The Answer Is Huge

The Southern diarist, Mary Chesnut is so smart, and so observant, and so wonderfully satirical, that her aristocratic racism just comes out of nowhere and slaps the you back to reality:


Isaac, Molly's husband, is a servant of ours, the only one my husband ever bought in his life. Isaac's wife belonged to Rev. Thomas Davis, and Isaac to somebody else. The owner of Isaac was about to go West, and Isaac was distracted. They asked one thousand dollars for him. He is a huge creature, really a magnificent specimen of a colored gentleman. His occupation had been that of a stage- driver. Now, he is a carpenter, or will be some day. He is awfully grateful to us for buying him; is really devoted to his wife and children, though he has a strange way of showing it, for he has a mistress, en titre, as the French say, which fact Molly never failed to grumble about as soon as his back was turned.

A huge creature, really a magnificent specimen of a colored gentleman. I'm sure some lit professors could have fun with the sexual subtext in that sentence. 

But that aside, the real objectification there is based on race. And it's all through the book, which I am thoroughly enjoying via audio. It's great to listen to while (Video game alert!) grinding honor on your druid. I don't write this so much to lambaste her, so much as to observe how human it is, how it comes to her as natural as all her best qualities.

It really is like watching Don Draper, in the sense that you see someone of prodigious talent who holds some pretty retrograde, if timely, views. And even that understates--racism wasn't a separate, divisible ideology which someone like Chesnut clung to. It was an essential, indivisible thread. She is a beautiful tapestry of things, and racism is one of the threads. 

Again, I'm struggling to explain what I mean here. It's not like she runs around saying, "Kill all the niggers." It's much deeper than that. It's the way all whites are introduced as "Mr. or Mrs." and no blacks are. After spending some time with the primary sources, I can always tell when they're describing someone black because they are generally "servants" and they never have last names. It's "Jim came up to the house today," whereas with whites it's "Mr. Davis called today." 

Even calling it racism seems wrong--too hot, too complete, too all-consuming. Or rather it's unhelpful for me to think that way, in my current pursuit. We aren't talking about indictment here. We are not asking what Mary Chesnut has to tell us about our world--not in the immediate, direct sense. This can not be punditry. 

My friend Brendan Koerner was saying this weekend that the writer/artist has to achieve a kind of distance, has to live almost outside of their society, and put their moral/political judgments on another shelf. You can't do this like you're debating some idiot over Haley Barbour. You've got to push deeper. You've got to try to get some sens of who these people were.  What did it feel like to be in their skin? This is the question, at least for me, of the hour. There is no place for outrage.

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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