History Through The Veil

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We watch a lot of old movies in this house. It's an odd thing--you're watching these people live these lives in these places, and yet you know that, as a black person, they would have most likely thought of you as subhuman. It's something to watch The Heiress, and know that in both the time it was filmed, and the time it takes place, you were a less-than. Half of me is watching Marlene Dietrich Barbara Stanwyck scheme her way through Double Indemnity, the other half is wondering how big of racist she was.

Dave Chapelle has that great bit where he goes back in time with a white guy and sees Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence, and when he finishes he looks at Chappelle and says, "Get me a sandwich, nigger!" I remember watching George Will talk about "the mood of Americans" in the 1950s, and being seized by the notion that he wasn't talking about the "mood" of a single person I would have known in 1950. We exist in this country's history--and then we don't.

When I watched Ken Burns' The Civil War, I remember feeling like the doc had a Southern slant, because he seemed caught up in the romance of the war. The whole time I'm getting that, and yet trying to put myself in that time--but in that time, I am property, or something in between. Nothing romantic there.

Now, I'm about halfway through Battle Cry Of Freedom, and it has to be said that the Confederate cats have a kind of swagger to them, that the Union guys can't match. Maybe it's just the notion of the rebel, but Lee, Forrest and Jackson seem to carry so much more with them than McClellan, Burnside or even Grant. They have that old European notion of feudalism and chivalry working for them. It's a mask, of course, but a very effective one. Maybe this is just how American history is told. But I don't find Battle Cry to be slanted in the least.

I am getting some sense of what Southerners mean when they say "It wasn't about racism." It was not. But it was inextricably linked to white supremacy. The most revealing section on race in the book is this part where a Southerner is defending slavery and basically says that by giving the South a class of servants bound for life, all white people get to be aristocrats. Even white people who don't own slaves, get to be larger than somebody. I think that's what they lost--the right to aristocracy, whether you were born in a one room shack or not.

The whole epoch is disorienting. Lee was, by most accounts, opposed to slavery, and fought for the South because he couldn't countenance turning against his home state. And yet when marching to Gettysburg he enslaved free blacks, and had them sold South. I can not read about the Confederacy, the way I'd read about the aristocrats in the French Revolution. I can't get drawn in by the daring of Forrest's raids, or Lee's genius. Stonewall Jackson has the coldest, most determined eyes I've ever seen. And yet we know what they were set on. I can't go all the way in. I can't get out of my own damn skin.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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