Coates on Ferguson and Civil War Memory

There is a wall that I always hit when I read commentary by Ta-Nehisi Coates owing to my personal background and race. While I can relate to his preferred interpretation of Civil War memory on an intellectual level I am aware that his understanding comes from a very personal place and a sense of community that will always be foreign to me. The following comes from Coates’s most recent post on the killing of Michael Brown and the overall situation in Ferguson, MO.

Some 600,000 Americans—2.5 percent of the American population—died in the Civil War. What came before this was a long bloody war—enslavement—against black families, black communities and black bodies. What came after was a terrorist regime which ruled an entire swath of this country by fire and rope. That regime was not overthrown until an era well within the living memory of many Americans. Taken all together, the body count that led us to our present tenuous democratic moment does not elevate us above the community of nations, but installs us uncomfortably within its ranks. And that is terrifying because it shows us to be neither providential nor exceptional, and only special in the subjective sense that our families are special—because they are ours.

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17 comments… add one
  • khepera420 Aug 28, 2014 @ 10:41

    ***What makes America exceptional is not that it has arrived at a destination but that it is continually moving forward. Contrast that to Europe, where antisemitism is again on the rise, the Middle East where the present moment is defined by the Sunni versus Shia conflict writ large, and Asia where China lurches forward economically and backwards politically and environmentally at the same time.***

    That certainly is one perspective. But it’s not the perspective of most African Americans that I know. Particularly those who were present and/or came of age during the black civil rights era. Anti-black racism is alive and well and apparently on the rise in the perception of a great many American blacks who saw that era as full of longed-for promise.

    I don’t care how forward we are moving continually; racism is America’s dirty little open secret and has been since the slave era. It’s a nasty little boil that, instead of being lanced, has continued to fester until it has infected our society. Until it is confronted squarely, without denial, and with good-faith effort to address and end its institutionalized hold on our society, every step forward is a step across an ignored, and deadly, minefield.

  • Dudley Bokoski Aug 24, 2014 @ 4:21

    We are too free and stable by virtue of our unique system of government and position in the world, too big geographically, too diverse culturally, and too oriented toward innovation and communication to stay in one place for long. That’s not to argue we are always morally or ethically superior, just that conditions exist here to make this country always changing, always moving forward, almost by definition. I’m optimistic the current political inertia is building market demand for new ideas and a “third way” (although not necessarily third parties) which will take on poverty within the next two decades with new ideas and new approaches. To quote Churchill, this is “not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.”

    • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2014 @ 4:26

      Thanks for the follow up. This is certainly a reasonable perspective that many people no doubt share, but at the same time it represents one perspective on this nation’s past, present and future.

  • Dudley Bokoski Aug 23, 2014 @ 17:01

    I think Coates meaning is very clear, but what no one here seems to be addressing is his central premise. He rather casually consigns the 600,000 Americans who died in the Civil War, and more particularly those who fought for the Union, to the dustbin of history. Their deaths are given no more significance than those of Germans climbing out of the trenches of World War I, the French infantrymen following Bonaparte’s hubris, or the Japanese who perpetrated the rape of Nanking.

    There is a saying that every man is the center of the universe to himself and in Coates’ case it seems particularly apt. The Civil War does not fit within his cultural narrative, therefore it is denied any particular context. You can, and anyone who claims any intellectual depth should, acknowledge all the wrongs of American society Coates describes so frequently and still within historical concept find this country exceptional.

    What makes America exceptional is not that it has arrived at a destination but that it is continually moving forward. Contrast that to Europe, where antisemitism is again on the rise, the Middle East where the present moment is defined by the Sunni versus Shia conflict writ large, and Asia where China lurches forward economically and backwards politically and environmentally at the same time.

    Coates is an interesting writer when discussing what interests him but when he departs from it he can be emit much heat and scant light.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2014 @ 17:07

      I do think that this particular post is driven more by emotion and frustration over Ferguson than it is by a detached intellectual framework.

      The Civil War does not fit within his cultural narrative, therefore it is denied any particular context.

      I don’t, however, believe that this is a fair comment when considered in response to what he has written about the Civil War over the past few years.

      What makes America exceptional is not that it has arrived at a destination but that it is continually moving forward.

      I certainly don’t believe this. There is no doubt that this country has made huge strides over the years, but to suggest that it is “continually” moving forward is a stretch. I suspect it depends on how you choose to look at it.

    • Christopher Shelley Aug 24, 2014 @ 8:26

      I can see how this particular Coates article might give you that idea, but Coates most definitely has *not* “consigned” the Civil War and its dead “to the dustbin of history.”

