In The Name Of White Divinity

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It recently occurred to me that in order to really understand the Civil War, and the people living in that era, I would need some familiarity with the Bible. I know as much about as much about the Bible as I know about opera, car engines, and construction. But I can't see myself really understanding the era, without an, at least basic, understanding of the Word.

I finished my fourth daily reading this morning, and what I'm left with is the incredible stupidity of  converting slaves to Christianity. Stupidity is too strong a word--but you can see the racism implicit in the notion of conversion, the presumption that the slaves, themselves, would not interpret the religion in their own way, that they would not, themselves, await God's winnowing fork, and then see it in this late unpleasantness.

I've been thinking on this verse:

For in vain is a net spread
 in the sight of any bird,
but these men lie in wait for
 their own blood;
they set an ambush for their
 own lives.

That brings so much to mind--Niebuhr, Bacevich, and probably over the years, as I get caught up, much, much more. But for the moment it brings to mind the South. You can read those lines all kinds of ways. I am the son the slaves, and so when I hear that think about the vanity of spreading a net in the sight of birds, I think about what Robert Hayden calls the "deep, immortal, human wish\the timeless will." I think about the ultimate vanity and ultimate futility of slavery.

What occurs to me is that some time around the early 19th, late 18th century, a portion of this country decided to make themselves into Gods. They were not the first. And they aren't the last. But I can't get past the simple thrill, the utter charge man gets from dominating man. Southerners referred to white supremacy not just in economic terms, but as a lifestyle. Slavery did not just mean the right to exploit another man's labor, it meant utter and complete dominion over him, his wives, his children and all of his friends.

You could end his life in all manner of ways. Kill him, then take his woman as your own. Sell him, then take his woman and his daughters as your own. Keep him there, and do the same. It oversimplifies things to say, their would be no repercussions--but no one could stop you. In your own eyes, by birth-right, you would be Godkin. And even if you were born with no slaves--as Nathan Bedford Forrest was--you could have rights reserved to you, that mortals did not.

In Bruce Levine's stellar Confederate Emancipation he discusses the thinking behind Jeff Davis, Patrick Cleburne and Robert E. Lee, when they were considering arming slaves to fight. Modern Lost Causers, who mostly see blacks as "black confederates" as jewels in their tainted crowns, see this decision as evidence that the war wasn't about slavery. Their right. It was about white supremacy. And even as Cleburne is telling Davis to emancipate and arm the slaves, he's also telling him that the South can define what, precisely, "emancipate" means.

In fact Cleburne, Davis and Lee were progressive white supremacists. It's important to say this. I think, by our standards, many of the white people we venerate were racists. But many of them were not white supremacists, people who believed that their own status was deeply defendant on the subjugation of black people. From Levine's book:

"If the Yankees succceed in abolishing slavery," Cleburne reasoned. "equality and amalgamation will finally take place." But "if we take this step now, we can mould the relations for all time to come, between the white and colored races." And in that case "we can control the negroes, and...they will still be our servants, at less cost than now."

That passage's prophetic implications chilled me. It is more devastating than any Willie Lynch mythology. They are the words of a forward-thinking bigot, and the seeds of all the evil that overtook black people in this country for the following hundred years.

 But the fact remains that they were still spreading their nets to catch the bird, they ultimately were lying in wait for their own blood. This is what comes to mind when you think of Southern states, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, defunding public schools for fear of black people getting a slice. I'm thinking of last few scenes from Chris Claremont's Inferno saga, where Jean Grey tries to save Madeline--who is her likeness--and Madeline says she'd rather die, then live in the same world as Jean.

It makes sense when you think on the deep promise of white supremacy. Black equality is the promise of mortality for everyone. I ask it again, what are you in a world where a black man is president? Who knows what depths a man might go to cling to those last vestiges of Godhood? He would claim Obama's Muslim. He would claim he isn't a citizen. He would claim that Obama was not "really black" or not black in the "usual way." Anything to differentiate themselves from the teeming masses, anything to get away from he undying fact that in the hearts of all men, there is a Harlem.

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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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