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Black Memory and the Civil War

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If you haven’t read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece on why African-Americans avoid centering the Civil War in their history, why the Civil War is so associated with whites in public memory, and how he became fascinated by the conflict, you must do so. It’s outstanding. Coates savages the lost cause myth, bringing from its roots in the late 19th century through Ken Burns’ The Civil War:

The comfortable narrative haunts even the best mainstream presentations of the Civil War. Ken Burns’s eponymous and epic documentary on the war falsely claims that the slaveholder Robert E. Lee was personally against slavery. True, Lee once asserted in a letter that slavery was a “moral & political evil.” But in that same letter, he argued that there was no sense protesting the peculiar institution and that its demise should be left to “a wise Merciful Providence.” In the meantime, Lee was happy to continue, in Lincoln’s words, wringing his “bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.”

Burns also takes as his narrator Shelby Foote, who once called Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave-trader and Klansman, “one of the most attractive men who ever walked through the pages of history,” and who presents the Civil War as a kind of big, tragic misunderstanding. “It was because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise,” said Foote, neglecting to mention the Missouri Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-­Nebraska Act, and the fact that any further such compromise would have meant the continued enslavement of black people.

For that particular community, for my community, the message has long been clear: the Civil War is a story for white people—acted out by white people, on white people’s terms—in which blacks feature strictly as stock characters and props. We are invited to listen, but never to truly join the narrative, for to speak as the slave would, to say that we are as happy for the Civil War as most Americans are for the Revolutionary War, is to rupture the narrative. Having been tendered such a conditional invitation, we have elected—as most sane people would—to decline.

You know, I like the Burns film from an artistic standpoint; it’s probably the best visual production of a particular kind of Civil War memory that loves battles and might admit that blacks are part of the story but still not central to it. But the problems of using a neo-Confederate apologist for Nathan Bedford Forrest are legion (and also are indicative of the conservatism at the heart of most Burns productions).

Coates goes on to make a convincing argument as to why African-Americans need to learn that the Civil War is THE central event in their history:

For African Americans, war commenced not in 1861, but in 1661, when the Virginia Colony began passing America’s first black codes, the charter documents of a slave society that rendered blacks a permanent servile class and whites a mass aristocracy. They were also a declaration of war.

Over the next two centuries, the vast majority of the country’s blacks were robbed of their labor and subjected to constant and capricious violence. They were raped and whipped at the pleasure of their owners. Their families lived under the threat of existential violence—in just the four decades before the Civil War, more than 2 million African American slaves were bought and sold. Slavery did not mean merely coerced labor, sexual assault, and torture, but the constant threat of having a portion, or the whole, of your family consigned to oblivion. In all regards, slavery was war on the black family.

African Americans understood they were at war, and reacted accordingly: run­ning away, rebelling violently, fleeing to the British, murdering slave-catchers, and—less spectacularly, though more significantly—refusing to work, breaking tools, bending a Christian God to their own interpretation, stealing back the fruits of their labor, and, in covert corners of their world, committing themselves to the illegal act of learning to read. Southern whites also understood they were in a state of war, and subsequently turned the ante­bellum South into a police state. In 1860, the majority of people living in South Carolina and Mississippi, and a significant minority of those living in the entire South, needed passes to travel the roads, and regularly endured the hounding of slave patrols.

It is thus predictable that when you delve into the thoughts of black people of that time, the Civil War appears in a different light. In her memoir of the war, the abolitionist Mary Livermore recalls her pre-war time with an Aunt Aggy, a house slave. Livermore saw Aggy’s mixed-race daughter brutally attacked by the patriarch of the home. In a private moment, the woman warned Liver­more that she could “hear the rumbling of the chariots” and that a day was coming when “white folks’ blood is running on the ground like a river.”

Although not a true Civil War scholar, I teach the Civil War course here at URI and have taught it at other schools. I am teaching it this spring. As a first-year faculty member, I don’t really know the demographics of what my class will look like, but I expect it will be very white. Part of that it the URI student body has a diversity problem. But part of it is that African-Americans traditionally avoid this course. This fall was a giant scramble as I spent a huge amount of time getting used to a new institution but the next time I teach the course, I am going to outreach to the African-American student groups on campus and suggest they take the class. I absolutely teach it as a story about slavery, with the ultimate freedom struggle on one hand and the hypocrisy of whites and the betrayal of that freedom in Reconstruction on the other.

I very much look forward to Coates book on the Civil War. I’ll be assigning his essay to my students in the last part of the course, where we look at memory. I will be curious to see what they think after 13 or 14 weeks of being beaten over the head with the slavery/treason in defense of slavery/freedom struggle/betrayal narrative.

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