The Civil War Isn't Tragic, Cont.

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With us the two great divisions of society are not rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.
--South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun

Shorter me: I'm glad that the Civil War happened. 


There is some sense that the unpleasantness could have been avoided. In the great Ken Burns doc, Shelby Foote says that the Civil War happened because we failed to "compromise," presumably meaning that there was a peaceful resolution at the ready. I find that notion self-serving. It's really depressing to acknowledge that large portions of this country were so bound to the right of property in Negroes that they would counsel horrific violence, not simply to protect it, but to expand it. The "compromise" notion allows us to elide that reality and see the Civil War as some sort of terrible mistake, something out of our control, instead of a statement on the American core. As if slavery isn't in the Constitution. As if the three-fifths clause never happened.

On the facts of the thing, I've spent the past few years digging through the history books. South Carolina seceded in reaction to a democratically elected president. It then formed a rebel government which fired on, and subsequently, occupied a federal fort. These are facts. I've yet to see a definitive case that they were avoidable. With that in mind, I am forced to live in the world of the actual instead of the "could of."

Finally, the "compromise" theory rest on a comfortable fiction wherein no actual people are suffering under the yoke. Let us not obscure this. We are talking about a compromise born by my forebears, and frankly, if less literally, yours too. We are talking about the majority of the people then living in South Carolina, and Mississippi. We are talking about a significant minority of the people then living in Georgia and Virginia. We are talking about a compromise based on forfeiting the lives of the enslaved. I don't know how  anyone asks a black person to wish for that "better" world.

I don't expect most people here to match my feeling, or even agree with me. We aren't the same. But what I am asking is for you to take a moment, and live outside your own skin. I'm asking you to do what I do every day on this blog, and what all black people who have any hope of succeeding in this society, are forced to do daily. I'm asking you to see the world through someone else's eyes. 

There are very real reasons for why the broader country remembers the Civil War as it does. But my concern isn't for the broader country; it's for those who came up us a I did. It's for those who experienced their history as "whip/chain/rape/free." Who avoid Petersburg. Who avoid the Wilderness. Who avoid Shiloh, because they've bought the myth of "brother vs. brother." 

But we have myths too.

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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