The White Man's Continent

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Shout-out to whoever it was that told me to check out Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Revolution. I am really digging it. For people like me--black dudes who like European history--one of the really unfortunate things is the inability to consider Europe on its own human terms. European history was always presented to us in the manner of a victorious football team spiking the ball in your face. If you accept the logic of racism--that skin color really does correspond to something deep and meaningful--and you are black and care about history, you wind up spending much of your time searching for reasons why white people are savages and you are not. This is especially true if you don't actually know much about African history.

In that way, Europe becomes "white people's property." You only look at the continent and its history in the hopes of mining ammo to lob at your enemy. You don't really find World War II interesting for the story, so much as you find the Nazis the logical apex of the White Man's Civilization. You can't really think about, say, Garibaldi or Descartes or Hobbes or Marx. Basically all you want to know is did they hate black people, or not.

This is why (again) Ralph Wiley's "Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus" meant so much to me and my intellectual development. It was the liberation of humanism. (It's so interesting to me that the Russians themselves have long only barely qualified as civilized and "European.") It's not so much that culture doesn't exist or that Newton's country is irrelevant to understanding him. It's that culture is not mystical. Culture is not a euphemism for "I am innately more awesome than you."

Hobsbawm's two main subjects are the Industrial Revolution and The French Revolution. He makes the case, very early in the book, that where these two revolutions happened mattered and that it's very difficult to imagine them happening anywhere else. But Hobsbawm--like any good historian--isn't writing nationalist triumphalism. One of the most freeing experiences for me over the past few years has been the freedom to dig into this stuff simply because I think it's cool.

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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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