These Are the Last Days of U.S. Grant

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I finished Grant's memoir yesterday. I am deeply sad. Let us not indulge in hagiography. Grant is problematic, as all humans are problematic. In the final pages he at once endorses full citizenship for African-Americans, and emigration of blacks to an annexed Santo Domingo. The temptation is to set up a chart and attempt to resolve this matter--U.S. Grant, racist or racial progressive? 


I am so very tired, of this argument. There are those manipulate history to bleach the Civil War, who would sanitize all the unpleasantness until we are left with an unfortunate family feud in which there was no right or wrong. This is history marshaled for a kind of nationalist faith-healing. My thoughts on the apostles of comfortable narrative are a matter of public record. In my care, the spiritualists have been handled roughly. Let that be continuously.

But I am ultimately self-regarding and thus mostly concerned with my own process. I have lived as someone whose main use for history consisted of establishing a self-confirming identity and pressing collective grievance. At all events, a preening moralism and a need for validation by this longest story has guided me. 

My good friend Jelani Cobb says that his guiding premise when talking about African-Americans is as follows--"All things considered, black people are doing OK." Having accepted that premise myself, and I am no longer willing to concede that black humanity--or anyone's humanity--is up for debate. We do not need the approval of discomfited intellectuals, or even history itself. We are...

Having, to my own selfish satisfaction, dispensed with that question, I look forward to moving on to others. Here is the third to the last paragraph of Grant's memoir:

I feel that we are on the eve of a new era, when there is to be great harmony between the Federal and Confederate. I cannot stay to be a living witness to the correctness of this prophecy; but I feel it within me that it is to be so. The universally kind feeling expressed for me at a time when it was supposed that each day would prove my last, seemed to me the beginning of the answer to "Let us have peace."

For those who don't know the story, a year before his death, Grant, and his family, were broke. He had been diagnosed with throat cancer, and thus was faced, not simply with death, but with the possibility of leaving his family destitute. In hopes, of restoring his family's finances Grant struck a deal with his friend Mark Twain to publish his memoirs. Raging against death, Grant wrote the two-volume work, conscious that if he did not finish, he would leave his family ruined. Five days after writing the above words, Grant was dead. His memoirs were a marvelous success and his family was saved.

I knew, throughout the book, that Grant was dying of throat-cancer while writing. Toward the very end (when this picture was taken) he could no longer talk and was in constant pain. Knowing that, death is always in the background for the reader. But having Grant acknowledge death is breath-taking. There is so much there--a twice elected leader of the most advanced nation in history. A tanner's son, failing at so much, turned savior of his country. A slave-holder turned mass emancipator. The warrior  transformed into a warrior-poet, and to the last embracing the hare-brained scheme of black emigration.

It's all just too much. I am a black man, and God only knows what Grant would have made of me in that time, or in this one. I asked myself that question so many times while reading that I made myself ill. I don't care to ever hear it again. Grant is splendid to me, and I am sick of keeping score.

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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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