Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Civil War
Ta-Nehisi Coates believes persons of color ought to take ownership of the Civil War. This is a noble sentiment, a cause he might take on himself, had he more of the scholarly chops to do so and less propensity to biting the long-dead asses of William Faulkner and Woodrow Wilson.
Charitably, let’s start with where he’s right. All this Black History Month hagiography is unctuous twaddle. Ensconced in his cardboard frame and hung from the ikonostasis of the classroom wall, Charles Drew has nothing to teach little kiddies who haven’t yet mastered blood typing and the history of histology.
The real story of Charles Drew, the one which ought to be taught to all children, begins in Dunbar High School, a mighty factory of talent which produced many amazing individuals in an era of vicious segregation. Dunbar High was a magnet for every ambitious black family. Anna Julia Cooper, once the principal of M Street School, later to be called Dunbar High, was a slave from Raleigh North Carolina who eventually got her PhD at the Sorbonne, an important feminist who said educated black women would improve the tenor of black society, a lesson still worth teaching.
Charles Drew wasn’t a totem. Once he was just a kid in a remarkable high school, highly motivated to succeed by highly motivated teachers. History is just yesterday’s newspaper. Black history is being made today. Somewhere, in a run-down high school lab, there’s a girl looking into an old microscope, fascinated by a paramecium swimming in a film of pond water under the cover slip of a clear glass slide. She is the true legate of Anna Julia Cooper and she will go on to become a superb geneticist. How did Faulkner put it? “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
Ta Nehisi, if you’re reading this, try not to use the phrase “of course” anymore. Every time you find it in your prose, just substitute “dumbass” for “of course”, then delete it.
Who is this “our” and “us” of which you speak, “our general sense of the war”, “getting us free”, hmmm? The Irish came here as indentured servants. I have a large sign from the era “No Irish Need Apply” which I bought in New York City. They were property, too. Nobody seems to remember their legacy of servitude, or the horrors visited on them by the previous generations of Irish immigrants. They were called Black Irish, they were hated and they served in the American Civil War in great numbers, in segregated units. When the Civil War was over, they went back to their lives, manipulated and abused by Boss Tweed and Slippery Dick Connolly and Tammany Hall.
The North was every bit as complicit in the subjugation and abuse of black people as the South. It just took different forms. Didn’t Dr. King call Cicero Illinois the “Selma of the North” ? If the cruelty of black slavery is attenuated in the Gilded Age, well, black people weren’t the only folks being exploited and installed on the Other Side of the Tracks. The goal of the Union’s attempts to reunite the country by force was to preserve itself and its own vile modus vivendi.
Let the history of the labor unions in this country show just how vile it became, cases in point the Knights of Labor and the National Labor Union movements, including the Colored National Labor Union. There’s that icon Frederick Douglass again, peering out from his little cardboard frame in your sixth grade classroom, with Isaac Myers alongside him. You grew up in Baltimore, Douglass-Myers Maritime Park is right down there on the waterfront. Thank those National Labor Union guys for the eight hour workday, they’re the movements that gave it to us.
Yes, the labor unions had their own racist problems, but the problems facing the immigrant and the ex-slave were the same then and now. Had black culture embraced the message of Marcus Garvey and not the simpering George Washington Carver, gathering together in the face of persecution as had all the other immigrants to this country, cultivating economic and political power within their own ranks, this country would have been a very different place.
I don’t propose to defend the historians who gloss over the cruel arrogance of the Confederacy. If Robert E. Lee has been turned into a limestone saint and planted in front of the courthouses of every fifth county in Virginia, let us be careful the heroes of the Civil Rights struggle are not similarly reduced to caricatures, riding up with Elijah in the chariot of fire beyond the ken of mortal man. The well-meaning morons who carved Dr. King’s statue can’t even quote the man correctly. Black culture in the North had its own problems with looking down its nose at the freed blacks of the South. The premise of the North was the same as the South: exploiting the immigrant and the powerless. Chattel slavery would have done just as well in the North, had cotton and sugar cane grown at those latitudes. If the Civil War is to teach us anything, Reconstruction has more to teach us, lessons we haven’t learned to this day, lessons Faulkner taught us in dark parables of human misery and faded glory.
Memory believes before knowing remembers. That’s Faulkner. Let’s get real here, the message of Dr. King has failed. America will never be color blind. At best it will be color neutral. While Ta Nehisi Coates feels the Civil War is something black people never embraced, they never embraced their own heroes while those heroes were yet alive.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.