Why the Civil War Matters (according to Ta-Nehisi Coates)

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.


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9 comments… add one
  • Jerry McKenzie May 27, 2014 @ 7:11

    The Moyers interview with Coates was great, but I felt cheated by the new 1/2 format. Coates is a powerful writer and thinker and I read him regularly and have especially enjoyed his posts on the Civil War. I imagine his detractors are marshaling their response least they have their heads handed to them like he did to Chait. I need to set aside the time to read his cover story (and probably reread it a couple of times). I think the Moyers interview was good to watch first as he is approaching this as an American issue, not just black and white.

  • decklap May 25, 2014 @ 10:59

    Im a new reader to this blog and I found it as a recommendation Feedly made based on other blogs I read and thus far I’ve found it to be much more wide ranging and challenging than I might have otherwise expected.

  • Pat Young May 25, 2014 @ 5:47

    Thanks for alerting me to the essay. I began reading it before church and will get back to it later.

  • jsroberson May 25, 2014 @ 4:55

    I’ve yet to read Coates essay, but I’m wondering what you, as a professional educator, might suggest to encourage family members to read the essay further then “Reparations!!!” and enter into a discussion.

    I have a large family of southerners and northerners, white and black, descended by my great-grandfather, the largest slave older in a central Tennessee county. Since reconnecting with African-American cousins a few year ago, my white cousins and I have had edgy and not very deep discussions on our shared responsibilities as descendants of slave owners (and really, white Americans who have benefitted so greatly from the enslavement of others.). It’s a difficult discussion to just begin mostly because we are coming from such different points of view and levels of empathy.

    • Kevin Levin May 25, 2014 @ 5:01

      Thanks for the question, though I am not sure I can help with what appears to be a complex family dynamic. I would recommend reading Coates’s essay with interested members of your family. One of the things that Coates does well is to diffuse the regional divide over this issue. In other words, this is not a Southern problem. His major case study is housing discrimination in Chicago, but he connects it to the long history of slavery and race. The other thing that stands out is if you left the author’s name out it would be difficult to discern his/her identity. You are left with an incredibly rich essay that offers a number of entry points for further discussion.

      Best of luck to you.

    • Nora Carrington May 25, 2014 @ 10:42

      for jsroberson:

      As a model — not *the* model, you understand, just a model — for having conversations between black and white branches of a slave-owning family, I’d recommend Edward Ball’s _Slaves in the Family._

      As for Coates, I’ve been waiting for the dust to settle a bit before I look for follow-up conversations and discussions. I know there have been and will be several moderated discussion fora at _The Atlantic,_ but there will be other reflections elsewhere as well.

      • jsroberson May 25, 2014 @ 13:18

        Thanks, Nora. I definitely be picking this up at the library on Tuesday.

  • MSB May 25, 2014 @ 4:46

    Beautiful post, Kevin, especially to read on Memorial Day.
    . I’ve been a Coates fan for years, and am glad to see the word spreading. Among other things, I’d like to see more students exposed to his expressive skills and critical thinking.
    Happy Memorial Day!

    • Kevin Levin May 25, 2014 @ 5:02

      Thanks for the kind words.

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