Lois Leveen

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December 8, 2011

Can the story of Mary Bowser get more African Americans interested in studying the Civil War?

What's blue and gray but NOT studied by blacks? Great @MorningEdition NPR interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates about why African Americans are less likely to study/commemorate/obsess about the Civil War than white Americans. (You can also read Coates' smart essay on the subject at the Atlantic).

Of course, as the granddaughter of Eastern European immigrants, raised in suburban New York, I never thought I'd find myself one of those who obsess about the Civil War (and yes, visit reenactments and battlefields on "vacation") . . . But the story of Mary Bowser hooked me to think about the experience of blacks during the War. It's not just that the War ended slavery; at the time, no one knew whether that would happen. So what interested me is understanding what it was like to be black, living in a place at war, hoping it would end slavery but not knowing if that would prove to be the case.

I'm hoping the novel will leaders readers of all races to understand that experience. Free and enslaved African Americans made tremendous contributions during the War, and I think this story will be a great way to learn about that--without having to hit the history textbooks (or even spend your summer touring battlefields--which I admit is kind of a mega-history-geek pursuit). And if it encourages more people to want to study the experience of people of color, especially women of color, rather than just battlefield statistics and the names of the heralded generals, I'm sure Coates won't mind seeing the phenomenon he discusses finally start to shift.
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