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. Continue reading “Ta-Nehisi Coates and Civil War Memory”

Confederate Iconography and the “Dream” of White America

A week later and I am still digesting Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me. I read it in two sittings and it knocked me right on my ass. I suspect that for most white readers his is a world that can barely be glimpsed. What does it mean to live in a black body that can be taken away in the most violent of ways with no consequences. Before reading this book I rarely thought about what it means to live in a white body in such visceral terms. That is my privilege as a white American. Continue reading “Confederate Iconography and the “Dream” of White America”

Touring Civil War Battlefields With Ta-Nehisi Coates

I am just about finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me, which is essentially an extended letter to his son, Samori. It’s incredibly powerful. Coates reveals a world – from the violence of the streets of Baltimore to police brutality – that I will never fully understand. What I truly value in his writing, however, is the way he weaves the past into his observations about his own childhood and the current racial environment. At times the present and the past are indistinguishable in his hands. Continue reading “Touring Civil War Battlefields With Ta-Nehisi Coates”

Why Charles Dew’s Secessionist Commissioners Matter 150 Years Later

My abbreviated course on the Civil War has hit the ground running in the last two weeks. This time around I am using Louis Masur’s brief history of the war and Reconstruction and so far it is working out well. I tend to look for a concise narrative that I can supplement in various ways. For their first supplemental reading I had students read an essay by Charles Dew based on his book, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.

It’s an ideal reading for high school students. The argument is concise, easy to follow, and the subject matter couldn’t be more conducive to a seminar discussion. And we did, indeed, have a dynamite discussion earlier today. Students thought that Dew’s commissioners helped to answer an important question regarding why the Deep South states interpreted Lincoln’s election as an immediate threat. At the same time they struggled with the content of their speeches and editorials. As they discussed the article further I realized that the difficulty has to do with how history students tend to think about the institution of slavery. They think about it primarily in abstract terms with an understanding that life could be incredibly violent and sad. Few survey classes have the time to dig into the complexity of the master-slave relationship or examine the day-to-day lives of slaves. What they miss, unfortunately, is the extent to which slavery was intertwined with assumptions concerning race. Continue reading “Why Charles Dew’s Secessionist Commissioners Matter 150 Years Later”