Iman Mekonen, Spectrum Editor
Author and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates visited Richmond on Friday to speak at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, but his trip also carried a personal significance.
Coates recently found out his great-great-great-grandfather was from Petersburg, where he was also enslaved.
“It’s of special meaning to be here, in the capital of the Confederacy,” Coates said. “At the same time, if you think of Virginia in the broader sense — in the capital of that older, black America that comes out of slavery particularly — my story of having my ancestors being from Virginia is actually not that original.”
Coates and author Manisha Sinha spoke at the museum in a lecture moderated by American Civil War Museum CEO Christy Coleman.
The lecture, titled “Legacies of Emancipation,” navigated the status of racism today through the topics of emancipation, slavery, mass incarceration and voter suppression. The lecture concluded with a Q&A session.
“All of these organizations at different points in time have partnered so that we as Richmonders, we as Virginians, we as Americans — can finally get our history right,” Coleman said.
The lecture ties to the VMHC’s most recent exhibition titled “Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality” that follows the journey of African Americans starting when the first slaves arrived in Hampton, Virginia, in 1619. It describes the lengths African Americans have gone to in fighting for freedom.
The walls of the exhibit are lined with documents, photographs and drawings that chronicle several overlooked African Americans and their accomplishments. The exhibit includes profiles on prominent figures including James Lafayette, Mildred and Richard Loving, Missy Elliott and President Barack Obama.
It also commemorates the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to British North America.
“I see the entire history of emancipation as a struggle for black freedom, and has always been tested,” Sinha said. “Even at its height during the [Civil] war, and during Reconstruction — when you actually had serious black political power in the South — it was always a contested project. And at its core, it continued to be contested and it continues to be today.”
Coleman referenced “The Horrible Gift of Freedom” by Marcus Wood during the discussion. She said the book explained how the narrative of freedom being given as a gift disconnects black people from their own narratives.
“One of the things that I thought was so fascinating about that book is that … people perceive that freedom was a gift given to black folk, rather than something that was earned or fought for by black folk,” Coleman said.
Coates is promoting the release of his first fiction book, “The Water Dancer,” which places the protagonist in the middle of the slavery era. He emphasized how important it is that the longest leg of his book tour is in the South.
“‘The Water Dancer’ comes out of my own studies of … the period of enslavement and a little bit of Reconstruction,” Coates said. “And the main thing that I was thinking about … was the notion that the Confederates lost the war … but did not lose the war of historiography.”
The discussion topics revolved around the way slavery is portrayed in history today.
“On one level it [slavery] was the robbery of history,” Coates said. “But on another level, it was the idea that somehow fighting for the right to steal labor from people and sell people … would somehow … be depicted beautifully.”
Coates then went on to talk about the several Confederate statues in the South, most notably in Virginia. After the lecture concluded, the exhibit was opened for extended hours so that attendees could visit.
“We will never get right with each other until we get this history right,” Coleman said. “And we keep lying … because it makes us comfortable, and that’s not healthy.”