against his proposal. Whites accused him of stirring racial anger by lifting history from the dead. Blacks saw his resolution as empty symbolism.

"I don't know that we'll ever apologize while I'm in Congress," Hall says, "because I'm not sure the country is ready for it. I couldn't believe the hate and anger that came about because of it, and I got it from both sides."

"Before we get to reparations," Hall says, "we've got a lot more to talk about."

To get even minimum contemplation on the subject, you have to ask the question. The men and women who make the laws of this country and preside over the government are not ordinarily thinking about the effects of slavery as they go about their rounds. It's not on their briefing schedule.

Vice President Gore is asked for his views. Long pause.

"I think that it is a question that needs to be dealt with respectfully and with great sensitivity to those who are interested in the idea, not really for the money it represents," he says in an interview, "but rather for the symbolic atonement they associate with it. At the end of the day, most agree that it's not a politically feasible idea."

Gore is then asked if he would support a bill such as Conyers's that calls only for a study commission. No pause.

"I'm for handling it sensitively without conveying a sense that it's ever likely to occur, because it's not."

"I'm not trying to duck the question," says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who is approached outside the Senate chamber after a vote. "I suspect there are a lot of things we could have reparations on. Is it a debate that benefits anyone--black or white? I don't know the answer to that question."

"I have never been a fan of reparations for anything," says Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who is waiting for an elevator in the Capitol. "There have always been bad things that have happened to people. Slavery was awful. But I don't think there is anything to be gained by going backward to try to come up with some way to pay for something that you can't put a monetary price tag on."

Of course probing questions sometimes yield ironic answers. Suppose there was a financial incentive to prove one's DNA contained the genes of slave ancestors?

"It would literally pay to be black," says Armstrong Williams, a black conservative commentator who has just left the office of Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). Williams is not for reparations. "Everybody and their momma would claim they were black."

A Mind Opening?

Conyers has heard it all. The jokesters with their wisecracks. The duckers and dismissers, naysaying away. They don't ruffle him. "In a sense this is just another legal question that has to be answered."

Opponents say there is no precedent for paying people who are dead, that reparations are usually awarded to survivors. Advocates say there can be no deadline for justice, that the consequences of slavery have been borne by the living. Opponents say it is unfair to penalize 20th-century immigrants for a system not of their making. Advocates say it is the responsibility of this nation's government to make amends for the horrors it authorized and promoted.

Conyers knows all the arguments. He also knows it is not often that people will even engage the subject. But every now and then someone will surprise him--perhaps a member of Congress who is ready to give his legislation a look.

"It's something I certainly would consider," says Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). "Has anybody held hearings on this issue? I certainly would not be averse to considering it."

That's progress, says Conyers. Another open mind willing to wrestle with slavery's impact on modern America. Some day, he adds, "the most hidden, important, silent subject we've ever had in this country" will be addressed.

"What we're trying to do now is just get the debate going to see where it will lead us."