And Now Something Completely Different

Words matter. The words we choose to describe our lives actually define our lives. We must be ever-vigilant to assure the words we utter and think are as true and honest and precise as possible.

Ever since I read Between the World and Me* by Ta-Nehisi Coates—and subsequently discussing the book with a group of very smart women—Coates has become my guru. He doesn’t know it, but he’s leading me on a journey I am willingly undertaking so that I might understand my own white privilege, and to recognize the habits of mind and the words ingrained in me, that keep my white privilege erected as a barrier between what the world really is and what I was taught it was. I believe—having been taught in my southern culture and communities and schools—the world I described yesterday with my southern words is actually a lie. That I was taught untruths, however, is no excuse for remaining uninformed and ignorant. I’m actively trying to fix that. And Coates has become one of my guides.

* I highly recommend reading Between the World and Me, which is a love letter to Coates’s son. Whites should read it humbly, making every effort to dispense with our egos and our excuses, and our self-protections. It is a difficult read under any circumstance, but even more difficult to gain insight from if we allow our white-ness to filter his experience; if we try to minimize his experience based on our own.

In this article (pasted in its entirety below, re-blogged from The Atlantic and with the original linked here) Coates generously offers a reading list that he recommends so that we southerners who were taught lies might “lose our stupid.” In my opinion, Coates uses the word “stupid” (a word I actually hate and nearly never use myself, as I believe it is overly pejorative) too liberally. 

Yet I feel he might be forgiven, because I do hear his frustration with white people, and our propensity toward excusing and forgiving and lying amongst ourselves about our lives, history, and communities; and I empathize with his being tired of repeating to us what he and his darker-skinned patriots have been trying to convey for decades if not centuries.

I was having a discussion about just this subject with my mother the other day. While she is among the most liberal and enlightened nearly-90 y.o. southern-born-and-bred women I know, she was raised in Richmond, VA. Without getting too deeply into the weeds of our point-counterpoint, I feel her position might best be understood as nostalgia (as in having a soft spot in her heart for her milieu of childhood) rather than an outright desire to “never forget our glorious Southern heritage” (in which I honestly do not think she believes). Our discussion climaxed around the existence of the “Civil War Heroes” erected along Richmond’s infamous Monument Avenue. In counterpoint, I argued that, unless there were equal honors given to non-white heroes and heroines along the same route and equally prominent as those white Confederate tributes extant in the public square, then all of the statues required moving to museums or battlegrounds—including that of our blood ancestor, Robert E. Lee.

Both of us came away with quite a lot of food for thought.

And since our discussion began with John Kelly’s truly ignorant statements about the Civil War this past week (and those of our president earlier), I thought that fellow seekers of truth and deep understanding, who are, as I am, starting from a position of ignorance (if not stupidity) and humbly wanting to learn and do and think better and more truthfully, you might also want to read Coates’s recommendations (I’ve already read Battle Cry of Freedom but none of the others). I suggest this so that we do not simply hear stupid (as with Kelly’s ridiculous statements) and nod along without comment because we actually don’t know any better.

Without further explanation or fuss, I present here Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, November 1, 2017

Five Books to Make You Less Stupid About the Civil War

29th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, U.S. Colored Troops in formation near Beaufort, South Carolina, 1864 Library of Congress

On Monday, the retired four-star general and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly asserted that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.” This was an incredibly stupid thing to say. Worse, it built on a long tradition of endorsing stupidity in hopes of making Americans stupid about their own history. Stupid enjoys an unfortunate place in the highest ranks of American government these days. And while one cannot immediately affect this fact, one can choose to not hear stupid things and quietly nod along.

For the past 50 years, some of this country’s most celebrated historians have taken up the task of making Americans less stupid about the Civil War. These historians have been more effective than generally realized. It’s worth remembering that General Kelly’s remarks, which were greeted with mass howls of protests, reflected the way much of this country’s stupid-ass intellectual class once understood the Civil War. I do not contend that this improved history has solved everything. But it is a ray of light cutting through the gloom of stupid. You should run to that light. Embrace it. Bathe in it. Become it.

Okay, maybe that’s too far. Let’s start with just being less stupid.

One quick note: In making this list I’ve tried to think very hard about readability, and to offer books you might actually complete. There are a number of books that I dearly love and have found indispensable that are not on this list. (Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America immediately comes to mind.) I mean no slight to any of those volumes. But this is about being less stupid. We’ll get to those other ones when we talk about how to be smart.

1) Battle Cry Of Freedom: Arguably among the greatest single-volume histories in all of American historiography, James McPherson’s synthesis of the Civil War is a stunning achievement. Brisk in pace. A big-ass book that reads like a much slimmer one. The first few hundred pages offer a catalogue of evidence, making it clear not just that the white South went to war for the right to own people, but that it warred for the right to expand the right to own people. Read this book. You will immediately be less stupid than some of the most powerful people in the West Wing.

2) Grant: Another classic in the Ron Chernow oeuvre. Again, eminently readable but thick with import. It does not shy away from Grant’s personal flaws, but shows him to be a man constantly struggling to live up to his own standard of personal and moral courage. It corrects nearly a half-century of stupidity inflicted upon America by the Dunning school of historians, which preferred a portrait of Grant as a bumbling, corrupt butcher of men. Finally, it reframes the Civil War away from the overrated Virginia campaigns and shows us that when the West was won, so was the war. Grant hits like a Mack truck of knowledge. Stupid doesn’t stand a chance.

3) Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee: Elizabeth Pryor’s biography of Lee, through Lee’s own words, helps part with a lot of stupid out there about Lee–chiefly that he was, somehow, “anti-slavery.” It dispenses with the boatload of stupid out there which hails the military genius of Lee while ignoring the world that all of that genius was actually trying to build.

4.) Out of the House of Bondage: A slim volume that dispenses with the notion that there was a such thing as “good,” “domestic,” or “matronly” slavery. The historian Thavolia Glymph focuses on the relationships between black enslaved women and the white women who took them as property. She picks apart the stupid idea that white mistresses were somehow less violent and less exploitative than their male peers. Glymph has no need of Scarlett O’Haras. “Used the rod” is the quote that still sticks with me. An important point here–stupid ideas about ladyhood and the soft feminine hand meant nothing when measured against the fact of a slave society. Slavery was the monster that made monsters of its masters. Compromising with it was morally bankrupt–and stupid.

5.) The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: The final of three autobiographies written by the famed abolitionist, and my personal favorite. Epic and sweeping in scope. The chapter depicting the bounty of food on which the enslavers feasted while the enslaved nearly starved is just devastating.

So that should get you to unstupid–but don’t stop there. Read Du Bois. Read Grant’s own memoirs. Read Harriet Jacobs. Read Eric Foner. Read Bruce Levine. It’s not that hard, you know. You’ve got nothing to lose, save your own stupid.