One of my favorite blog posts from the exceptional Ta-Nehisi Coates is one from last spring where he made the case for chucking the common wisdom, according to which the Civil War should be thought of as “tragic” and instead argued we should celebrate it the way we do the Revolutionary War. The whole provocative post is must read:
Six hundred thousand people died in the Civil War, a shocking figure which doesn’t really capture the toll that this sort of violence took on the country at large. And yet when I think about the Civil War I don’t feel sad at all. To be honest, I feel positively fucking giddy.And I don’t think I’m abnormal because of this. Twenty-two thousand people died in the Revolutionary War, and we celebrate that with hot dogs and hamburgers every year. I’m sure that while Jews feel fairly horrible that the Holocaust happened, very few of them consider the fighting it took in order to liberate the death camps, “tragic.” The Holocaust is tragic. Ending the Holocaust is not.In that fashion, from my perspective, the most trenchant facts of the Civil War are not that it turned “brother against brother,” or that it produced a plethora of great military minds, or even that it produced arguably our greatest leaders.
It’s really simple for me. One group of Americans attempted to raise a country on property in Negroes. Another group of Americans, many of them Negroes themselves, stopped them. As surely as we lack the ability to see tragedy in violently throwing off the yoke of the English, I lack the ability to see tragedy in violently throwing off the yoke of slaveholders.For most Americans, the Civil War is a sudden outbreak of a existential violence. But for 250 years, African-Americans lived in slavery–which is to say perpetual existential violence. I don’t know what else to call a system that involves the constant threat of your children, your parents, your grandparents, being sold off, never for you to see them again. That is death.