History's Greatest Monsters

 

 

I did a reading at Wesleyan last week. Some nice folks took me out to lunch and dinner, and then dinner afterward, because I can't eat before a reading or talk. A few of the people there were from Wesleyan's African-American Studies department. At some point, I ended up in a conversation with Sarah Mahurin, who teaches a course on the black South, about the problem of teaching history to young people. A common response, she pointed out, was for a student to say "I couldn't have been a slave" or "I couldn't have been a slave-master" or "I would have been like Garrison" or "I would have been like Douglass." This wasn't new to me. Every conscious kid at Howard came in talking about how he would have been Nat Turner. Howard was there to teach him that he would have picked that cotton like everybody else. The Eddie Murphy skit above gets at this problem well. 

I closed the thread below because I thought it was going in a direction that I didn't like. Whenever we find ourselves confronted by a great injustice--such as the Holocaust or the slave society of America--we gravitate toward that which we find heroic, and condemn that which we find fiendish. Complications--like David Ben-Gurion endorsing negotiations with Hitler, or the Maroons cutting deals with the British--make us nervous. The instinct is to make our history into a crude utilitarian book of invincible morals.

We see this outlook employed by smart people all the time. I wince whenever I hear people claim "If  you don't know the past, you can't know where you're going." The fact is that that you should know the past, but, beyond some vague outlines, it can't tell you where you are going. Last week, I saw Benjamin Netanyahu claim that "history is a map" and I just got depressed. I don't know what "history" could have seen Lincoln's assassination or Barack Obama's election. We live in chaos here. History helps a little--but only a little. It does not exist for your services. It can not be your morality, your crystal ball nor your self-esteem.

I have tried to push this in my writing about the Civil War. It is not enough to know that you are the descendant of slaves--you should also understand how easily you could have been the slave-master. You don't read George Fitzhugh to assure yourself that there is evil in the world. Auschwitz is all around us. Auschwitz is alive and well and living in your noble heart. The existence of evil is the premise. The discussion must proceed from there. 

I will be talking about the Holocaust and Israel for the next week. I am really digging Segev's book. I hope that we can do something more than keep score on who got history "right" and who got it "wrong." I hope that we can see some of ourselves in the people we discuss, because we are human, because we know how easy it is to overestimate our own ostensibly infallible morality. We can approach history denouncing the craziness of others, or we can approach it trying to understand how we might possibly have done the same thing. 

This is not false equivalence, it's texture and nuance. The beauty of a book like Battle Cry of Freedom is that McPherson makes an indisputable case that the Civil War was about slavery, and at the same time shows how humans--like you and me--could do nothing to prevent it. That is the gift of history. I understand that it is sometimes rage-inducing. But in the end it should be humbling.

Perhaps I shouldn't speak this way about other people's history. I don't know what to say. It feels right. And it feels wrong to make absolutist pronouncements about people who are grappling with the opening act of existential evil.

I'm reopening the thread below.

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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