Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Contrarian

Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Reflections” on my most resent blog entry and the related posts, I discovered that people who don’t know I write the African American Civil War Museum blog were reading it. One such person suggested that I was anonymous as a consequence of cowardice. My name is Hari Jones, curator of the museum. I really take offense to the criticism that my blog activity is monthly because I have never been better than a quarterly blogger. Blogging diverts my attention from researching. When it comes to my blogging skill set, it is not even sophomoric. It is elementary. But I have been compelled by the current situation to become somewhat more frequent.

As for my comments on Coates’ essay, I do believe I should have done a better job explaining the observation that his Civil War scholarship is sophomoric. Evident in the citations and observations presented in his essay, we get a rather eloquent regurgitation of the works of esteemed scholars and brilliant reiterations of obvious observations. The essay is like a “hip hop remix” with only contemporary rock and roll and absolutely no soul. Two of his three quotations of African Americans are through European American writers (Mary Livermore quoted Aunt Aggy, and Thomas Higginson quoted Corporal Thomas Long.). The African American most quoted in elementary school essays Frederic Douglass is the only person of African descent to get into the remix with a direct quote. Coates is too intelligent to remain sophomoric, so that criticism is temporal. (Yet, I am sure I shall remain elementary as a blogger.)

Also Coates failed to identify the failure of his Afro-centric education. The problem with telling this story accurately over the past twenty-two years, since the movie Glory, has not been the result of European American scholars who obviously suppressed and falsified the story for the first half of the 20th century. The problem is that those who seized the reigns of Afro-centric education failed to properly educate their students on this critical era in African American history. Coates as evinced in his own words is a poster child for that failure. And by ignoring that failure, his essay would be more properly named “How Whites Discouraged Blacks From Studying the Civil War.” But that is only part of the phenomenon resulting in relatively few African Americans studying the Civil War. As I often say, “the problem is not a ‘white’ conspiracy in the 21st century. It is simply the bad scholarship of persons of African and European descent.”

Now someone even referred to my commitment to excellence in scholarship as a “vendetta.” I would hate to give up my research time to pursue such a petty campaign. But I do get emotional when people fail to recognize the legacy of our African descent forefathers and contemporary leaders. If we mistakenly overlook the contributions of our contemporary leaders, who we know best, we cannot be expected to understand the legacy of our USCT ancestors and other Civil War freedom fighters. To overlook the Frank Smith Jr. of 2011 is to overlook the John S. Rock of 1861. My aggressiveness was motivated by my commitment to the legacy of America’s African descent patriots. With eloquence, Coates admits that he made a mistake of omission because of his unintentional oversight, an oversight that he has taken action to correct.

Another post I would like to address is the suggestion that my use of the phrase “black writer selected” alludes to tokenism. Coates knows his merits as a writer got him his position as a senior editor at The Atlantic. As a writer, he is no more a token to The Atlantic as Kevin Garnet is a token to the OKC Thunder. I will here iterate that I knew him to be “a gifted writer” before he got the position. He is indeed one of the best of the brilliant young writers that have experienced the magic of the You Street Corridor from the 1990s to now. As a lover of that legacy, I am proud to claim him as part of a You Street literary legacy that dates back to the 1890s. "Before Harlem" for Ta-Nehisi Coates, "there was You Street." We here on You Street love that he is a senior editor at The Atlantic, and we expect him to remember that there is an African American Civil War Memorial at 10th and You Street Northwest in Washington, DC.

Because of my harsh criticisms of inaccuracies, those who do not share my love for primary sources and accuracy have accused me of being a contrarian. Indeed, I am a contrarian when it comes to inaccuracies in history, intentional or unintentional. We should all be contrarians in those situations. Though embracing the label scholar, I am not by definition nor position an academic. I am however consistently critical of academics who endorse Juneteenth as it is currently promoted and explained, who endorse Glory as a story “almost perfectly aligned with the historical evidence” and who do not mention the accomplishments of African American soldiers during the Civil War, such as the capturing of Richmond. My criticism of Coates is consistent with my criticism of academics. Like many of them, he is a mature intellectual. Coates has addressed the issue of his oversight, and I expect his scholarship will improve to the unknown-to-me limits of his intellect. My prayer is that all Americans will become contrarians until we teach in our schools the accurate history of our nation and our world. Let there one day be no need for such contrarians as I.