It’s nice to see that Ta-Nahesi Coates’s contribution to the The Atlantic’s special Civil War issue is getting so much attention. It nicely sums up why I am now a regular reader of his blog and why last week I went to meet him in person at MIT. Coates’s essay is a very personal and thoughtful reflection on why the African American community appears to have lost interest in the Civil War. The essay tracks the gaping hole in his personal memory of the Civil War as a child to his discovery of it later in life and his subsequent reading of a wide range of primary and secondary sources.
Coates locates a collective lack of interest among African Americans in a narrative that has become all too familiar. Popularized by David Blight in Race and Reunion, this narrative traces a gradual embrace of reconciliation among white Americans by the turn of the twentieth century, an acceptance of the Lost Cause view of the war, and ending with the tragic loss of of what Blight describes as an “Emancipationist” view of the war. From there Coates jumps briefly to the Civil Rights Era and later to such popular interpretations of the war such as Gone With the Wind, Shelby Foote’s three volume history of the war and Ken Burns’s PBS documentary.
There is much to ponder within this framework, but it only gets us so far to understanding what many people working in the public history sector are reflecting on as well. As I read Coates’s essay part of the problem seems to be in the assumption that the process of reunions gradual ascendency functioned to cut off African Americans from memory of the Civil War only to have it re-emerge on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. The danger here is that Coates runs the risk of painting a picture of blacks as emasculated from history and I know that this is not his intention.
Coate’s concluding remarks create an uneasy tension between on the one hand a national memory of the war that continues to struggle to acknowledge African Americans and his marching orders:
And for black people, there is this—the burden of taking ownership of the Civil War as Our War. During my trips to battlefields, the near-total absence of African American visitors has been striking. Confronted with the realization that the Civil War is the genesis of modern America, in general, and of modern black America, in particular, we cannot just implore the Park Service and the custodians of history to do more outreach—we have to become custodians ourselves.
The Lost Cause was spread, not merely by academics and Hollywood executives, but by the descendants of Confederate soldiers. Now the country’s battlefields are marked with the enduring evidence of their tireless efforts. But we have stories too, ones that do not hinge on erasing other people, or coloring over disrepute. For the Civil War to become Our War, it will not be enough to, yet again, organize opposition to the latest raising of the Confederate flag. The Civil War confers on us the most terrible burden of all—the burden of moving from protest to production, the burden of summoning our own departed hands, so that they, too, may leave a mark.
I want to suggest that a more nuanced narrative of the relationship between African Americans and the Civil War may give us some direction as we make our way into 2012 and what promises to be a rich a rich Civil War commemorative season.
One of the most surprising and rewarding discoveries that I made in the course of my research on the battle of the Crater and historical memory was the rich outpouring of writing and activity from within the black community during the Civil War Centennial. I was already familiar with some of the scholarly studies written by black historians and published during this period, but what caught my eye was the apparent level of interest within the broader black community.
You can find it in a number of places, most notably in Ebony and Jet magazines, which are searchable through Google Books. The issues published between 1955 and 1975 are filled with editorials and articles by noted scholars such as John Hope Franklin and Benjamin Quarrels as well as a broad range of other voices. Of course, I was most interested in the articles focused on USCTs and the Crater, but you can find articles on every aspect of the war as well as Reconstruction. The letters to the editor from across the country are particularly interesting because they highlight a very personal interest and attachment to this history from diverse backgrounds. Black newspapers from across the country did their part as well. Pamphlets and newsletters from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History indicate that black schools focused a great deal of attention on the Civil War era. That translated to the college level as well. I noticed a sharp increase of thesis topics related to the Civil War during this period at black colleges, including Petersburg State College (now University), which is just a stones throw away from the Crater battlefield.
Of course, I’ve just scratched the surface in terms of what I found and at some point I hope to go back and do some more research on the topic. Given the Civil Rights struggle and the Centennial celebrations it should come as no surprise that the black community would find itself focused on the Civil War era. Rather than frame the challenge of how to introduce African Americans to the Civil War within a broad narrative that ends in defeat at the turn of the twentieth century, it may be helpful to look more closely at what was clearly a sustained reawakening of interest within living memory. Perhaps this will help all of us move forward.