January 02, 2012

Blacks and the Civil War

Given that the Civil war was about slavery and the emancipation of African Americans, you would think that blacks would be keenly interested in that period of history, to understand the causes and effects of an event that had such momentous consequences for them. In an article titled Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?, Ta-Nehisi Coats says that the opposite is true and addresses the roots of this disengagement that results in "the near-total absence of African American visitors" from famous Civil War sites.

Our alienation was neither achieved in independence, nor stumbled upon by accident, but produced by American design. The belief that the Civil War wasn't for us was the result of the country's long search for a narrative that could reconcile white people with each other, one that avoided what professional historians now know to be true: that one group of Americans attempted to raise a country wholly premised on property in Negroes, and that another group of Americans, including many Negroes, stopped them. In the popular mind, that demonstrable truth has been evaded in favor of a more comforting story of tragedy, failed compromise, and individual gallantry. For that more ennobling narrative, as for so much of American history, the fact of black people is a problem.

The fallen Confederacy's chroniclers grasped this historiographic challenge and, immediately after the war, began erasing all evidence of the crime—that is to say, they began erasing black people—from the written record.

For that particular community, for my community, the message has long been clear: the Civil War is a story for white people—acted out by white people, on white people's terms—in which blacks feature strictly as stock characters and props. We are invited to listen, but never to truly join the narrative, for to speak as the slave would, to say that we are as happy for the Civil War as most Americans are for the Revolutionary War, is to rupture the narrative. Having been tendered such a conditional invitation, we have elected—as most sane people would—to decline.

It is an interesting article.


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Professor Singham,

As I'm sure you know this is a fascinating period of time to study, and the view of the Civil War as a White man's war is steadily changing. There are many Civil War blogs run by both academics and non-academics challenging this view. In addition, new books that don't follow the long-perpetuated narrative continue to be published. See James S. Price's recent book on The Battle of New Market Heights at the Siege of Petersburg for one example. More Black soldiers won Medals of Honor at New Market Heights than in any other Civil War battle. In addition, they succeeded in driving off some of the Confederacy's best soldiers, proving they were every bit the soldiers White men were.

Posted by Siege of Petersburg Online - Brett S. on January 16, 2012 03:37 PM