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In response to my recent Civil War piece for the magazine there's been a some criticism around its implications toward black scholars of the Civil War. You can get some sample of this from the house blog for The African-American Civil War Memorial:
On National Public Radio (NPR) recently, the black writer that The Atlantic selected to explain why so few blacks study the Civil War declared that African Americans, at least to his knowledge, have no Civil War monuments. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist and senior editor with The Atlantic turned Civil War buff, was certainly feigning ignorance. As a Howard University student in the 1990s, he surely witnessed the construction of the African American Civil War Memorial a few blocks from his campus. Indeed, a little over a year ago he interviewed Frank Smith Jr., the director of the foundation that built the memorial. Why did Coates feign ignorance of the African American Civil War Memorial in front of a national audience? Did he really not remember the bronze statue named the Spirit of Freedom located on U Street in Washington, DC since 1998 and the Wall of Honor behind it with the names of over 200,000 Civil War freedom fighters of African descent...There is a trend here, the failure to recognize what African American scholars have been doing, that leads to a third failure that belongs solely to Coates. He fails to recognize the African Americans who have been "moving from protest to production, the burden of summoning our own departed hands, so that they, too, may leave a mark." If a young black writer with a national audience ignores the work of those leaving that "mark," then the problem is the education the young black writer turned Civil War buff failed to get and not the "titans of American history." Indeed the titans of African American history recognized the contributions of African Americans in the Civil War and established a scholarly foundation on which we have built a memorial and a museum...
Coates is a gifted writer, but his scholarship on the Civil War is sophomoric. And if indeed he was exposed to the works of W. E. B. DuBois and Benjamin Quarles, and it is likely his father (founder of Black Classic Press) has republished some of their works, his lack of knowledge on what African Americans have been writing on this subject and doing to tell their story is appalling...With the national attention garnered from NPR and The Atlantic, it would do our community, his community, great service if Coates became familiar with the work of the museum and the aforementioned African American scholars. He can begin by reviewing his own notes and videotape from his 2010 interview of the museum's founding director Frank Smith Jr. To jog his memory, he can pay us a visit at our new site across the street from the African American Civil War Memorial. We've been getting visits from a lot of Civil War buffs who want to learn more about the African American experience in the Civil War.
I think, reviewing the piece there is a substantive critique which deserves to be addressed. My answer is as follows--I would have done well to at least mention the role African-American historians have played in consistently standing for an honest interpretation of the Civil War. I think when you title an article "Why Do So Few Blacks Study The Civil War" you run the risk of slighting black people who've been doing exactly that since the time you were obsessed with Biggie and Nas. I don't know that I would change the headline. But I certainly would have written more about what black people have done throughout history, and continue to do today, to preserve the history. I apologize for that omission.
This omission was exacerbated when I went on NPR last week and made the following point which the writer references:
But as a tour guide once told me at Gettysburg, you could sit there for hours and you could count on one hand the number of African-Americans that come into the battle part. This is Gettysburg. I mean, this is the seminal battle in, you know, what made freedom real for this country, and yet very few African-Americans come in to visit. When you tour the battle park and you look at the monuments, they're dotted with monuments to the Confederate dead. I'm sure there's one somewhere, but I've never seen a monument to any of the colored troops who fought in the Civil War. I went down to Petersburg and saw the famous Battle of the Crater, which is getting a lot of attention now in Newt Gingrich's new novel. There's no monument to the African-American soldiers who died there. So at some point I really, really believe that we have to claim the history for ourselves and do part of that ourselves.
In my mind, I was specifically referencing monuments at battle-parks. Nevertheless, that ("I've never seen a monument...") without the surrounding contexts looks like an absolute claim, and that's how it's occurred for a significant number of people. I do the best I can when on radio, but it's pretty clear that in this instance I failed to convey the nuance I was aiming for.
The writer is also correct about my familiarity with the memorial. I do remember it being built when I was in school and I did do a video for the Atlantic in which I visited the museum and talked with its director, Frank Smith. I found him to me extremely knowledgeable, and more importantly, generous in sharing that knowledge. As I said at the time he was "excellent" and I was especially grateful for his deft dismantling of the Black Confederate myth.
It was in that spirit that only last week, in discussing my comments on NPR, I attempted to highlight the Memorial's importance and make amends for not having done so on the radio:
With that said, I do wish I'd mentioned the monument at Vicksburg (which I haven't visited) and the Memorial in DC because they are actual examples of what can be achieved. They deserve to be brought into any conversation of African-American memory and the Civil War.
That effort at amends has obviously failed. But whatever my mistakes have been along this journey, feigning ignorance of the Memorial's invaluable contributions do not rank among them; I am surprised to be accused of such.
Nevertheless, in case I have through some device been vague or dismissive, I wish to double-down on my above comments. The African-American Civil War Memorial And Museum is an important and significant effort toward a correct accounting of the War, led by people who have been at this business long before I arrived to it. I encourage anyone with an interest in the War to visit.
This not fake modesty. These are my actual beliefs. As such, I have taken steps to fully convey those beliefs directly to the Memorial's stewards, in hopes that there will be no future absence of clarity in regards to my motives or designs.
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