Monday, June 22, 2009

TNC cannot stop talking about slavery

If you read only 200 things Ta-Nehisi Coates writes this year, this should be one of them. Also, you will only have read about a fifth of the great stuff he writes.

Insightful, as always, but I don't think TNC is quite right here. Or perhaps he is overall, but some nuance is in order.

Specifically, I think there's a historical line that goes like TNC says "We tend to think", namely that slavery was kind of this regrettable cruelty that the world in general was tolerant of, until we got civilized and disavowed it.

But there is at least an acknowledgment, in the historical line I was taught, that America (like always) was exceptional. That line says, what with the explosion of cotton (which Eli Whitney's invention contributed to), the economy of the South became completely dependent on slavery as an economic fuel, kind of like we talk about being dependent on oil today. And that dependence shifted the culture, both toward a vigorous defense of the economic interests in slavery and toward dehumanization of slaves on a scale and to a degree beyond whatever the barbaric practices of yesteryear had been.

But that's just my impression from my history classes. I'm not sure there's a shared "American" conventional point of view on this.

Where I feel TNC has it right is that "we have never grappled with this," `this' being that most of the culture of America is formed from the fractious and unresolved shards that remain from centuries of dehumanizing black people, and the struggles both violent and nonviolent to erode and destroy them.

Again, referring to my own education, the mythology of America is the "melting pot" notion of disparate cultures coming together and peacefully sharing the opportunities of a new land. But this, it seems to me, is a gloss, a "and they all lived happily ever after" resolution of the unresolved issue that defines America. We (which of course is not really "we", since we weren't there, but the imagined "we" of this country) invented a new kind of racism, and have never been able to put that dire genie back into the bottle.

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