Virginia

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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.

Our last stop was at the Crater, that great union debacle, where colored troops were fish in a barrel. There were Confederate monuments aplenty, all noting the valor of those fighting, none noting precisely what they were fighting for. I felt the old anger, but only for a few seconds, before a new anger replaced it. Every one of those monuments was paid for by the Sons or Daughters of the Confederacy. There was no monument to the colored troops who died there, and for that I felt blame. The Lost Cause is, to be sure, mythology. And yet I've come to a point of respect for its authors, for their understanding, perverted as it may be, that they must honor their heroes, that they can't wait on others to do it for them. It's a lesson we could take to heart. Half of the battle is correcting their mythology, the other half is honoring our own history.

It's not like we have a shortage of material. Driving back, we were talking about a film we watched in the visitor's center, chronicling the Fall of Petersburg. At the end, the movie's soundtrack becomes a funeral dirge and the narrator menacingly intones, "Appomattox is only a week away."  We started talking about how different that film would have been from the slaves perspective. I told them about my favorite story from the Fall of Richmond, which directly followed the fall of Petersburg.

Colored troops were among the first to march into the city. You have to imagine what this meant. Richmond was, at the time, the capitol of American White Supremacy, the nerve-center of the last truly great slave-society, and the first people to march through, and signal its fall, were black men--some of whom had been slaves in the very city they were marching through. Black women and children, emancipated in an instant, fell out all over the street screaming "Praise the Lord! Praise God!" They believed that judgment had come.

Once inside the city, one of the colored regiment's chaplains explained how he'd been a slave in Richmond as a boy, and had been sold off from his mother. A short time later an old woman comes upon the man, who is talking with some other colored soldiers. She wants to know his name, where he's from, and how he came to the city. After he satisfies all her queries, she looks at him and say, "I am your mother."

We have the material out there. We've got to start honoring it.

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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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