“The Ghost of Bobby Lee”

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes on how white Southerners and African-Americans deal with the history of slavery.

Brad DeLong is right when he says “Confederate History Month is worthwhile because it has produced Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Ghost of Bobby Lee.” Coates’s piece is a brilliant reflection on how white Southerners should deal with their slaveholding ancestors, and how black Americans should deal with the complicity of Africans in the slave trade.

Here are a couple of snippets. But trust me, you really have nothing better to do right now than to Read the Whole Thing.

The Lost Cause is necromancy-it summons the dead and enslaves them to the need of their vainglorious, self-styled descendants. Its greatest crime is how it denies, even in death, the humanity of the very people it claims to venerate. This isn’t about “honoring” the past-it’s about an inability to cope with the present.

[snip]

This is about a lancing shame, about that gaping wound in the soul that comes when confronted with the appalling deeds of our forebears. Lost Causers worship their ancestors, in the manner of the abandoned child who brags that his dead-beat father is actually an astronaut, away on a mission of cosmic importance.

I know how this goes. For us, it’s coping with the fact that people who looked like you sold you into slavery. It’s understanding that you come from a place that was on the wrong side of the Gatling gun. It’s feeling not simply like one of history’s losers, but that you had no right to win. The work of the mature intellect is to reconcile oneself to the past without a retreat into fantasy–in either direction. Claiming to be the descendant of kings and queens is just as bad as claiming to be thankful for the slave trade.

In case Satan reads this blog, and has any interest in acquiring one somewhat battered soul: I’d sell mine in a heartbeat to be able to write as well as Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

8 thoughts on ““The Ghost of Bobby Lee””

  1. Revenge can be a powerful narrative. I wonder to what extent this is all just a way of transcending the humiliation of the South's relative lack of progress.

  2. Um, Eli – I'd far rather live here in Virginia (or North Carolina) than in New Jersey. California's schools are worse than ours. What do you have in mind, here? Alabama? People are leaving Michigan and moving to Texas hoping for jobs.

  3. Uh, dave schutz, have you had a look at the numbers?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_

    I'd say poor is still a good way of describing the old Confederate states. Only 4 confederate states crack into the top 25, compared with 13 Union states. Overall Virginia is the only Confederate state to beat the US average.

    I'd call that "lack of progress" wouldn't you?

  4. Dave, I hear you. But believe me I was taking the mile-high view, thinking of more than just jobs but political and social progress as well. I've honestly spent little time there (although in that brief time I was harassed by the police!). Honestly, I'm the first to admit that there are likely beautiful subtleties and nuances of southern culture that less "ethnic" northerners or westerners like myself can only imagine. But southern politics also consistently scares the shit out of me. The religious and racial stuff is really on another level. I can't help but wonder how much of that is rooted in a continued kind of revanchism.

  5. I think it might be interesting for someone to compare the southern experience to the german one. As someone whose kindly great-aunt was a card-carrying supporter of the people who hounded my grandfather to death, I'd like to think that the "heroes" of the second world war aren't being co-opted in the same way as Lee, but I'm not at all sure. Of course, the revanchist thing got fairly strongly tamped down by the economic miracle, but even so.

  6. I have not read the whole piece but I will say I've always wondered why these Confederate lovers always want to cling to the things that were bad about the South, and ignore all the really great things.

    If someone put barbecue and bluegrass and blues and jazz and, I don't know, magnolias on a flag, wouldn't we all be happy to see it? Do these fools really wish the South had won? I wish I knew someone like that so I could ask him. (He'd be a him, probably.)(Oops, that was rude of me. Sorry.)

    Paul: I'm afraid I didn't get what you were saying. Which WWII heroes are getting revanched and who is revanching them? Huh? If you meant, why has Germany done such a better job to facing up to itself than we Americans ever have, then yes, I wonder the same thing too.

  7. I think it might be interesting for someone to compare the southern experience to the german one. As someone whose kindly great-aunt was a card-carrying supporter of the people who hounded my grandfather to death, I'd like to think that the "heroes" of the second world war aren't being co-opted in the same way as Lee, but I'm not at all sure. Of course, the revanchist thing got fairly strongly tamped down by the economic miracle, but even so.

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