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Kevin Levin takes aim:


There is a blatant double-standard at work here between what we are willing to tolerate from Iott and his Nazi fetish and Civil War reenactors. I've been to a number of living historian events and I've never witnessed an honest and sympathetic portrayal of a discussion of the tough questions of race and slavery. Most of what I've seen focuses on the experience of battle and camp life. And for those that do take on such issues we tend to praise for their honesty and bravery. These rare instances can usually be found at museums and other historical sites. 

Do we really expect reenactors from in Nathan B. Forrest's unit to openly and honestly discuss what happened at Fort Pillow or the men who reenact in regiments that served with Mahone at the Crater? When was the last time you heard a Union soldier discuss his racial attitudes after hearing that African Americans were to be recruited into the United States Army? Even the movie "Glory" needed to bring the racist comments of a few white Union soldiers to a close as the 54th marched through the dunes in preparation for their final assault.

I was in western Tennessee earlier this year. As part of my time there I was with a group looking into the Civil War history in the area. At one of our meal-stops we were greeted by Confederate re-enactors, dressed in full gear, and carrying the battle flag. It's the weirdest thing. I really didn't see many Confederate flags during my time in Tennessee. I think I see way more during my pilgrimages to Maryland's Eastern shore. Maybe I missed them, I don't know.

But the fact that I hadn't seen many flags, made the ones these dudes were toting really stand out. My old friend Eyal Press once told me about visiting an Eastern European country (forgive me I can't remember the name) where they basically just handed Jews over to Hitler. He talked about walking the streets, and how beautiful the city where he was staying was. But thinking on what had happened there just made him sick. And he though, "You know what, I don't want to be here."

This was the only time in my tours of the Old South where I ever felt like that. Dinner was great, and my unconscionably low expectations were confounded when the owner of the establishment came out and talked about eating locally and sustainability. Afterward there was to be a canon demonstration by the reenactors, but my old slave-sense, way down in my bones, suspected much more. I calmly excused myself and went back to working in my hotel room. The next day, I heard that there had been a lecture on the valor of Nathan Forrest and the righteousness of the Confederate cause. 

I actually felt bad, because the tour I was with--most of them Southerners, many of them from Tennessee, and all of them white--were deeply, embarrassed. And I hadn't even heard the speech. Indeed it was so bad that in the town we went to the next day, one of the guides who knew the dude who'd given the speech apologized again. It wasn't one of those, "Sorry if I offended you" deals either. And it wasn't like I'd made an issue of it or demanded an apology. . They were honestly mortified. And the tour dude was straight SCV, and very proud of it.

I truly hope that in my writings about the South, and specifically white people in the South, and more specifically white people in the South with an interest in the Civil War, that I convey the kind of dynamism and complexity at work in all human populations. What Kevin is saying is true. It we're going to tell history, let's tell it. But equally interesting to me, personally, is always these human scenes of watching people grapple with that history.

It's not like I had to lecture the folks on the tour. (That's actually not my style.) In fact, I don't even think I raised it. But they were decent people, trying to be as decent people should be. I think hearing dude's harangue, and my presence in the group, made them uncomfortable in a way that they wouldn't have been if I were not there. I think they still would have known something was wrong, but my presence brought it forth. These were people who were proud of their roots, conservative if I had to guess, but not partisans. 

I do not write to condemn them. Hell, I just watched Breakfast At Tiffany's again two nights ago.

I'll talk more about what I saw on that tour at some point. I'm not used to being the only black person anywhere. It was like walking into another world, one where I was not so much unwelcome, as I was--a black person, who grew up in the city--utterly alien.

It was hot as hell. But I ate well, and I did loved Tennessee. Weirdly enough, I loved listening to the white people there talk. They spoke a beautiful, singing English. The black people did too, if in a different key. But hey, I know my people. And now I've gone and started rambling...
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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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