      I’d say he’s got a pretty good handle on the war’s context.

  • Rosemary Aug 22, 2014 @ 10:18

    It is easy to relate if you are a person who has known Want and who, despite intellect and talent, is thwarted in efforts not only to achieve, but to experience the glory of using that talent, of execising that brain, and of seeing one’s work, simply put, done.
    The US can be a mean country.
    The US class system is regimented.
    I am a white woman, old enough to get some senior citizen discounts, with a learning disability that makes me, despite talent and intellect, quirky. There are limited places for me where I’m okay — where i can earn a good living, serve the world with my work, and feel that I am a “working part” as opposed to a rogue rock in the universe.
    People who run the regiments (mostly white men) in our society don’t seem to be those who have had their insides scraped out because, metaphorically speaking, they experienced rude denial of a seat on the bus.
    If Mr. Coates wrote with more emotion, would he still maintain his status and position whereby his words are published? I don’t know what he’d say. But I do believe that in his work as presented, as published, he is saying his peace using the wisest words he can think of.

    • Hugh Lawson Aug 24, 2014 @ 15:43

      I think you’re right, Rosemary. Coates has the opportunity to speak truths that are often suppressed, or passed over, or dismissed.

  • Hugh Lawson Aug 21, 2014 @ 12:37

    Hello Kevin. Coates’s piece doesn’t present problems for me. I don’t feel myself running into a wall in trying to apprehend his meaning. I didn’t think my character as a white person stood between me and his exposition of his viewpoint. Allowing that some of his expressions are metaphorical, I think I accept the sketch of American history he laid out in the snip Kevin printed. I certainly agree that America is neither innocent nor divinely appointed to a providential mission. Coates is probably right that belief in these doctrines blocks apprehension of American realities. I had already read the Coates piece, and thought “Hard but true.” Because of my reaction, I wondered what others saw that I missed, or if it was a matter of individual differences in reading experiences and the like. Does this help?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2014 @ 12:45

      Hi Hugh,

      Thanks for the follow up. I certainly understand Coates on an intellectual level and that is why I read him on a regular basis, but he also manages to communicate on an emotional level that I suspect is clearest to those people who have experienced what he is describing. I certainly have not. Thanks again.

      • Hugh Lawson Aug 21, 2014 @ 16:19

        Hello Kevin. How do you distinguish between the emotional level that you don’t get, and the intellectual level that you do get? I just read and try to understand. Is there something about the passage that you snipped and quoted that bothers you?

        • Brooks D. Simpson Aug 21, 2014 @ 17:01

          This exchange seems to be two people talking past each other, in part because I think the section Kevin quoted is rather easily comprehended intellectually and lacks quite the emotional message that several other portions of Coates’s essay imply.

          Simply put, at times people who approach things intellectually simply understand them on that level, whereas some other messages strike us vividly on an emotional level as well. I don’t think the quoted passage offers the best example of those multiple levels. Coates is interesting precisely because he works the fault lines between various forms of understanding, and bring to that discussion a sense of experience that others might find hard to replicate. I’m sure, for example, that many white people get on an intellectual level the concept of white privilege, but rarely do they feel it, so I’m not always sure they “get it.” There are experiences that some of us can’t quite fathom emotionally the same way others fathom those experiences precisely because they are different … like men pretending they understand the pain of childbirth.

          • Hugh Lawson Aug 21, 2014 @ 18:42

            Well, I am missing something; I do not apprehend an emotional factor, in the piece itself, that blocks comprehension of it. I read the whole piece in the Atlantic, and thought, “It’s too bad this still needs saying.”

            • Brooks D. Simpson Aug 22, 2014 @ 19:22

              I don’t believe anyone has said they don’t comprehend Coates’s essay. Apparently some people don’t comprehend Kevin’s observation. And so it goes.

  • Hugh Lawson Aug 21, 2014 @ 7:31

    What in Kevin’s quote of Coates causes a problem? Why is this text hard to understand? Is there anything in it that presents difficulties to the historically informed? Are there feelings about the US that make it painful to read what Coates says?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2014 @ 10:32

      Perhaps you could further the discussion by answering your own questions.

  • Christopher Shelley Aug 20, 2014 @ 22:26

    Don’t feel alone. I believe many, if not most, of us non-minorities can relate. Isn’t that the point? The fact that you can acknowledge that is a step forward, for you are expressing the sentiments of many of us today. But I think that makes reading Coates all the more important, yes?

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