Confederates or, Who You Are in the War

Ta-Nehisi Coates: 

Storytellers have the right to answer any question they choose. But we do not need to wait to examine all the questions that are not being chosen: What if John Brown had succeeded? What if the Haitian Revolution had spread to the rest of the Americas? What if black soldiers had been enlisted at the onset of the Civil War? What if Native Americans had halted the advance of whites at the Mississippi? And we need not wait to note that more interesting than asking what the world would be like if the white South had won is asking why so many white people are enthralled with a world where the dreams of Harriet Tubman were destroyed by the ambitions of Robert E. Lee.

The problem of Confederate can’t be redeemed by production values, crisp writing, or even complicated characters. That is not because its conceivers are personally racist, or seek to create a show that endorses slavery. Far from it, I suspect. Indeed, the creators have said that their hope is to use science fiction to “show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could.” And that really is the problem. African Americans do not need science-fiction, or really any fiction, to tell them that that “history is still with us.” It’s right outside our door. It’s in our politics. It’s on our networks. And Confederate is not immune. The show’s very operating premise, the fact that it roots itself in a long white tradition of imagining away emancipation, leaves one wondering how “lost” the Lost Cause really was.

Others with more at stake have said much of what needs saying about this garbage (we get THIS but have to wait forever for the next David Milch project) but I’d like to talk about it in the context of the reimagining of history generally and the dystopian stories of the past decade. The earth caves in, there’s a nuclear devastation or famine or a plague, and then what?

There’s always an element of wish-fulfillment in these stories, that the last-millennium skills you’ve been nurturing would come to be of value after all, that your foresight in stockpiling liquor and ammo would attract fertile females and fierce warriors to your side, that everyone who thought you were a loser in the old world would value you in the new. So many people go through life thinking they don’t matter, or can’t matter, without some fanfare and a smoking crater where their home used to be.

But in walking that line, the best of our TV stories — 12 Monkeys, Galactica, The Expanse — come back around to the point that if you say you know who you’re gonna be in the war, if you long for the war so that you can be a certain person, you’re a bankrupt idiot who has no idea about anything. You think you know who you’re going to be? You have no idea.

You think that there’s some moment, where history hinges, at which you could rise up a hero and what, prove yourself worthy of mighty deeds?

As if you don’t have those moments every single day.

Jesus tits, look around you. Are you seeing a shortage of people to save? In the past WEEK the political party leading this country in every way that matters has tried to take away chemo from sick kids, ban refugees and asylum seekers based on religion, make legal immigrants tally up their virtues to prove they need to be here, close clinics that provide breast exams to poor people, and that’s just the stuff I remember off the top of my head after two glasses of wine at the end of a very long day.

You think you need a fantasy about the South winning the Civil War in order to overthrow slavery? Every political issue group on earth is offering free blowjobs to anyone who’ll campaign for them on a dozen issues that would impact racial equality in the United States, you don’t need this fanfic. Hell, buy and donate half a dozen books by young writers of color to your local library and you’ll have done more work than you would have in front of your TV every week. I know it’s not as sexy as imagining yourself part of the super-underground Underground Railroad, but it’s necessary and good nonetheless.

If your heroic fantasy just will not be satisfied without a firefight it’s not like the local recruiting station turns people away.

We think there’s some point at which we had more at stake. Than today?

If that’s truly the case, then you already know who you are in the war you’re imagining. You’re the guy sitting on the sidelines, telling himself he’ll fight when another conflict — one worthy of his magnificent gifts — comes along.


4 thoughts on “Confederates or, Who You Are in the War

  1. Got my own fight these days with my wife recently having been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. That’s my fight for the next however long but when it’s over and there is just me, my job is history (I can afford to quit assuming the ACA is still alive) and I’m going all in in some way. FIghting racism, voter surpression, ignorance. Not sure how yet but I’m sure I will.

  2. Those in a position to get away with it, history rewrit.

    The bottomline is Confederates, like NAZIs, are traitors. Enemies of the American People, enemies of the American Way of Life, and should be found hanging from a tree with their clothes on fire.

    It isn’t important whither or no our armchair quarterbacks know that’s all they”ll ever be. We know.

  3. Re the element of wish-fulfillment, some quotes are so good I bookmark them.

    “It’s really about concocting a scenario where you get a free pass to toss a girl out an airlock.”

    Like, how can my worst, darkest impulses be justified? Reminds me of the dumbass Googlebro’s MANifesto that surfaced over the weekend. OK, you’re pissed off that company leadership looked around, saw white men everywhere, said “[there will be a big PR nightmare when everyone notices] there’s something wrong with this picture,” and decided to do something about it. And suddenly you have this keen sense of exclusion because the company is actively trying to remedy that instead of going your preferred route of breaking down gender norms and watching the pay gap wither in response, or something. (Man was there some plain weird shit in there too, like the bit about males castrated from birth. To say nothing of the “I think we can all agree women are biologically wired to be cooperative” reasoning. Listen up brother, I’ve got some ladies I’d like to introduce you to.)

    Instead of going through these kinds of strenuous imaginative exercises, why not just own who you are? Or, if the psychic cost of that is too great, maybe find a use for all that energy that doesn’t involve getting the whole rest of the world to affirm your shitty outlook?

  4. Liked the post.
    We have quite enough revisionist history nowadays, not to mention whatever the Liar-in-Chief is tweeting. So if you can’t rise to this occasion, but need Armageddon to get off the couch, please. Remain on the sofa. Relax: stay soft, and clean.
    Someone will need the meat.

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