History and Historians, Our Glorious National Heritage

The whole epoch is disorienting

Or, Atlantic Linkages


Listen everybody: if you aren’t reading Ta-Nehisi Coates over at the Atlantic, you are missing out.

He’s a very good writer, and a very deep thinker. I mention him here — rather than just by grabbing you by the collar and preaching the cant of the converted to you individually — because recently he’s been reading through the historical literature on slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, and blogging his reactions. The result is some of the most thoughtful and powerful writing on the topic, and its present relevance, that I’ve had the pleasure of encountering.

What I like best of about Coates’s writing (and thought) is his how open he is to new ideas. Not uncritical; but willing to engage. That is as true of his reading of history as it is in his conversations with ideological opponents. There is, in his postings, a constant autobiographical refrain where he tracks the development of this willingness in himself, which gives it an anchor and a sincerity which even the most plaintively open-minded writers lack.

To be a bit narcissistic about it, too: these history posts have recaptured for me the relevance of historical work. Coates’s has taken the reader along with him as he revisits, revises, and recognizes a vital part of the past, and has made it vital to him, and to his current preoccupations — and thus those of his readers — but not in a flat and easy manner, like most commentators. Even though what he’s doing is just reading through the secondary literature, his own work contains what lies at the heart of really great historical writing: empathy with critical distance.

Let me give you a few examples:

The way this post reframes the psychological motivation behind the Lost Cause.

Here are two posts where he recounts his incredulity and at reading an freedman’s letter to his former master (something we’ve touched on here before). (The letter itself is well worth reading, too).

Here’s his take on the massive investment slave property represented, and what that economic interest means for our understanding of the period.

And here he thinks through recent politically-motivated murders in the U.S. and the limits of historical analogy.

Finally, my personal favorite, because he hits on a theme near and dear to my heart: “the whole epoch is disorienting.”

This isn’t all history, as an intellectual activity, is, or should be. But it’s a big part of it. So go read TNC’s thoughts on the past — his, yours, and ours.


PS: I haven’t read his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, but if the quality of his writing at the Atlantic is any indication, it’s got to be great.

PPS: I should also say that I’m thrilled to see someone outside our profession doing this work; please save any hand-wringing about how historians should be doing this kind of work, or how it used to be different in the Olden Times of the 1950s, for the next regional AHA meeting and/or your column in Perspectives. It’s an unproductive and tired discussion. Go write instead.

Image Cite: Lush.i.ous, “Disorient at Night,” flickr, CC License

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