African-Americans and Studying the Civil War

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a phenomenal piece in The Atlantic’s Civil War commemorative issue, and he laments that so few blacks are students of the Civil War, noting that it was “their” war.

And for black people, there is this—the burden of taking ownership of the Civil War as Our War. During my trips to battlefields, the near-total absence of African American visitors has been striking. Confronted with the realization that the Civil War is the genesis of modern America, in general, and of modern black America, in particular, we cannot just implore the Park Service and the custodians of history to do more outreach—we have to become custodians ourselves.

I’ve noticed this too — as both a Civil War historian and a student of the development of post-Reconstruction racism. But it doesn’t surprise me considering the continued dominance of the Lost Cause mythology and how, for more than a century, the Civil War was the centerpiece for white resentment of black people.

Coates observed how Gettysburg, in particular, is attempting to erase the mythology by rightfully putting slavery front-and-center in its visitor center presentations (the slavery film is both stirring and completely accurate). The other oddity about Gettysburg is the prevalence of middle-aged men — mostly right-wing — walking around in Confederate garb and sporting Dixie flags. I don’t imagine it’s entirely appetizing for a black family to venture into O’Rorke’s on Steinwehr and observe an entire company of rebel reenactors eating burgers and drinking beer, talking about how their ancestors could have won the battle and ultimately the war (thus preserving slavery) by redeploying south of the Union lines. Incidentally, Newt Gingrich wrote a book in which he fantasizes about such a maneuver.

Anyway.

That said, one of the most moving several minutes I ever spent at Gettysburg was during a Gettysburg Address “Remembrance Day” event when I observed thousands of reenactors — blue and gray alike — cheering the 54th Massachusetts African-American reenactor unit as it marched by in formation. I’ll never forget that.

Read the Coates piece. You’ll be glad you did.

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  • trgahan

    As we have all seen and pointed out, the public debate has swung toward the “How Great was the Lost Cause?” version of the Civil War. Discussing the experience of African Americans during the war is either dismissed or considered revisionism. Hell, even trying to detail the experience of the Northern Army is difficult unless you depict them as a bunch of immigrant mercenaries forced to fight against people they agreed with and show how racist the northern troops were too.
    Unfortunately, in the “public square debates” of American History a minority scholar (whether black, female, homosexual, etc.) is too frequently painted as a “radical” before they even open their mouths. We seem to still have a “How dare they try to tell us our history!” attitude. So I can understand the lack of enthusiasm for anyone to head down that road.

  • ThoseNerds

    As black man in his 30s I have about the same level of interest in going to Gettysburg as I do hanging out on Liberty Island. I don’t pretend to speak for all black people but the general sentiment I imagine is, why would I want to celebrate a time when my people were used a property and fodder in a war over power by people who generally didn’t see us as human beings. I have had many white people ask me if I have ever been to Gettysburg and they just can’t understand why. I get the level of ignorance, but really people would rather celebrate their successes not the oppression. There is a reason why we celebrate Harriet Tubman, MLK, Malcolm X, etc and not “joe the slave.”

    Just some perspective.

    • http://www.politicalruminations.com/ nicole

      Read Ta-Nehisi’s piece. You won’t be sorry.

  • dildenusa

    Excellent post Bob. Mr. Coates also did an interview on NPR’s Morning edition today.
    http://www.npr.org/2011/12/08/143291199/black-scholar-of-the-civil-war-asks-whos-with-me

    Even though I am a 3rd generation immgrant from eastern Europe, as an American I believe we are not taught enough in schools about the American Civil War and it’s impact across time. Trying to dance around the issue of slavery as the cause only gets us tangled up in knots. To me it seems to be a case of the wealthy southern landowners and politicians, over reaching by trying to spread their false reality of white supremacy into the expanding US territories between 1800 and 1860.

    I see parallels with the tea party republics today attempting to spread their false reality of discredited Ayn Randian philosophy. The path the tea party republics have taken is nothing but a U Turn back to the false premise of white supremacy under the guise of free enterprise and free market economics.

  • http://www.politicalruminations.com/ nicole

    Thanks for this, Bob.

  • jjasonham

    This is a very powerful piece, Bob. Thanks for linking it. I also had no idea about the Fort Pillow Massacre.

  • MrDHalen

    Powerful piece. Reading someone’s writing can be one of the most enjoyable human experiences I can think of.