Laurie Toby Edison

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Confronted by the Hard Work of Compassion

Laurie says:

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.

Read the whole post


…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.

3 Responses to “Confronted by the Hard Work of Compassion”

  1. wriggles Says:

    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….

    I don’t know what planet he’s on, or who he is writing for, but we do the above on a constant basis. So much so that it has become invisible even to Mr Coates. And that’s the point, it comes at a price, and the price is this invisibility especially to oneself that leads so many black people down a mental cul de sac when it comes to progress.

    I can’t believe he is mistaking vocal protest, for an inability to see the humanity (ye gads l’humanité ) of slave owning folk. And the humanity of history yadda yah. It is our civilised natures that are so hard to see, even to ourselves.

    We are surrounded by people who cannot get beyond ‘history’ endlessly stating just how damn hard it is to stop seeing us as bringing up the rear in the racial league table in their heads.

  2. Lynne Murray Says:

    Laurie, thank you for the Coates post, and I appreciate the link to the Hayden poem, which is also tremendously powerful. I can only speak for myself–parse the oppression how you will, I have to own being fat, white, old and disabled–but my mind seeks out the points at which people decide to pursue or not to pursue what we can only call evil. I probably choose this because of some kink in my own personality. If I were a better person perhaps I would be more fascinated by the struggle to break free from oppression and the fostering of empowerment in those who have been victimized and damaged.

    But, being by nature a twisted creature as well as an occasional victim, I’m fascinated by how evil insinuates itself into people’s minds and lives, and how it can sometimes be dug out and composted. Sometimes it’s a daily choice that hardens into a life path–sometimes a sudden inspiration arises to struggle free of the damage to oneself caused by damaging others.

    One of my favorite true crime writers, Ann Rule, said she has to pick and choose her psychopathic murderers because she knows she’ll spend a year researching them and some killers are not people she could endure a year of investigating.

    As a Buddhist, I’ve come to believe that every single one of us contains the seeds of total evil or total enlightenment, and how the most positive seeds are nurtured and the most negative ones suppressed is a matter of endless curiosity to me.

  3. Laurie Toby Edison Says:

    Wriggles,

    I think you’re right about the issues of race, invisibility and the misuse of history.

    The blog I quoted is part of a long series of Ta-Nehisi’s posts and he does discuss the issues you’ve raised. It’s about a personal journey he’s been on for a long time. (Obviously that doesn’t mean that you would agree with him.) In my reading of him, he would not consider vocal protest to be any thing but good and important . He deeply shares the profound anger at the hideous history of black oppression … “I know that beef is our birthright, that all our grievance is just.”

    I think what Ta-Nehisi is doing clearly works for him. I don’t think it works for most people, nor should it, necessarily.

    I’m Jewish and came up in the shadow of the holocaust. I grew up as a child in a neighborhood where some people had numbers on their arms. And this is part of a much longer history. My anger about this mostly precludes seeing the people involved or complicit is this as less then monstrous (ordinary but monstrous).

    But I also think it is sometimes useful for me to let go of my historical anger and pain (however briefly), because it can deepen my understanding of that history.

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