Ta-Nehisi Coates on Not Knowing History

“History is written by the victors” – Walter Benjamin

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

It’s maybe the biggest problem we have related to racism – Americans not knowing what they don’t know about our own history. Which can leave them susceptible to believing they know something that is just flat out wrong. In regards to the history of race relations in America, the brutality of the slavery period and Reconstruction, an alternative history has been promulgated for much of the intervening 150 years, and not just in the South.

Ta-Nehisi Coates noted something Hillary Clinton said last night in the CNN town hall that reflects an unfortunate, but all too common misunderstanding of that Civil War and Reconstruction period.

Hillary Clinton Goes Back to the Dunning School

Clinton, whether she knows it or not, is retelling a racist—though popular—version of American history which held sway in this country until relatively recently.  Sometimes going under the handle of “The Dunning School,” and other times going under the “Lost Cause” label, the basic idea is that Reconstruction was a mistake brought about by vengeful Northern radicals. The result was a savage and corrupt government which in turn left former Confederates, as Clinton puts, it “discouraged and defiant.”

The truth in short was that after the war was over there was a broad understanding that the newly freed would need a lot of help to be integrated into society. It was also just as understood that the vanquished powers that be in the South that prosecuted the war were the last people you wanted to allow back into government.  The overwhelming attitude in the South was to return immediately back to the state of affairs pre-war, as if it hadn’t happened at all.  If blacks couldn’t be legally held as slaves, they could be de facto slaves by law.

For a short time the federal government undertook to protect the freed and allow them to have a voice in the newly constituted state governments, keeping Jim Crow at bay for a time. But such interest in the North was quite short lived before the hated Northern radicals (the successors to the even more hated abolitionists) had their voices sidelined by louder voices that were content to have relations between the states get back to normal and, of course, let the newly freed sink or swim.  At which point Jim Crow became the law and all that remained of the ideals of the war was the Southern victimhood and propaganda.

It’s not a small point to say that the idea that “it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving” if Lincoln had survived or that Reconstruction was some unfortunate “instead” of something, are extremely misinformed, if common, views of history.  It’s disappointing to hear from a Yale educated presidential candidate. More disappointing even than Bernie Sanders’ dismissal of the idea of reparations.

These are options for a party of amnesiacs, for people whose politics are premised on forgetting. This is not a brief for staying home, because such a thing doesn’t actually exist. In the American system of government, refusing to vote for the less-than-ideal is a vote for something much worse. Even when you don’t choose, you choose. But you can choose with your skepticism fully intact. You can choose in full awareness of the insufficiency of your options, without elevating those who would have us forget into prophets. You can choose and still push, demanding more. It really isn’t too much to say, if you’re going to govern a country, you should know its history.

To fix the gaps in the memory hole, I can’t recommend strongly enough two books:

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist


Reconstruction Updated Edition: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner

Update:  I think I was remiss in not mentioning the final, and not proverbial nail in Reconstruction’s coffin, which was the violence, intimidation and brutality of the Klan in its determination to cleanse the post-war South of any African American influence on Southern society. Without Northern troops in the South to act as any counterweight, gangs of white militants, with the support of the general population, ruled the countryside creating a reign of terror that effectively ended whatever vestiges of Reconstruction still existed by 1875.  They murdered blacks who dared to try to vote (no less hold office), and whites who dared support them, including Northern carpetbaggers who had moved down there to seek fortune in the rebuilding.  The reality was that the Confederate Army never really disbanded after the war, they just melted into the population for a bit and then traded their gray uniforms for the sheets and hoods.

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