#LitBeat: If I had just been there
Ta-Nehisi Coates on black people and the history of the Civil War, at the Southern Festival of Books
About twenty miles up the road from a prominent highway-side statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, famed Confederate general and original Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, Ta-Nehisi Coates delivered a passionate argument as to why African Americans should study the Civil War. Coates, Senior Editor at The Atlantic, spoke as part of last weekend’s Southern Festival of Books’ series “The Civil War and Emancipation: Conflict and Reckoning,” his own panel titled “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?”
Coates began his discussion with a quotation from William Faulkner on the Battle of Gettysburg, and the inherent feeling in Southern boys of, “If I had just been there…” It’s this rabid Southern romanticism of the war that Coates can’t come to terms with, one that he has yet to find in any African American reading of the “War Between the States.”
“The Civil War was portrayed as a violent football game,” Coates explained of his understanding of the war in his youth. “And I was very into the violent football game, and didn’t connect any political struggle with people who looked like me.”
The South, in its unending quest to Rise Again*, has in a century and a half written an intricate mythology told in reenactments, Dixie flag bumper stickers, kids named Bobby Lee and, of course, gaudy roadside monuments. It’s a loud and pervasive mythology that often overshadows the more nuanced tales of black Civil War heroes, and Coates cites this lack of a strong black Civil War mythology as a primary cause for the lack of black interest in studying the war.
“We know about Frederick Douglass, and we know about Harriet Tubman, and we have this kind of vague sense that before the Civil War people who looked like us were in chains and afterwards we were not,” he said. “How did that happen? We don’t know. Not only do we not know, we don’t think to ask. There’s no real debate.”
In a story, “Fear of a Black President,” recently published in The Atlantic, Coates implored readers to understand the struggles of President Obama through the lens of black history, and made the same case for a more thorough understanding of history’s implications in his panel.
The Q&A following his talk showed signs of promise for Coates’ mission, with audience members (of a variety of races, it should be noted) both sharing stories of their own experiences with racism and offering sincere intentions to become more educated on what Coates believes to be one of our nation’s greatest flaws: our ignorance of our own past.
Coates is currently working on an as-yet-untitled account of his Civil War studies, and following his panel signed copies of his 2008 memoir, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood.
*As a native Tennessean, I’d like to make the point that not all Southerners share this sentiment. In fact, many of us don’t.
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