Our latest Notable Narratives are a pair of stories that focus on race in America. Both Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Legacy of Malcolm X” (from The Atlantic) and Adam Goodheart’s “How Slavery Really Ended” (from The New York Times Magazine) take a narrative approach to key events in African-American history, albeit from opposite ends of a century and very different angles.
Goodheart’s look at a Union general’s decision to admit fugitive slaves to Fort Monroe as contraband property in the wake of Virginia’s secession traces how small decisions made on the fly can reverberate through history. In this excerpt from his new book, “1861: The Civil War Awakening,” Goodheart develops the characters of the politicians and military men whose actions sheltering fugitives were by no means inevitable.
Coates inverts that telescope for a more recent and more personal examination. This look at Malcolm X pings between the role he played in Coates’ own childhood in Baltimore and the recent Manning Marable biography (among other accounts). Tracing varied narratives of the slain leader’s life, Coates considers how his story has served different purposes at different times. Part cultural meditation, part personal essay and a little bit book review, Coates’ piece examines what Malcolm X has meant for the way that African Americans view themselves and their possible futures.
Both stories use small moments to say something larger about the lives of African Americans and how their worlds evolved because of singular personalities changing the landscape in ways no one could have predicted.