A young, thoughtful friend has asked me for some reading suggestions, and this essay includes some comments about pre-Civil War politics and today’s politics.
This essay begins with some reading suggestions from Ta-Nehisi Coates.
I began reading Ta-Nehisi Coates on Atlantic’s web page, where he had a blog, and sometimes wrote articles for the magazine.
Last year, I think, he wrote a major essay about reparations for slavery, about how he had changed his mind on the matter after having read significant histories.
Later he listed the most important books he’d read, and I’ve read many of them. They were all good and important, and I’m glad I read them.
Here he gives another list of books. I’ve read several.
The Half That Has Never Been Told, is by Cornell historian Edward Baptist. This has to do with the era of the 1820s and later when white planters kicked out the native Americans who lived in what is now Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas so as to take over the land for large cotton plantations, worked by large numbers of slaves, most of whom had been marched, in chains, from Virginia and North Carolina whose soil had been exhausted by tobacco. Baptist tells readers about the experiences and suffering of those black people, and about how Southern white society of that day mobilized international financing to purchase land, build their mansions, and buy their slaves, and used torture to increase the field productivity of their slaves over many decades. It was the defense of these practices that led Southern white people to develop the doctrine of states’ rights, which play a significant role in today’s politics. Of course, a person today can believe in states’ rights without favoring slavery, but in my opinion it is telling that this was the origin of such thought. And the resurgence of states’ rights and weak central government thinking in modern times is the result of Southern white people opposing the great civil rights laws of the 1960s. Southern white people of pre-Civil War days were only in favor of states’ rights when the rights had to do with allowing them to strengthen and spread slavery, but they opposed states’ rights when northern states tried to abolish slavery within their own borders or refused to enforce the nefarious fugitive slave laws.
After the Civil War and the time of the events in Baptist’s book, Southern white writers tried to deny the origins of the war in slavery. They argued that the war had been about tariffs, states’ rights in the abstract (without mentioning the only states’ right that Southern whites cared about), and other factors. Indeed, these days the Texas school board has required school textbook writers to redo their history books specifically to list these factors as the causes of the war and to de-emphasize if not remove slavery as a cause. (By the way, people from US states had been moving into Texas, a Mexican state in the 1820s and 30s, bringing with them their slave-holding, cotton growing ways. This was fine with everyone until Mexico abolished slavery, in 1834 or 5. This was a major cause of the uprising that included the Alamo defeat and the battle of San Jacinto that led to Texan independence. Texans today like to imagine that they were fighting for freedom from the bad Mexicans, but they were fighting for the freedom to have black slaves.)
The next really good book on Coates’ list is Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson. This book won the Pulitzer Prize in History when it appeared many years ago. While McPherson describes battles when he reaches them in his narrative, this is not a military history. Its subtitle is correct: The Era of the Civil War. This book describes in vivid words the political and social struggles of the pre-war era. One thing that impresses me when I’ve read this book, which I’ve done more than once over the years, is the extent to which those old struggles and their ideas remain with us today.
Transformed somewhat, of course, but still here. Indeed, Chief Justice Roberts’ decision in the first Obamacare case, the one in which he re-wrote that law’s provisions for expanding Medicaid, read to me as if they had come from an essay by the famous South Carolina Senator John C Calhoun. I don’t mean that Roberts cited Calhoun, but that the ideas he expressed, such Uncle Sam having to pay due respect to state actions, and so on, were directly from Calhoun’s ideas. I don’t mean to say that anyone who expresses these ideas is necessarily a racist or white supremacist. I have no reason to believe that Chief Justice Roberts is.
As far as I have read, for example, Sen. Barry Goldwater was not a racist or white supremacist. Yet in the year in which he ran for president against Lyndon Johnson, he voted against that year’s civil rights law, and proclaimed that the powers of the federal government ought to be strictly limited as against those of the various state governments and private citizens. Across the states of the old South, millions of white people who had not voted for any Republican (the party of Lincoln) ever, and whose parents and grandparents had never voted for any Republicans, voted for Goldwater. In a famous landslide defeat, brought about by many factors, the only states that Goldwater won were his home state of Arizona, and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Before this time, many Republicans favored civil rights, and it was only with their votes that Lyndon Johnson was able to pass the great laws against the bitter opposition of his own party’s white Southern Democrats.
Republican politicians of that time and since, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and others down to today, including Donald Trump, (but not just him of the 18 who ran this year) have worked successfully to create the permanent switch of Southern white voters from the Democratic Party to the Republican.
Finally, I’ll mention that in the years immediately before the war, Southern whites weren’t embarrassed about slavery. They thought it was a wonderful system, and they found justification for it in political thought, as Sen. Calhoun’s, and in the Bible. They thought they’d win any war, if the Yankees tried any funny stuff, so they weren’t shy about announcing their thoughts. The example in Coates’ list is South Carolina’s declaration of secession. There are many other famous, and infamous, examples. It is worth reading this. They thought they’d win any war because they were better shooters, better horsemen, braver, and smarter than any Yankees. And because they felt that slavery was a just cause, and they were sure that God was on their side. In this regard it is good to read Lincoln’s famous Second Inaugural Address, a brilliant and beautiful meditation on God’s purposes and their mysteries.
I find when I write to you on this topic, I always end up writing too much, so I’m going to stop.
Let me know if you read any of these, and what you think about them.
13 books Ta-Nehisi Coates thinks you should read
Updated by Tara Golshan on May 23, 2016, 11:50 a.m. ET
When writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates published Between the World and Me last year, he received a fair amount of critique, chief among them that the book generalized the black American identity to be equivalent to his own experience as an African–American man.
That was never his intention, Coates told New York Times Magazinereporter Nikole Hannah-Jones: He hoped his book would inspire readers to then explore other works by black writers.
“I don’t want this book to be the black book,” Coates said. “My hope is that folks that are not familiar with black literature read this book and then go read a ton of other books.”
Throughout that 2015 interview with Hannah-Jones, Coates referenced 13 books, urging readers to explore the world of black literature and beyond. Here is his list:
(Hat tip to Open Culture writer Josh Jones for resurfacing this list.)
“The Fire Next Time” in Collected Essays by James Baldwin
The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life, His Own by David Carr
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Era of the Civil War by James McPherson
Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960 by Arnold R. Hirsch
Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America by Beryl Satter
Confederate States of America – Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union from Avalon Project, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School
Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court nomination That Changed America by Wil Haygood
American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia by Edmund S. Morgan
Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields
When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America by Paula Giddings
Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign against Lynching by Paula J. Giddings
Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph
The 14th book on this list should be Coates’s Between the World and Me, if you haven’t read it already.