How Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Novel Reckons With the Past

Eric Herschthal in The New Republic:

Eight years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an essay in The Atlantic asking why so few black people studied the Civil War. Coates noted that he himself had only recently become an avid reader of Civil War history, and along with it, a student of the larger system that propelled it into motion: slavery. The reason for this lack of interest, Coates observed, is that the Civil War is remembered in popular culture as a war between North and South, not a war over slavery—which is another way of saying, a war between whites. Of course, most Americans know that the Civil War ended slavery, but the dominant Civil War narrative is “a more comforting story of tragedy, failed compromise, and individual gallantry.” The comfort in this narrative is that, like so much of American history, it pushes slavery to the sidelines—and with it, a genuine reckoning with slavery’s legacies today.

Coates correctly diagnosed the core problem: White Americans avoid the history of slavery because they want to avoid discussions of race. But he also noted that the black educators who taught him, growing up in Baltimore’s inner city, in the 1980s, shied away from slavery, too. The black history he learned was a story of black excellence—the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, the medical research of Charles Drew, the legal intellect of Thurgood Marshall—with slavery frequently mentioned but seldom explored. This was understandable. Black children needed positive stories because they would spend the rest of their lives being told how little their ancestors achieved, and that anything they would achieve would be the result of affirmative action. Still, Coates was unsatisfied.

More here.