Not Everyone Cares About Lee

Published:June 26, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry

Ta-Nehisi Coates, whom I’ve had a habit of quoting lately (here and here and here), is still reading about the Civil War. But he, unlike us, is not waiting for Robert E. Lee.

But to paraphrase Grant, I grow heartily weary of hearing of General Lee. I want to talk about us. How will we remember our heroes? What will those of us in Charleston, South Carolina have to say about Robert Smalls? About Robert Brown Elliot? In Holly Springs, Mississippi, who will raise a statue in memory of Ida Wells? Who will remember Hiram Revels and Daddy Cain? What does Baltimore have to say about Christian Fleetwood and New Market Heights? (Forgive me, but hyperlinks here are demeaning. These people deserve your own search.)

As usual, the comments are worth perusing. They run the gamut from “for real; keep burnin brethren” to “the lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” There’s a link to Sojourner Truth’s alternate lyrics for “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (which itself was an alternate lyric), and stories of playing Moors vs. Christians in Spain instead of cowboys vs. Indians.

Anyway, I find myself drawn to Coates when he’s writing about history, even as I’m sometimes annoyed by it. His writing is often melodramatic for my taste and frustratingly presentist. He seems to want to read history only to inform his current political and social outlook. (Here’s an especially egregious Case in Point from another blog.) It’s not that history can’t or shouldn’t inform your understanding of the modern world; it’s just that sometimes what’s lost is that history involves different worlds, different times, different people. There are not always easy parallels or simple lessons. The more we go looking for them, the more we’re likely to be fooled.

Moreover, history is a discipline just as law is a discipline. It encourages a certain way of thinking. It is about something more than just whatever it is we want to take from it for ourselves. Coates both succumbs to that temptation and, to his credit, acknowledges it:

I stake no claim on an objective reality—this is how it feels to me. Knowing that, maybe my view of history says more about me and my time in West Baltimore, and the premium the neighborhood put on righteous violence, then it does about actual facts. Moreover, I’m not sure my perspective is any better—I come to my history prejudiced,and baggaged, halfway looking for the truth, but more so looking for heroes.

I say this not because I am fully trained in the discipline or because I’m looking down on Coates. To the contrary, I admire his fiercely personal and intelligent investment in what he’s reading. And I am fascinated, too, because his perspective, as a black man from West Baltimore, is so different from mine, as a white man from Iowa. And the encyclopedia needs to remember that, too.

Not everyone cares about Robert E. Lee.

IMAGE: Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry; Washington, D.C.; by William Morris Smith (Library of Congress)