Nathan Bedford Forrest Has Beautiful Eyes

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Of the many reckonings that black people of honest political consciousness must endure, the appointment with black slavery is the most agonizing. I don't mean the appointment with the notion of white people as the enslavers of our ancestors, but the appointment with our African ancestors as brokers.

I think, when you're in your intellectual infancy, myth keeps your sane. When I was young I believed, like a lot of us at that time, that my people had been kidnapped out of Africa by malicious racist whites. Said whites then turned and subjugated and colonized the cradle of all men. It was a comforting thought which placed me and mine at the center of a grand heroic odyssey. We were deposed kings and queens robbed of our rightful throne by acquisitive merchants of human flesh. By that measures we were not victims, but deposed nobles--in fact and in spirit.

I don't propose that blacks are alone in our myth-making, or in our desire to ennoble ourselves. But given the power dynamics of this society, we're the ones who can afford the comforts of myth the least. This is doubly true for those of us who are curious about the broader world. By the time I came to Howard University, I was beginning the painful process of breaking away from the "oppression as nobility" formula. But the clincher was sitting in my Black Diaspora I class and learning that the theory of white kidnappers was not merely myth--but, on the whole, impossible because disease (Tse-Tse fly maybe?) kept most whites  from penetrating beyond the coasts until the 19th century.

A few years later I read (like many of you, no doubt) Guns, Germs and Steel and was, again, heartbroken. Here was a book with no use for nobility, but concerned with two categories--winners and losers. And I was the progeny of the losing team. I was not cheated of anything. I had simply lost.

This was heart-breaking, in the existential sense. What was I, if not noble? What was the cosmic justice at work that put me here, that made me second? Slowly, by that line of questioning, I came to understand that there really was no cosmic justice, that I should just be happy to be alive. Moreover the truth--Harriet Tubman and Ida Wells--was sustenance enough. Finally I learned to actually like that old pain, that feeling of something inside me, deeply-held, falling away. It was not the end of me, just the burn of good, refining, moral and intellectual, work-out.

As I've said, I finished McPherson's Battle Cry Of Freedom today. It deserves its own post, but I want to focus on one aspect the book handles particularly well--the South's psychological need to turn defeat into nobility. I don't mean defeat in the war, so much as I meanlagging behind the North, economically, and due to slavery, lagging behind virtually the entire world, morally.

I've actually long overlooked that last point by noting to myself that virtually all societies practiced slavery. But in the 1850s, the South was only bested in the scale of its slavery, by Russian serfdom. Thus this country was not merely a moral offender among many, but a moral offender on a grand scale, plying its trade at a point when much of the rest of the world had moved forward.

It is one thing to be judged immoral. But to be judged immoral and backward, at the same time, to be both debauched, and yet in your debauchery, still be a loser, is deeply painful. It was not bad enought that my people had been enslaved, but the fact that we were first enslaved by people who looked like me robbed us of any moral high ground.

The South long evaded that painful reality, and when confronted with it, simply lied. Thus pre-War Jefferson Davis is arguing that the fight is over slavery and white Supremacy. Post-war he's claiming it was about the sovereignty of states. To this day, 150 years later, you find people parroting this lie.

Nathan Bedford Forrest (pictured above) is beautiful. Again, dig those steely eyes, that dead serious countenance, the warrior's beard. His story is American--the dirt poor son of a blacksmith who becomes a millionaire. But he's noble too, and volunteers to fight for his home state of glorious Tennessee. With no military training, he rises to the rank of Lieutenant General, giving the Union hell the whole time.

Forrest is the model of Southern chivalry--too much so. He made his money buying and selling people like me, and when the war started he dutifully enforced the Confederate policy of giving no quarter to black soldiers. At Fort Pillow he massacred black soldiers trying to surrender, and afterward went on to found the Ku Klux Klan. Tennessee is dotted with monuments, not simply to the generals of the Confederacy, but to the first Grand Wizard of the KKK (Forrest).  To this day, you can find people who deny his role in Fort Pillow and in the KKK.

At the end of his book, McPherson has a section where the Confederacy, now desperate, considers raising regiments of black slaves to fight for them. For years, now, they've seen black soldiers--many of them their own ex-slaves--actively contributing to the South's demise. But faced with the prospect of doing the same, Lee and Davis are ensnared by the very lies that they've, until now, heartily embraced. Conceding that blacks could be soldiers, would be a tacit admission of their equality. As Southerner Howell Cobb puts it, "If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong." The South eventually raises two black regiments, but the Confederacy is defeated before any of them see action. And yet, in this section, you can see them trying to square the circle, trying to find another lie that will allow the lie of white supremacy to stand.

I imagine for a kid coming up in these times, in certain sectors of the South, it's painful to face up to Nathan Forrest, to the notion that the pomp and glamour, all the talk of honor and independence was, at the end of the day, dependent on slavery. The Lost Cause isn't just "lost," it's barely a cause.

The temptation to continue to lie, to see yourself as the victim in a grand play is formidable--consider Lindsay Graham chafing at the constraints of whiteness, while Sonia Sotamayor evidently swims in a free world of color. But I suspect that some manner of change is coming, that we are reaching point when witlessly honoring the founder of the greatest perpetrator of domestic terrorism in American history, when flying that sorry order's battle flag, becomes embarrassing. Sooner or later, I think the South will understand that the ideology of "noble victimhood" is a luxury it too can ill-afford. Some will hold out, I am sure. But sooner or later, I think most of the South will be black like me.

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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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