Is Civil War history just for white people? In reading the brilliant essay written on the subject by Ta-Nehisi Coates–one in which I urge all of you to read–the thought seemed illogical. After all, it is the crux of the American experience. The battle for individualism and freedom speaks to the heart of man, and that is a struggle black people are intimately familiar with. It seemed illogical until you delve more deeply. The war was and is a testament to the true tenet of democracy–the struggle for life and humanity.
Many people of my generation believe in the basic fact of the war: the north won and the south lost. Northern gladiators beat back the wretched insurgency of southern greed and inhumanity. But revisionism is showing itself as the true arbiter of debate. Consider this quote from Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy in his famous Cornerstone speech in Savannah, Georgia:
“Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
American history does not exist in a vacuum, and no amount of qualifying can ever cleanse the plate of many deeds of the past. They are deeds perpetrated by those clearly looking to create a broad design, to allow one group of people some form of inclusively for the actions of their forebears.
Stephens’ speech foreshadowed a new thought within the minds of many confederates and their descendants. The idea that somehow the aggrieved had become the vilified in a war perpetrated by those loathe to see southern states lose their most precious commodity. The War of Northern aggression, as its been dubbed, sees the north as uncivilized encroachers to Southern hegemony. The new, twisted take on an old war. To many Americans, black and white, it is an offensive white washing, and it does not reflect the quantitative and calculated destruction of black life. An example from Coates’ essay:
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.
It’s no wonder many blacks might reject the history of the Civil War. It’s understandable that many modern southern whites engage in fantastical reinterpretations of their War of Northern aggression. To truly comprehend the horror and degradation of the war is to accept the horrors of man’s inhumanity toward man. It is to accept that our forefathers–those deified in modern society–willingly broke their own vows and pronouncements, and willingly accepted the subjugation of man. There aren’t many who have the stomach for such straight talk.
Black History–indeed American history–should be about straight talk. History should be colored. it should be accepted, as painful, intrusive, and stark has it may be.