Ta-Nehisi Coates and Civil War Memory

Congratulations to Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is the recipient of this year’s National Book Award in non-fiction for Between the World and Me, which has been on the New York Times’s bestseller list for 17 weeks. I read it the first week of its release and thoroughly enjoyed it. Below is Coates’s very emotional and humble acceptance speech.

At some point I want to write an essay about Coates’s understanding of the Civil War and historical memory.

Start with this essay. In my mind, Coates was one of the most important writers of Civil War memory during the sesquicentennial. Some of the highlights of his journey included a trip to Civil War battlefields with his family as well as an intensive study of histories covering the entire Civil War era. The essay would explore both his place within the broader shifts in Civil War memory that now emphasize the history of slavery and race and his own contributions, which are substantial.

Here is brief passage from Between the World and Me:

I don’t know if you remember how the film we saw at the Petersburg Battlefield ended as though the fall of the Confederacy were the onset of a tragedy, not jubilee. I doubt you remember the man on our tour dressed in the gray wool of the Confederacy, or how every visitor seemed most interested in flanking maneuvers, hardtack, smoothbore rifles, grapeshot, and ironclads, but virtually no one was interested in what all of this engineering, invention and design had been marshaled to achieve. You were only ten years old. But even then I knew that I must trouble you, and this meant taking you into rooms where people would insult your intelligence, where thieves would try to enlist you in your own robbery and disguise their burning and looting as Christian charity. But robbery is what this is, what it always was….

Do you remember standing with me and your mother, during one of our visits to Gettysburg, outside the home of Abraham Brian? We were with a young man who’d educated himself on the history of black people in Gettysburg. He explained that Brian Farm was the far end of the line that was charged by George Pickett on the final day of Gettysburg. He told us that Brian was a black man, that Gettysburg was home to a free black community, that Brian and his family fled their home for fear of losing their bodies to the advancing army of enslavement, led by the honored and holy Confederate general Robert E. Lee, whose army was then stealing black people from themselves and selling them south. George Pickett and his troops were repulsed by the Union Army. Standing there, a century and a half later, I though of one of Faulkner’s characters famously recalling how this failure tantalized the minds of all “Southern” boys–“It’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun….” All Faulkner’s Southern boys were white. But I, standing on the farm of a black man who fled with his family to stay free of the South, saw Pickett’s soldiers charging through history, in wild pursuit of their strange birthright–the right to beat, rape, rob, and pillage the black body. That is all of what was “in the balance,” the nostalgic moment’s corrupt and unspeakable core.

I don’t think anyone has gone further to engage the tough questions of the Civil War and interpret their relevance for both the black community and for a nation that continues to struggle with race relations.

4 thoughts on “Ta-Nehisi Coates and Civil War Memory

  1. keithnpt

    Having family members that were free persons of color before, during and after the Civil War in Richmond, Virginia, the challenge today is to present a Civil War Memory from our historical perspective. Why should African heritage people in the present day care much about the Civil War when much of the focus is from a white viewpoint, both South and North?

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for the comment, but that is simply no longer the case. African Americans were front and center during the sesquicentennial. In fact, it would not be a stretch to suggest that the narrative of black Union solders was the dominant narrative of that commemoration.

      Reply
      1. Erick Hare

        Even with that emphasis in the Sesquicentennial it took “the shedding of blood” and the loss of nine lives in Charleston, SC last summer to really bring a national spotlight and focus on these issues which have festered and not been resolved for decades.

        I remember studying under Bruce Levine a decade ago and expressing my doubts of seeing the national discussion and perspective shift this drastically from the Lost Cause view of the war having observed the culture built up that surrounded the Lost Cause view of the war.

        As sad as it is to see more lives lost in this struggle at least finally the national conscience has been awakened to a lot of facts which have been hidden and not brought to light for decades and their lives will not have been lost in vain.

        Reply

Now that you've read the post, share your thoughts.