Read the whole thing at The Atlantic. It is beautiful in it’s prose as much as it is (for me at least) in it’s unattainable transcendence.
Last night, I [was] sitting in the local coffee shop reading a section where a slave-holding woman was trying to come to terms with the death of her husband. Convinced that they would meet in eternity, the woman resolved that she would, from that point forward, “wear this world like a loose garment.” The phrase is not original to her, but it’s invocation at that moment, having buried her beloved, stopped me cold.
For an African-American like me, the upshot of all this gorgeous writing is bracing—one is forced to behold beauty in those who saw no such beauty in us. Worse, the partisans of Confederate history are quite often necromancers who would defile that beauty with denialism, and Lost Cause hokum. The impulse is toward rage, toward justified fury. The impulse is to view any deft use of the English language, as hypocrisy, as devil-worship concealed beneath garland prose.
It’s an impulse I’ve felt, myself. I love this picture (it’s from the cover of Mothers) because, all at once, I find it beautiful and rage-inducing. The problem with rage is that it’s a conversation-stopper, it forecloses all other questions. I am resolved on the nature of the Confederate cause. I would no sooner now debate the primary cause of the Civil War, then I would debate roundness of the Earth. And still in all, I am filled with questions. Chief among them, how does any human being in the 19th century come to endorse mass slaughter for the cause of raising a republic built on slavery?
To answer such a question, it is not enough to understand cause of the Civil War. A debate over the meaning of the Confederate Flag is almost beside the point. You have to remove the cloak of the partisan, and assume the garb of the thespian. Instead of prosecuting the Confederate perspective, you have to interrogate it, and ultimately assume it. In no small measure, to understand them, you must become them. For me to seriously consider the words of the slave-holder, which is to say the mind of the slave-holder, for me to see them as human beings, as full and as complicated as anyone else I know, a strange transcendence is requested. I am losing my earned, righteous skin. I know that beef is our birthright, that all our grievance is just. But for want of seeing more, I am compelled to let it go.
As the great-grandson of slave owners, I have never really felt guilt, I believe my family paid the price for their embrace of slavery and many of us have worked hard towards an inclusive social justice, but still, self-awareness demands a recognition of an inability to divorce oneself from the lives of those who enabled our lives. Maybe self-awwareness is the root of my inability to transcend conversations of race. Maybe I’m just a shallow dolt.
DIscussions of the Civil War and race always bring me back to my dad. Dad seemed sublimely unaware of skin color. He demanded that his children treat people with the same respect, regardless of color, wealth, religion or standing. He never couched his demands in righting social injustice, just basic human decency. His favorite Uncle was his Uncle Pete, a man who was not his uncle at all and was, in fact, a former slave of his grandfather. Dad once told me it wasn’t till he was 9 or 10 that he realized Uncle Pete was not his real uncle, that’s how close Pete was to him and to my grandfather and grandmother and how little issues of race played out in his family. Pete was family, real family. Now in the twilight of Alzheimer’s, my father can be found segueing from the bees in the yard to a horse ride down Lower East Valley Rd to his Uncle Pete’s.
Even as he grew older, he had to have recognized the effect of Jim Crow in Tennessee and Kentucky, his sales territory, but, without consideration, he sold veterinary products to both black and white veterinarians. Dad once told me “he didn’t understand why other salesmen didn’t service the black doctors, sick cows didn’t give a damn what color you were.”
Dad seemed to have transcended issues of race and heritage without ever really thinking about it.
Coates continues to amaze me and tap into something I’ve been thinking about, but never had any real ability to suss out.
My dad too. He is an amazing man. Sh!t, I got a lot to learn and to live up to.