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The value of knowledge


A guide to books on slavery, the Civil War and their modern impacts

Sam Cooke once sang the words, “I don’t know much about history.”

This musical refrain could just as easily describe White House Chief of Staff John Kelly after his remarks about the plans of a Virginia church to remove plaques honoring George Washington and Robert E. Lee, both former slave owners.

He said in a broadcast interview that the actions show “a lack of appreciation for history.”

He also went on to say, “Lee was an honorable man” and added “men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”

Then, as a topping for a half-baked cake, he cited the “Lost Cause” narrative, claiming the cause of the war was failure to compromise.

History teachers everywhere, except maybe in Texas, were speechless.

Texas is where many mainstream textbooks originate and here’s what a recent high school history book written in Texas had to say about slavery:

“Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food for and clothing for their slaves.”

Then, there was this line: “Many enslaved African Africans found comfort in their community and culture. They made time for social activity, even after exhausting workdays, in order to relieve the hardship of their lives.”

It’s generally considered that Lee was a conflicted man; yes, he owned slaves, but he freed them the day after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

It’s important to read history so we can sort out some of the things we are reading and hearing.

As expected, Kelly’s comments received an immediate and negative reaction from the likes of America’s chief historian Ken Burns and from author Ta-Nehisi Coates who both questioned the Chief of Staff ’s interpretation of history.

In a pointed editorial, The New York Times wrote: “The consequences of slavery continue to distort and stunt lives in America, so it’s quite right that we should engage in what can be an agonizing national conversation about this history.”

Before we start this conversation however, it’s important to know our history since most of us have had only a cursory educational exposure to slavery and the Civil War.

Here’s some recommendation for books, old and new, about the Civil War and slavery that should be on our reading lists:

“Roots” by Alex Haley would be a good start along with the book which Lincoln claimed started the Civil War: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” is also a great start.

The eight-volume, “The Ordeal of the Union” by Allan Nevins is an in-depth look at the issue, while “Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America” by Ira Berlin is a good primer on slavery in the U.S., and how each state did things a little differently.

“A Nation under Our Feet; Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration” by Steven Hahn is a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of political lives of slaves, and “Never Caught: The Washington’s Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge” by Erica Armstrong Dunbar examines the amazing story of how the Washingtons relentlessly pursued their runaway slave.

“The Price for Their Pound of Flesh” by Daina Ramey Berry on how slave owners maximized profits from birth to after death and “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Seven Years Concealed” by Linda Brent aregood additions, too.

Closer to home, U-M Professor, author and macarthur Genius, Tiya Miles has written a book on the impact of racism in Detroit. Her book “The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits” argues that slavery’s impact continues to this day.

If you want to know more about the Civil War, several books pop to mind:

“Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era” by James McPherson, “Robert E. Lee: A Biography” by Douglas Southall Freeman (4 volumes), “The Centennial History of the Civil War”-Bruce Catton (3 volumes), “The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861” by David M. Potter, “Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War” by Harry S. Stout and “Free at Last: A Documentary History of the Civil War” by Ira Berlin.

Finally, “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory” by David W. Blight is an intrepid look at collective memory and how the past influences current attitudes. It attempts to explain some of our revisionist history about the Civil War and Slavery and what is called historical amnesia.


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