Ta-Nahesi Coates has some interesting things to say about my Gingrich review at The Atlantic. This particular passage caught my eye:
This pattern those sympathetic to the Confederacy acknowledging the sacrifice and honor of black soldiers is relatively new. Kevin’s right that it’s often tied into a hesitancy to see the Confederacy as it really was. But to my mind, Gingrich’s novel is progress–not the ultimate solution, but progress. For a century, the Lost Cause rendition of history meant writing black people, as agents, out of it. [my emphasis]
On one level it is easy to view Gingrich’s interest in highlighting the story of United States Colored Troops as progress even though it does so without threatening the Lost Cause interpretation of Confederate soldiers and Robert E. Lee. I admit as much in the review, but at the same time we should be careful not to get ahead of ourselves. As I also mentioned in the review, Gingrich’s narrative of the 28th USCT basically follows the story line laid out in the movie, Glory. That story is now roughly 25 years old. From this perspective it’s not clear to me what kind of progress we are talking about. Is it progress simply because we are talking about Gingrich, a Republican or a former representative of a southern state?
Yes, Gingrich’s failure to deal with Confederate perceptions may tell us much about continued resistance among white southerners in dealing with the tough questions of race, but his narrative of USCTs perhaps tells us something about white America as a whole. Ever since the release of Glory in 1989 the popular view of USCTs has revolved around their sacrifice for the Union through failed attacks against the Confederacy. We can handle challenges of discrimination from within the ranks and even hints of a unfair pay, but only if there is resolution at the end of the story. In Glory we get it in the wonderful image of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th and in Gingrich’s book we get it in his insistence on their crucial role in winning the Civil War. Don’t get me wrong, this is a story that needs to be told, but I think there is an element here that functions to assuage the insecurities of white Americans when it comes to dealing with race and I think it transcends region and politics.
It’s something that I’ve been self-conscious about as I research the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the pay crisis for my next book project. As many of you know for over a year the 55th as well as many other black units refused to accept a pay lower than what their white comrades received. In the case of the 54th and 55th they even refused their own state’s willingness to make up the difference. Not only did the men in the units go without pay as they were fighting and dying for the Union, but their families back home suffered as well. The Glory/Gingrich model treats Confederate defeat and emancipation as a bookend, but perhaps if we place this struggle withing the broader context of the civil rights struggle we can learn something new about the broad sweep of American history. At this point in the game that would constitute progress.