Sunday, February 5, 2012

History of Convenience

Ta-Nehisi Coastes' "History of Convenience" condemns all white Americans for a distorted chronicle of the role of African Americans in the Civil War.

Coates writes,

"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."

The author goes on to cite the post-war comments of Southern leaders and writers who labored hard to create the myth of the Lost Cause - that the South lost its "heroic" battle for independence because of the manpower and industrial advantage held by the North.   These same people attributed the war to a battle to protect states' rights.  Notoriously, they failed to mention that the "right" they wanted to protect was slavery.  The North's perspective was to preserve the Union and not end slavery.

Coates' suggestion that "...the Lost Cause presented to the North an attractive compromise.  Having preserved the Union and saved white workers from competing with slave labor, the North could magnanimously acquiesce to such Confederate meretriciousness and the concomitant irrelevance of the country's blacks" is difficult to accept.   The idea that the North fought the war to protect white workers by eliminating the Southern labor advantage is nonsense.

African Americans contributed significantly to helping the North win the war.  Their fighting ability, while initially regarded with skepticism, proved its merit on numerous battlefields.

Coates alludes to the reason why African Americans have not embraced their important role in the conflict, but he doesn't drive home an important fact.  The war for African Americans was not the end of their enslavement but a stopping point on the path to equality.  After the war, African Americans quickly  realized that the laws passed to provide equality were worthless because Federal and State authorities would not enforce them.  So the landmark struggle resulted in nothing more than a transition from outright slavery to de-facto slavery.  In this light, African Americans could hardly be blamed for dismissing the war as insignificant.

However, Coates misses the mark by lumping all white Americans into a historic racial conspiracy.  He neglects the fact that many in the North and South fought the battles to improve the conditions of former slaves.  Progress by any minority requires the assistance of some members of the majority to join their fight.

To many African Americans their contribution in the Civil War might be characterized as another aspect of exploitation of whites to advance their political objectives.  Frederick Douglas didn't see it that way when he said: "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States."

1 comment:

Allen Mesch said...

The PBS program "Slavery by Another Name" supports my belief that slavery changed into a defacto slavery after the war. Please see for more information.