Compassion

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I've been quoting quite a bit from Drew Gilpin Faust's Mothers Of Invention, a history of women in slaveholding families during the Civil War. One reason Faust's writing appeals to me is her ear for primary sources--she's a historian, but there's something of the literary critic in her approach. There's a portion of her book, This Republic Of Suffering, where she quotes a letter in which a soldier refers to the death of a comrade as "awful news." But the soldier misspells "awful" as "auwful" (forgive me I don't have my copy of Suffering handy) and Faust uses "the auwful news" as a kind of synonym for a soldier's death throughout the chapter. What is communicated is that the misspelling means something, that there's a kind of earthly beauty in the plain prose of people, an understanding that is more lived than learned.


That same eye for beauty is on display in Mothers. Last night, I was sitting in the local coffee shop reading a section where a slave-holding woman was trying to come to terms with the death of her husband. Convinced that they would meet in eternity, the woman resolved that she would, from that point forward, "wear this world like a loose garment." The phrase is not original to her, but it's invocation at that moment, having buried her beloved, stopped me cold.

For an African-American like me, the upshot of all this gorgeous writing is bracing--one is forced to behold beauty in those who saw no such beauty in us. Worse, the partisans of Confederate history are quite often necromancers who would defile that beauty with denialism, and Lost Cause hokum. The impulse is toward rage, toward justified fury. The impulse is to view any deft use of the English language, as hypocrisy, as devil-worship concealed beneath garland prose. 

It's an impulse I've felt, myself. I love this picture (it's from the cover of Mothers) because, all at once, I find it beautiful and rage-inducing. The problem with rage is that it's a conversation-stopper, it forecloses all other questions. I am resolved on the nature of the Confederate cause. I would no sooner now debate the primary cause of the Civil War, then I would debate roundness of the Earth. And still in all, I am filled with questions. Chief among them, how does any human being in the 19th century come to endorse mass slaughter for the cause of raising a republic built on slavery?

To answer such a question, it is not enough to understand cause of the Civil War. A debate over the meaning of the Confederate Flag is almost beside the point. You have to remove the cloak of the partisan, and assume the garb of the thespian. Instead of  prosecuting the Confederate perspective, you have to interrogate it, and ultimately assume it. In no small measure, to understand them, you must become them. For me to seriously consider the words of the slave-holder, which is to say the mind of the slave-holder, for me to see them as human beings, as full and as complicated as anyone else I know, a strange transcendence is requested. I am losing my earned, righteous skin. I know that beef is our birthright, that all our grievance is just.  But for want of seeing more, I am compelled to let it go.

More than any other book, Mothers has confronted me with the hard work of compassion. It is Du Bois again, like loving Mencken, like saluting the technological genius of Birth Of A Nation, like loving all those black and white movies that did not love you. To understand, to get it, black people must, if only for the moment, get out of ourselves and see the world through the eyes of our tormentors.

Having seen some of that, I have come to see that our tormentors had tormentors, that the slave-holding woman was trapped by hoop-skirts and convention, that the man was trapped by lineage and human folly. The point of it all is not to clean anyone, is not exoneration. The point is a deeper level of knowing. The most powerful piece of art I've ever seen on the slave trade is Robert Hayden's "Middle Passage." The poem is mostly free of didactic condemnation, and almost entirely told in the voice of the slavers. And yet in what it doesn't say, in its willingness to cross over, it says so much. 

In this society, we view compassion as a favor, something along the lines of forgiveness extended to the humble and deserving. No. My compassion is utterly selfish, and is rooted in a craving for power. It is compelled by my curiosity, itself, just another name for hunger, for desire, for want of the great power of knowing. It is not enough for me to sit around scoring morality points on dead people, all the while blind to the living morality of this troubled time. There's no power in that. I need to know more.
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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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