Jesse James (…and questions of race…)
I make it a point to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ columns whenever I can because his style and insight gel with my own. I truly respect his point of view. I found this particular piece worth posting because it discusses race in the context of how the media machine sells us a story that is not a true reflection of the context or the history of the time period…and those perceptions impact our own thoughts. While I never was a fan of the Dukes of Hazzard or the General Lee or the Legend of Jesse James, their American personas have been cleansed from their ugly racial, white supremist and racist histories. I’ve often said that race, for me, drips off of nearly every aspect of life and after reading this piece, I stand more solidly behind that conclusion.
Read this Coates piece and tell me if you agree…
Overall, this is the biography of a violent criminal whose image was promoted and actions extenuated by those who saw him as a useful weapon against black rights and Republican rule. To his credit, Stiles does not shy from employing stark language rarely encountered in American historical writing. During the Civil War, he writes, James was a member of a “death squad” (96) that targeted Unionist civilians and slaves. If he were alive today, Stiles adds, James would be called a “terrorist.” (6) Such language is, of course, anachronistic. But it reminds us that the Klan and kindred groups during Reconstruction killed more Americans than Osama bin Laden. At a time when it has become fashionable to attribute terrorism and the support it engenders to some timeless characteristic of “Islamic civilization,” it is worth remembering that our own history does not lack for the mass killing of civilians or for those who make heroes of murderers.
I grew up, like all kids, admiring the Dukes of Hazzard, thinking the General Lee was cool, and loving Jesse James. It is beyond creepy to be repeatedly confronted with the meaning of so many symbols, and so many people I once admired. I had no idea that Jesse James was, essentially, a white supremacist. I never even considered it. I was just dimly aware that he was a rebel fighting against some ill-defined, hazy order.
But he was fighting against me.
I’m not saying that anti-black racism is the whole of American history. But it runs all through the entire narrative. As a young person, it would have never occurred to me that there was some relation between Jesse James and slavery.