On National Public Radio (NPR) recently, the black writer that The Atlantic selected to explain why so few blacks study the Civil War declared that African Americans, at least to his knowledge, have no Civil War monuments. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist and senior editor with The Atlantic turned Civil War buff, was certainly feigning ignorance. As a Howard University student in the 1990s, he surely witnessed the construction of the African American Civil War Memorial a few blocks from his campus. Indeed, a little over a year ago he interviewed Frank Smith Jr., the director of the foundation that built the memorial. Why did Coates feign ignorance of the African American Civil War Memorial in front of a national audience? Did he really not remember the bronze statue named the Spirit of Freedom located on U Street in Washington, DC since 1998 and the Wall of Honor behind it with the names of over 200,000 Civil War freedom fighters of African descent?
In a well written article in The Atlantic entitled “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War,” Ta-Nehisi Coates shares his narrative on how he became a “Civil War buff.” He reports that his sojourn began three years ago when he read James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. Coates credits McPherson for his Civil War awakening. “Transfixed by the war’s central role in making democracy real, I morphed into a Civil War buff,” wrote Coates. He notes that he has subsequently visited battlefields in Tennessee and Virginia, but he does not however mention a visit to the National Archives in Washington, DC. Therefore, I conclude that he has not conducted primary source research at that important American repository.
Coates’ article is an intelligent and well-informed complaint against the American scholars who for over a century have argued that slavery was not a cause of the Civil War. His central argument is that European American scholars have misled and ultimately mis-educated African Americans on the Civil War and therefore blacks believe “the Civil War is a story for white people—acted out by white people, on white people’s terms—in which blacks feature strictly as stock characters and props.” Yet, most notably his article is a serious indictment of his Afro-centric education and the history programs at historically black colleges and universities(HBCUs), especially since he attended the HBCU that is heralded as the Mecca of those institutions. On the campus of Howard in the 1990s, Coates was known to boast that his Afro-centric education began at home long before he entered Howard. With this Afro-centric advantage, Coates rather condescendingly made fun of his fellow students who were awakened to Afro-centricity at Howard. By his own admission we now know that his Afro-centric education in the Coates’ household in Baltimore and at Howard was inadequate.
Awakened to this period of African American history by James McPherson, Coates notes that McPherson points out “that titans of American history like Charles Beard, Avery Craven, and James G. Randall minimized the role of slavery in the war; some blamed the violence on irreconcilable economic differences between a romantic pastoral South and a capitalistic manufacturing North, or on the hot rhetoric of radical abolitionists.” In 1935, W. E. B. DuBois noted that such “titans of American history” including William A. Dunning of Columbia University were engaged in such scholarship or rather “propaganda.” Certainly, a good Afro-centric education would have exposed Coates to the writings of DuBois. The failure of his Afro-centric education is disconcerting. Yet, even more disconcerting is his failure to address this failure.
However, Coates does admit that his teachers at home and at school failed to mention the critical role of African Americans in the Civil War. (DuBois does mention this role in his 1935 essay entitled “The Propaganda of History,” which is also the last chapter of his book Black Reconstruction in America, and Benjamin Quarles addresses their contributions in his 1953 book entitled The Negro in the Civil War.) Ultimately the failure of his Afro-centric upbringing and education was two-fold. One, his educators did not teach him that leading titans of American history were attempting to minimize the role of slavery as a cause of the Civil War even though leading African American scholars had written and published on the subject. Two, his educators did not teach him that African Americans played a critical role in the Civil War even though leading African American scholars had written and published on the subject. There is a trend here, the failure to recognize what African American scholars have been doing, that leads to a third failure that belongs solely to Coates. He fails to recognize the African Americans who have been “moving from protest to production, the burden of summoning our own departed hands, so that they, too, may leave a mark.” If a young black writer with a national audience ignores the work of those leaving that “mark,” then the problem is the education the young black writer turned Civil War buff failed to get and not the “titans of American history.” Indeed the titans of African American history recognized the contributions of African Americans in the Civil War and established a scholarly foundation on which we have built a memorial and a museum.
Coates is a gifted writer, but his scholarship on the Civil War is sophomoric. And if indeed he was exposed to the works of W. E. B. DuBois and Benjamin Quarles, and it is likely his father(founder of Black Classic Press) has republished some of their works, his lack of knowledge on what African Americans have been writing on this subject and doing to tell their story is appalling. Reading James McPherson, Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, watching the Ken Burn’s Civil War series, and walking battlefields are good beginnings for a Civil War buff. But to become a credible spokesman on why so few blacks study the Civil War, he should at a minimum recognize the African Americans who have taken on “the burden of summoning our own departed hands, so that they, too, may leave a mark.” They have spent many hours adding up to years studying primary sources. By imagining that they do not exist or rather intentionally ignoring that they exist, the three year-old Civil War buff with the help of The Atlantic and NPR as his pulpit becomes the “black” spokesman. This kind of behavior retards if not suppresses the telling of the African American story.
The African American Civil War Museum shares the African American experience in the Civil War by using primary sources. And with a critical analysis of the works of the aforementioned European American historians as well as the work of Benjamin Quarles, an important African American historian who taught at Morgan State in Baltimore for decades, we give lectures and seminars to educators. In our exhibit entitled “The Glorious March to Liberty: Civil War to Civil Rights,” we quote only history makers. We quote no scholars. If you were not there in the making of the history, you do not get a quote in our exhibit. We recognize the contributions of the African Americans who came before us, and we do not pretend to be the first to carry “the burden of summoning our own departed hands, so that they, too, may leave a mark.”
With the national attention garnered from NPR and The Atlantic, it would do our community, his community, great service if Coates became familiar with the work of the museum and the aforementioned African American scholars. He can begin by reviewing his own notes and videotape from his 2010 interview of the museum’s founding director Frank Smith Jr. To jog his memory, he can pay us a visit at our new site across the street from the African American Civil War Memorial. We’ve been getting visits from a lot of Civil War buffs who want to learn more about the African American experience in the Civil War.