Only thank God men have done learned how to forget quick what they ain’t brave enough to try to cure.
I heard this quote, from William Faulkner’s The Hamlet, while following David Blight’s (aka Harrison Ford, aka Indiana Jones…or at least that’s who he reminds me of) Yale course, The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877. I was ashamed of how little I knew about this pivotal period in our nation’s history, and I’m supposed to be an educated American. Perhaps worse, if I hadn’t learned this stuff, I’d still be an educated American. After all, we’re a nation of self-congratulation and self-promotion, the kind of internal celebration that is only possible when we willfully neglect external truths. And this historical period, a euphemistic way of veiling its horrific realities (for all the good that might’ve emerged from it if not for the enduring power and presence of white supremacy), is the ultimate neglected truth.
The Civil War, as Blight argues, was won by the North, but its historical memory was claimed by the South. The present inherits the DNA of the past, there can be no doubt, but we keep the past alive through the ways in which we re-create it in the present. We can never deny The Civil War as part of who we are, and so too we can never deny that SLAVERY, the battle over black bodies, was the primary issue at stake. There is nothing Romantic about it. It is not states’ rights or mutual valorous patriotism or whatever other magical salve we may wish to conjure. We owned other people by law, and we continue to own other people by leaps of historical imagination, covering our bloody tracks with the unrelenting eraser of the Dream.
It is not remembering that is America’s problem; it is the way we continue to choose to remember, which is truly a way of forgetting, of avoiding confrontation. And it is not reconciliation as much as a reckoning which will do us best. Reconstruction was our reconciliation, and all it did was transplant the means of plunder from one system to another. Whites made peace with whites and re-declared war on blacks.
Inheriting this legacy, we should not be surprised by the racial violence that we’ve finally, mercifully become more aware of this year. But we’ve had awareness before. We’ve lacked action. We haven’t been “brave enough to try to cure” the root of our ills. How many of us actively remember the truths surrounding the many deaths we’ve mourned? How many of us have to remember? It is an awful privilege and an equally awful choice to forget.
Note: If you still don’t follow Ta-Nehisi Coates, get on it. Here’s his piece on the Civil War, which followed all the talk about the Confederate Flag in the wake of the Charleston murders. He now also has a new book out detailing Black America’s reality.