Saturday, September 18, 2010

Compassion, understanding, and history

Ta-Nehisi Coates (above) works towards  understanding the slave holders and  turns to compassion to do so:
I've been quoting quite a bit from Drew Gilpin Faust's Mothers Of Invention, a history of women in slaveholding families during the Civil War...
For an African-American like me, the upshot of all this gorgeous writing is bracing--one is forced to behold beauty in those who saw no such beauty in us. Worse, the partisans of Confederate history are quite often necromancers who would defile that beauty with denialism, and Lost Cause hokum. The impulse is toward rage, toward justified fury. The impulse is to view any deft use of the English language, as hypocrisy, as devil-worship concealed beneath garland prose. 

It's an impulse I've felt, myself. I love this picture (it's from the cover of Mothers) because, all at once, I find it beautiful and rage-inducing. The problem with rage is that it's a conversation-stopper, it forecloses all other questions. I am resolved on the nature of the Confederate cause. I would no sooner now debate the primary cause of the Civil War, then I would debate roundness of the Earth. And still in all, I am filled with questions. Chief among them, how does any human being in the 19th century come to endorse mass slaughter for the cause of raising a republic built on slavery?

To answer such a question, it is not enough to understand cause of the Civil War. A debate over the meaning of the Confederate Flag is almost beside the point. You have to remove the cloak of the partisan, and assume the garb of the thespian. Instead of  prosecuting the Confederate perspective, you have to interrogate it, and ultimately assume it. In no small measure, to understand them, you must become them. For me to seriously consider the words of the slave-holder, which is to say the mind of the slave-holder, for me to see them as human beings, as full and as complicated as anyone else I know, a strange transcendence is requested. I am losing my earned, righteous skin. I know that beef is our birthright, that all our grievance is just.  But for want of seeing more, I am compelled to let it go.

In this society, we view compassion as a favor, something along the lines of forgiveness extended to the humble and deserving. No. My compassion is utterly selfish, and is rooted in a craving for power. It is compelled by my curiosity, itself, just another name for hunger, for desire, for want of the great power of knowing. It is not enough for me to sit around scoring morality points on dead people, all the while blind to the living morality of this troubled time. There's no power in that. I need to know more.
Read it all. And the comments.

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