Chris Christie and the Nation-State Project

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I'm late on this, but given this blog's focus on history, I'd like to use Chris Christie's remarks to pursue a broader question:


Christie last week vowed to veto a gay marriage bill if it came to his desk but said proponents have the option to put the matter on the ballot. He added, "People would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South."

I think this comes from an unfortunate sense that Civil Rights movement was merely about being able to be served a cup of coffee next to white folks. I don't minimize the sit-ins. They had great power--but their power is greater still when you understand that they were a component of a broader strategy to destroy a system of white supremacy. Key to the assault, obviously, was securing the right to vote

Let me make this as visceral as possible: Many of the actual people who were beaten and killed "in the streets"--Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, for instance--were  attempting to secure the very right which Christie, bizarrely, believes they should have exercised. It's almost as if he doesn't know what the Civil Rights movement actually was. 

On a broader level, I go back and forth on whether I should be disturbed by the ignorance so many of us display of our own history. I don't mean this in terms of mere dates and rote facts, but in terms of the texture of the thing. (See yesterday's De Tocqueville thread.) In the defense of Americans, can any nation, en masse, come to a deep understanding of itself which eschews mythology? Are the Russians any better in how they see themselves? The French? The Dutch? The Ghanaians? The Kenyans? The Japanese? The paucity of my travels are rather embarrassing, and so I am not fit to answer.

In his (excellent) book The Substance Of Hope, my friend Jelani Cobb says that "nations are narratives." The point being we tell ourselves a story to make ourselves possible. The story unites us. And I wonder if the problem of African-American History is that it so coldly and cruelly counters the American narrative. I have spent the past two decades thinking about that history and it's ultimately made me more of a believer in the American project, not less of one. But that's a relatively recent development and one at least partially tied to what happened in 2008.

But with that said, I don't think it's too much to ask those who would consider seeking national office to to be more learned. I don't think it's too much to ask our leaders to understand why Andrew Goodman was lynched.
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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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