Update: Check out this insightful interview of Coates by Bill Moyers.
Somehow I am going to find a way next year to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s brilliant essay on reparations in both my U.S. History survey and Civil War courses. My classes covers a good chunk of the history discussed in the essay. It’s not that I expect or even want my students to agree with Coates’s conclusions; in fact, part of the goal of any lesson would be for students to critically analyze the connections made between claim and evidence. Even more important than the argument itself, I want my students to experience what I believe to be one of the best examples of what it means to struggle with the past and why history ultimately matters.
Since finishing Coates’s essay I went back and read a post that detail the evolution of his thinking on the subject. At the center of this story are crucial scholarly texts on the history of the Civil War, Reconstruction and slavery. Many of these scholarly books have been mentioned on this blog and some of you have read them, but I don’t believe that I have ever seen them referenced in a way that drives home their importance to how we think about our neighborhoods and beyond. A lot of us give lip service to why we should study history or why the Civil War is still relevant, but Coates brings an added element that is often lost in scholarly discussions that are defined by a certain level of detachment.
You can see this play out in a recent discussion hosted by David Blight at Yale University that featured Coates along with Gary Gallagher, Stephanie McCurry, John Fabian Witt, and Andrew Delbanco. Blight began by asking the panelists to share [begin at 11:50] their “favorite Civil War legacy.” Coates had this to say.
I don’t have a particularly objective answer, I have an entirely subjective answer. I think modern black America is the most important legacy of the American Civil War… Frankly, it’s virtually impossible for me to think about my very existence without the Civil War.
One of the things that I love about the reparations essay is the way it fuses a serious and comprehensive study of the past with a personal sense of urgency surrounding the present. It does so without sacrificing anything of the former. I can’t think of a better example of this dynamic and it goes without saying that we need more of this.
I have not spent much time surveying the responses to Coates’s essay. I can almost anticipate what various media outlets and a select list of writers will say. In the end I think it’s a discussion that Coates was looking to encourage, but in doing so he raises the bar for those who want to engage.
Ultimately, Coates’s essay reminds me of the core mission in my own teaching, which is to encourage my students to see themselves as products of the past and that its serious study can at least begin to help us to grapple with how we live.