Ta-Nehisi Coates has been reading and studying about the pre-civil war slave owning south for quite a while. Most recently he’s read Drew Gilpin Faust’s Mothers Of Invention, a history of women in slave holding families during the Civil War.
And he writes about the deep knowing of compassion in relation to this history. The point of it all is not to clean anyone, is not exoneration. The point is a deeper level of knowing. His conversation is complex and clear. This is one of many blogs on the subject.
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…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.
More than any other book, Mothers has confronted me with the hard work of compassion. It is Du Bois again, like loving Mencken, like saluting the technological genius of Birth Of A Nation, like loving all those black and white movies that did not love you. To understand, to get it, black people must, if only for the moment, get out of ourselves and see the world through the eye of our tormentors….
Having seen some of that, I have come to see that our tormentors had tormentors, that the slave-holding woman was trapped by hoop-skirts and convention, that the man was trapped by lineage and human folly. The point of it all is not to clean anyone, is not exoneration. The point is a deeper level of knowing. The most powerful piece of art I’ve ever seen on the slave trade is Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage.” The poem is mostly free of didactic condemnation, and almost entirely told in the voice of the slavers. And yet in what it doesn’t say, in its willingness to cross over, it says so much.
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.
I find where he is going/gone both compelling and admirable. It’s a space I can visit but my anger and discomfort doesn’t let me stay there for any prolonged time. But like him I don’t want to be “blind to the living morality of this troubled time.” So although I suspect that my anger will always exceed my compassion, I persevere.