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. Continue reading
The consequences of 250 years of enslavement, of war upon black families and black people, were profound. Like homeownership today, slave ownership was aspirational, attracting not just those who owned slaves but those who wished to. Much as homeowners today might discuss the addition of a patio or the painting of a living room, slaveholders traded tips on the best methods for breeding workers, exacting labor, and doling out punishment. Just as a homeowner today might subscribe to a magazine like This Old House, slaveholders had journals such as De Bow’s Review, which recommended the best practices for wringing profits from slaves. By the dawn of the Civil War, the enslavement of black America was thought to be so foundational to the country that those who sought to end it were branded heretics worthy of death. Imagine what would happen if a president today came out in favor of taking all American homes from their owners: the reaction might well be violent.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic
Tony Horwitz’s piece in the Atlantic yesterday has raised some eyebrows. I enjoyed it, though the author of Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War would have done us more of a service if he had explored beyond the ivory towers. Hey, we are in the midst of a Civil War Sesquicentennial and there is a lot going on out there that defies easy categorization and that is worth exploring. But if we must stick with a couple of academics to define the current state of Civil War memory than so be it.
Horwitz’s interview with Fitz Brundage and David Goldfield raised the question of whether the Civil War was a good war and whether the bloodletting was worth it in the end. I tend to avoid these questions. That said, I find myself agreeing with the thrust of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s response.
The fact is that the Civil War didn’t represent a failure of 19th-century Americans, but that the American slave society – which was itself war – represented a failure of humanity. That failure was the price America paid for its conception…. I am very sorry that white people began experiencing great violence in 1860. But for some of us, war did not begin [in] 1860, but in 1660. The brutal culmination of that war may not have allowed us to ascend into a post-racial heaven. But here is something I always come back to: In 1859 legally selling someone’s five-year-old child was big business. In 1866, it was not. American Slavery was a system of perpetual existential violence. The idea that it could have been — or should have been — ended, after two and a half centuries of practice, with a handshake and an ice-cream social strikes me as really wrong.
I’ve always maintained that the right side won the war and that we are better off without slavery. Who is going to disagree with that? Was it worth the price? Certainly, those enslaved must have thought so along with those Americans who were not willing to stand by and allow their Union to be destroyed. What else can I offer that adds or detracts?
OK, back to packing for Gettysburg!