'The Very Spot Where the First Sons of Africa Were Landed'

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I was talking earlier today with Kenyatta about the new Arcade Fire album, and how I couldn't relate to much of it, literally.  Instead it made sense to me metaphorically. I only have a vague sense of the kind of angst that some people feel about growing up in the suburbs. When I was a kid, the suburbs were where black people escaped to, not from. The notion that anyone would want to escape from, say, Columbia, Maryland, was mind-boggling to me.


But Kenyatta's spent significant time in the suburbs, and relates in a more literal way. In that sense it's like the street talk in hip-hop for us. I thought Illmatic captured something essential about being a young black male in urban America during the late '80s and early '90s. Kenyatta likes the album, but relates to in a more metaphorical way&mdashagain the feelings of angst expressed in the album translate across geography.

There's a tendency, among people like me, to dismiss suburban angst as the province of rich white, or black, people who don't know how good they had it. But as I've studied this Civil War stuff, I've found that kind of righteous absolutism may make you feel good, but it doesn't actually tell you much about what it's like to experience the world in another person's shoes.

As I said Wednesday, this becomes a real challenge when you're trying to understand the perspective of the enslaved--or even the enslavers. The immediate reaction of a black person, raised in a post-Malcolm X world, is to bristle at the idea of Lincoln--or even more so Sherman--being embraced as a savior. Someone wrote me yesterday about how sad he felt when reading that, after Buchanan was elected, a lot of slaves thought freedom was coming. Or, in a similar vein, when discussing slave rebellions there's often a tendency to feel bad because they presumably made conditions worse for other slaves.

But one thing I've had to do understand this era is, as I've said before, lose my righteous skin. That means starting with a different set of assumptions, and thus asking a different set of questions. Assuming, for instance, that the enslaved blacks were human, like me, it really seems useless to ask, "How stupid are you to believe that Sherman was your savior?" (I know it's not said like that, but that really is what underlies much of my alleged "sympathy.") A better question seems to be "Why would I--in 1865--believe Sherman to be my savior? What kind of world would that be? What does that belief tell me about the times?"  This approach has limits, but it has less limits then one which proceeds from the assumption of superior intellect.

One important thing that's come to me from looking at the past in that way, is that 1860-1865 has to be the most mystical era in American history. Things were constantly changing—slaves getting free, then being re-enslaved, free people enslaved, white Northerners headed down South and seeing, with their own eyes, the horror that built Southern society. 


Here's an excerpt from a letter written by a black sergeant which captures some of that feeling:

Camp of the 1st U.S. Colored Troops, 
Wilson's landing, Charles City Co., 
May 10th 1864. 

Mr. Editor: 

You are aware that Wilson's Landing is on the James river, a few miles above Jamestown, the very spot where the first sons of Africa were landed, in the year 1620, if my memory serves me right, and from that day up to the breaking out of the rebellion, was looked upon as an inferior race by all civilized nations. 

But behold what has been revealed in the past three or four years; why the colored men have ascended upon a platform of equality, and the slave can now apply the lash to the tender flesh of his master, for this day I am now an eye witness of the fact. The country being principally inhabited by wealthy farmers, there are a great many men in the regiment who are refugees from this place. 

While out on a foraging expedition we captured Mr. Clayton, a noted reb in this part of the country, and from his appearance, one of the F.F.V's; on the day before we captured several colored women that belonged to Mr. C., who had given them a most unmerciful whipping previous to their departure. 

On the arrival of Mr. C. in camp, the commanding officer determined to let the women have their revenge, and ordered Mr. C. to be tied to a tree in front of headquarters, and William Harris, a soldier in our regiment, and a member of Co. E, who was acquainted with the gentleman, and who used to belong to him, was called upon to undress him, and introduce him to the ladies I mentioned before. Mr. Harris played his part conspicuously, bringing the blood from his loins at every stroke, and not forgetting to remind the gentleman of days gone by. 

After giving him some fifteen or twenty well-directed strokes, the ladies, one after another, came up and gave him a like number, to remind him that they were no longer his, but safely housed in Abraham's bosom, and under the protection of the Star Spangled Banner, and guarded by their own patriotic, though once down-trodden race. 

Oh, that I had the tongue to express my feelings while standing upon the banks of the James river, on the soil of Virginia, the mother state of slavery, as a witness of such a sudden reverse! The day is clear, the fields of grain are beautiful and the birds are singing sweet melodious songs, while poor Mr. C. is crying to his servants for mercy. Let all who sympathize for the South take this narrative for a mirror. 

 Yours Truly, 
 G.W.H.

To have been a slave, and then to see this sort of reversal, in a time and place where so little seemed to change, must have defied all logic. On some level, when trying to hold on to your humanity amid the degradation of slavery, logic has to fail. I think that must, at least partially, explain why slaves took so readily to religion. The known world said they'd been slaves for a quarter millenia, and would always be so. Any hope of freedom rest on the unknown world, rests on faith. 

In that narrative, Abraham Lincoln was the deliver. Here was the man who made liberation a part of the policy of the Union Army, who armed black men in that war—an unthinkable prospect in the years before. I don't know what there is to be gained from turning up one's nose at that narrative, or pitying people for their unrealized dreams. I'm not sure we have any right to pity. 
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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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