Virginia

Petersburg.jpg

I. Petersburg

I was slightly mad driving through Virginia last week. The roads around Richmond are littered with markers delineating the regions singular place in American history. It took all I had not to swerve wildly off to the side and read the signs, like this one, every five minutes. To the chagrin of my son and nephew, I was rarely successful. And then there are the roads themselves which, despite being fitted for car traffic, still have that old country aspect. Standing there, you can imagine regiments marching by.

I was in Virginia for a makeshift mini-family reunion. My Pops, brother and sister (they work together in the family business) were there for a conference. My other sister and me decided to crash and bring our respective families. Our residence was American genius--a hotel attached to a water-park. There were pools, chutes and slides everywhere. The basement was an arcade. They served sliders and onion rings across from the main lobby. Kids ran through the floors waving custom-fitted wands, while playing something called Magiquest. This was amazing to me--all my cult hobbies (fantasy, sci-fi, comics, hip-hop) have morphed into big business.

I mostly stayed in my room reading slave narratives and oral histories, and poring over maps of Virginia. Then I'd gather the willing and push my rented minivan through the Wilderness or off to Shirley. I was there for the family dinners, and a breath-taking trip to Wal-Mart. (You have to be a New Yorker to understand why.) But by the end, my sister Kris calling me anti-social, and Kenyatta was tired of standing by the pool, fielding the "Where's Ta-Nehisi" questions.

We arrived before the rest of the fam--Kenyatta, Samori, my nephew Chris and myself. We drove along New Market Road. We got breakfast. Then we headed drove South to see the last stand of the Confederacy.

There were cannons across the park,  markers where batteries once stood, trenches, abatis and mortar. The Petersburg Battlefield gift shop took me for $130, mostly in books, but too, for three McClellan caps. At night in my room, I'd put on my cap while reading, trying to channel the old spirits, but mostly looking silly. We took a car tour through the park. We were the only black people in the group, but Chris and Samori could have cared less. They were full of questions about soldiers and muskets. There was guy in old Confederate grey. When the Park Ranger ordered us to our cars, he said, "What's a car." The group looked around nervously. "It was a joke," he deadpanned.

For me, it was all history through the veil, yet again. I felt robbed of something--like I couldn't see Petersburg, the way I might see Pearl Harbor, that I was more like a Jew surveying the cemetery at Normandy. The group asked questions, mostly concerned with tactics and strategic errors, which the ranger dutifully answered. It was like listening to a doctor discuss with great interest and curiosity, your grandmother's cancerous tumors. This is why I can never be a Civil War buff. I am not fascinated. I am compelled. I would turn away, if I could.

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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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