Commemorating CHM: "They Too Needed Emancipation"

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I think I mentioned this before, but I had a great history professor back at Howard who used to really just bring the wood to those of us on the hardcore black nationalist tip. I mean, it really felt like she was literally mocking us. But she was a black woman, working at black school, who'd spent her adult life studying African history. We couldn't write her off. We had to respect what she was saying. 

It was an immensely painful process, and at the end of one of our semesters together (a course in Central Africa, maybe. A lot of the Kongo and Ndebele) she said to us, "Now, explain to me why Africans are not inferior to Europeans." I think I would have rather been called nigger 100 times by David Duke, then have to seriously grapple with that.  I left class and I just wanted to cry.

But what became clear was that she wasn't simply asking a question, she was asking us to question the question. She was pushing us toward a more humanist understanding of history, and away from a sense that awesome books and great walls and repeating guns are all that matter. She gave us the facts--the Kongo as this rich, diversified society, Nzingha as this 
great stateswoman trying to play the Dutch against the Portuguese. But there was no chivalric sheen to it. We had come in with our "Great Kings and Queens" narrative, as armor  against Western chauvanism. Her response was that we should question the entire frame, as opposed to changing the characters, because 1.) It did not reflect history. 2.) It accepted the faulty premises of adversaries, that accidents of history and geography have some specific, intrinsic--and ultimately---biological significance.


It was a painful, painful process. But it was essential. I emerged proud as ever to be black, but in a different, much less defensive much confident more, way. I think for black folks like me, those of us who wanted to be able to venture into the intellectual spaces of the country, this was something we had to go through, lest, as I said earlier, we be laughed out of the room. We did have the option of taking that laughter as some sort of badge ("See brother, the white man's scared of this knowledge right here!") but that would have limited us. To paraphrase Barack, we wanted to be rooted in the black experience--home is essential--but we didn't want to be limited by it.

I say all of this as a way of noting the many e-mails I've received from white Southerners, who also regard home as essential. Many of them are descendants of Confederate soldiers, and they now find themselves forced to seriously and honestly grapple with history. I've spent some time attacking that aspect of the South that claims the Lost Cause, but I think it's important to also acknowledge the Seekers, and extend some understanding to the difficult work of, as I've said, reconciling ourselves to the past.

Subbing in myth for history is a false armor to guard against the hurt--and yet somewhere inside the hurt still throbs. Some of us fear admitting what the Confederacy was about, because we don't want to cede the moral high ground to a bunch of Northern elitists. But why? Was the North really more moral than the South? Did the South embrace a slave society because there's something intrinsically evil about living below the Mason-Dixon line? I don't think any people should fear their history, so much as they should fear their ignorance of history. Don't fear the past that led to the assassination of Lincoln, fear the present that leads you to fly the flag embraced by his killers. True the hurt is in what happened, but the shame is in the pretense that it didn't.

Haley Barbour may well represent some uncomfortably large swath of Mississippi. But it's important to not give these things too much power, and concede him the whole of the state. It's important that I acknowledge all the people who've written me to say that they too are seeking, that they too needed emancipation. It is a torturous, grinding process. But there are so many jewels there. Go right at the pain. Swim toward the hurt.
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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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