On NPR this morning, an African American writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, said that blacks do not like to study the Civil War, and that in African American Studies, the Civil War is often treated more as a sideshow rather than the main event status it enjoys in traditional American History. This seems strangely counter-intuitive: wouldn’t you want to know about your own persecution and liberation?
For example, anecdotally I’ve found Jews are fanatical about the Holocaust, and try to learn as much about it as possible. Then they preach about it to others and mention its relevance through metaphors or present-day parallels at least a few times per week. When Holocaust movies, TV shows, books come out, they rush to be among the first to consume.
Coates explains that African Americans feel left out of the mostly white narrative that has come to epitomize the mainstream version of Civil War history. And he also blames the rise of the “Lost Cause” – Southerners’ rewriting of the Civil War that whitewashes the slavery element and portrays a nostalgic portrait of Southern plantation life. If you don’t live in the South, or among Southerners, this latter element may be hard to understand. Attending an Ivy League college in the 90s and coming from Los Angeles, I was shocked by the Confederate patriotism of my Southern classmates which extended to displaying Confederate Flags outward facing in windows on the main quadrangles. It was explained that they lamented their lost way of life, and the (implied: unnecessary) loss of American lives, but that made it no less offensive.
Still, I was impressed by Coates’ personal journey as an African American to own this piece of history. And reading his article in The Atlantic, I was again struck by the parallels between the Jews in Europe and the Blacks in the South:
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 sounds a lot like Nazis hunting Jews, and how the Jews rebelled in small ways. It’s almost like the Jews don’t want to forget while blacks don’t want to remember.
Perhaps this is because in the World War II Holocaust story, America is the hero; in the Civil War, Americans are both villains and heroes. Black people have to live here, while many Jews emigrated here from the land in which they were persecuted. It’s easy to hate some place faraway – it’s highly inconvenient, maybe even masochistic to stir the pot at home. No wonder blacks want to move on: a lot of white Americans don’t want to hear about the Civil War and slavery (just like a lot of men don’t want to hear about Women’s Rights). It busts up their fantasy of America, and specifically the South. It makes them feel guilty. But failing to be honest in remembering history, disrespects all those involved. And if we want to own our history, we have to know it, and keep on trying to know it better.