History matters

A couple of weeks ago, the Republican governor of Virginia revived the state’s Confederate History Month, and issued a proclamation to that effect in which he left out any mention of slavery. After being hammered for a few days, he eventually apologized and issued an addenda.

This has by no means ended the brouhaha, and arguments continue to fly back and forth across the Mason-Dixon line. Broadly speaking, Northerners see slavery as the clear cause of the war. Southerners have often been taught that it was gloriously fought over the high constitutional issue of states’ rights. 

I think the most interesting writing and thinking on this subject has come from Ta-Nehisi Coates. His blog-post-essay, “The Ghost of Bobby Lee,” is superb, and it looks as though he’s not done yet. Wednesday morning he posted this:

“It occurs to me that we’ve been honoring Confederate History Month on this blog since last week. I think we should continue with that. I can’t promise a big, long post like yesterday. But we should take a moment, each day, to observe some aspect of the Confederacy—but through a lens darkly.

“My sole aim is, come May, to have fools begging for February, sepia photos, and those “Black History Month Moments.””

— — —

The David Blight that Coates mentions in “Bobby Lee” is a history professor at Yale. The superb set of lectures from his 2008 undergraduate course, “Civil War and Reconstruction 1845-1877” is available free on line. He thinks Americans have “an obligation to understand” this period. Here’s a moment I jotted down from Lecture 23—“Black Reconstruction in the South: The Freedpeople and the Economics of Land and Labor”:

“So what is the engine of history? I beg your attention. There’s a simple question for you. What is the engine of history? Don’t you like unanswerable questions?

“Is the engine of history politics—the inherent, natural, eternal quest of people to bend other people’s wills and take power? Or is the engine of history economics—the grinding, on-the-ground process by which people carve out livelihoods over against other people’s competition for the same livelihoods?

“It doesn’t seem to matter what history you study, or where you look, history always somehow comes around to this nexus, this collision, between forces of political power and forces of economics, and our job is always somehow to discern between them and how they mix. Now often, of course, the answer is that it’s all one and the same thing.”

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