Tennessee honors Nathan Bedford Forrest

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (Doug Strickland/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP, File)

I posted the following thoughts this morning to Facebook:

I repost the magisterial remarks of Ta-Nehisi Coates from the hearing on H.R.40 last month because he observed, among other things, that “if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow.” The traitor and subsequent KKK leader who led that massacre in Tennessee in 1864, Nathan Bedford Forrest, is being honored today in that very state. The past is not even past.

I remember being struck once by the elegant figure Mr. Coates cut simply by walking across a stage, like our 44th president walking across the south lawn of the White House toward Marine One. This is something that matters not only to an admirer of men. The well-tailored fitness, poise, and confidence shown by a black American quietly asserting his presence and worth is a projection of power and a walking rebuke of every dark chapter, a defiance of every lynch mob in the four centuries since Africans were first brought here in chains.

Ta-Nehisi’s beautifully written, powerfully delivered testimony reminds me of how often the writer in me has been stirred by black voices, from Douglass to King to Baldwin, and even now by a young screenwriter and director named Coogler who brought the power of myth and a reckoning with the legacy of the African Diaspora to a superhero movie and thereby astonished and broke open the film industry. That is the power of love and respect and truth.

Our need as a country for those voices, for their determined hewing to the truth, is brought home by the brutal slap of today’s disgraceful honor for Nathan Bedford Forrest in Tennessee. The historical legacy, not only of horror and cruelty but of brave struggle against them, is our collective inheritance. We need that inheritance now as we daily see our nation being betrayed.



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