Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: really looking for Lincoln?

Posted on December 18, 2009. Filed under: Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery | Tags: , , , , , , |

I was dismayed by the Gates program shown on PBS this week. Clearly Prof. Gates does not read my blog.

“Looking for Lincoln” is a multi-episode show about Gates’ search for “the real Lincoln.” Unfortunately, he succumbs to a powerful myth from the start—that Lincoln was an incorrigible racist who never stopped being racist and never wanted to free enslaved black Americans even though he believed slavery was wrong.

I was excited by the open of the show, which promised that Gates would indeed find Lincoln to be as, even more, amazing than he had previously thought. But a doubt about the level of the discourse was raised when Gates was discussing William Herndon’s biography of Lincoln. Herndon, a friend of Lincoln, decided to write a biography after Lincoln’s death, and so wrote to everyone he could think of who knew Lincoln before he was president, asking them for details and stories. One of the letters claimed Lincoln had visited prostitutes. Throughout this section, photos of Lincoln were overlayed with writing: summaries in one font, actual quotes from the letters in cursive. When prostitutes were mentioned, over Lincoln’s face were the words DESIROUS… HE ASKED WHERE HE could get some. Yes, this documentary was purporting to show that in the 1830s Lincoln used the 21st-century phrase “get some” to refer to sex, and that he actually wrote someone to ask where he could get some (sex with prostitutes).

I’m sure the editors had a few laughs over this, thinking it was funny. But the red flag went up for me: this program was not fully believable.

Around 25 minutes in, the Lincoln-Douglas debates come up, and with them discussion of Lincoln’s views on race. And here, in a program supposedly dedicated to myth-busting, myth took over. David Blight, a historian, talked about Lincoln’s statement in one of the debates that there was a physical difference between black and white people that would keep them from ever living in equality, and Lincoln was happy for whites to occupy the superior role. “That shows Lincoln as a white supremacist,” Blight stated.

Any real historian who has studied Lincoln and the debates knows that at this point, Lincoln was very divided (see my post on his position on race at the time and how he overcame his own racism). He knew racism was wrong, but he was not comfortable with full desegregated equality. He was a racist. But unlike most people, then and now, he was irritated by his own racism, his own inability to rise to the ideal of racial  justice, and he continued to wrestle with his racism until he conquered it.

That’s what’s missing from any claim that Lincoln was a permanent white supremacist that is based on his statements in the Douglas debates: he changed. It would be like someone quoting you on how babies are made when you were 10 years old  and then claiming that’s still what you believed at 30. When I was a teenager I, like most straight people, was homophobic—it’s how I was raised. I’m not homophobic anymore. So if someone quoted the 17 year-old me on gay people and used that to state that I am a homophobe now, it would be inaccurate.

So all statements about Lincoln’s racism that are based on what he said in 1858 are unfair and dishonest in the extreme, because Lincoln was a racist in 1858 but was not one by 1863—a remarkably rapid transformation. Frederick Douglass recognized Lincoln’s change from racist to non-racist; so many people today refuse to.

Blight even claims that maybe we have to just accept Lincoln’s “permanent” racism because of Lincoln’s time. “He grew up with the standard white prejudices about race of the early 19th century,” Blight says. This is beyond lame, first because Lincoln shook off those prejudices, and second because in the same program the white abolitionists of the time are praised. Either white people in the early 19th century were incapable of accepting racial equality or they were not.

Blight goes on to add, “He was not an abolitionist. He did not like radical change.” This about the man who wrote the Emancipation Proclamation (which did, indeed, free the enslaved Americans—see “The Emancipation Proclamation was not useless”) and set in motion not only that extremely radical change but was planning, at his death, to push voting rights for black Americans.

Again, this shows that all the negative statements about Lincoln as a racist make sense only if you refuse to see his comments in 1858 as transitional. When you realize that Lincoln changed between 1858 and 1863, they do not make sense.

The show continues down this path of stating that the stance Lincoln had on race in 1858 was forever his stance on race by talking with Lerone Bennett, Jr, a man who has made and staked his reputation on Lincoln-hating. Bennett cannot forgive Lincoln for supporting and even pushing the plan to have black Americans freed from slavery and convinced to go “back home” to Africa.

This stance is a little odd. Lincoln “only” wanted to end slavery and then allow voluntary colonization. Name the president before Lincoln who wanted to end slavery. I can’t think of one. Even if that was all Lincoln wanted, to free enslaved people and send them away to Africa, that’s a radical, massive change in American law and society in 1860.

But that isn’t, of course, all Lincoln wanted. Yes, he originally was very keen on sending black Americans “back” to Africa. He didn’t see how black Americans could live with the whites who had enslaved them. He predicted unending violence between the races, and a very hard time getting white Americans to treat black Americans equally. And he was right. We have struggled for equality, there has been violence, and there are many black Americans who completely agree with Lincoln that they will never be treated equally. So these seem like statements of fact rather than racism. Would Bennett describe black Americans who feel this way as having a “core belief that the races were not equal,” as he describes Lincoln?

But once Lincoln met with black leaders at the White House, to which he invited them, for the first time in American history, and heard them explain that they would never, ever leave their country, he let the colonization plan go. And that’s when he turned his full attention to emancipation and reconstruction.

When Gates asks Bennett why it’s so important to him to bust myths about Lincoln—so inaccurate a statement as to make one gasp—Bennett replies that “You can’t defend Abraham Lincoln without defending slavery.” Blight chimes in, adding that “In order to remember the redemptive, progressive Lincoln, we have to forget what he said in the Lincoln-Douglas debates about racial inequality. Remembering is always about forgetting.”

Again, the basic illogic here is that Blight describes Lincoln as progressive while stating that he was a permanent racist. Again: Lincoln started out racist and changed. He progressed. He redeemed himself by shaking off racism. We don’t need to forget what he said in the debates, it’s crucial that we remember it, to see that Lincoln changed, and therefore we can change, and racism can be overcome. Lincoln is a hero because he changed, not because he was a saint. That’s worth remembering.

Gates then visits a U.S. history class in Chicago taught by Kyle Westbrook, who is also dedicated to “myth-busting” Lincoln. The proof is that his students make these statements: “He was not that radical.” “He stayed on the fence.” “Before this class I thought he was a great person. Now I know he was blatantly racist.” “I was bamboozled (into thinking he was a hero).”

Westbrook himself says he knocks Lincoln off his pedestal, though he then backtracks to say he sometimes puts him back up there. This is never explained. Here again students are taught that the man who wrote the EP and then demanded that it be put to public referendum by putting it before Congress rather than issuing it as an executive order, so that white Americans could validate racial justice, was “not that radical”, a “blatant racist,” and “on the fence.”

As part 1 draws to a close, Gates states that he has “chipped away a little at some of the marble and granite” of Lincoln’s legacy. What’s so odd is that Gates has talked before the end of the show about Lincoln’s political astuteness, his ability to learn from others, even those he opposes, and to grow. Yet neither Gates nor his guests can see or grant any ability of Lincoln’s to grow emotionally and intellectually from racism to equality. That, apparently, is just not possible.

And that stance is the myth that seems will never be busted about Lincoln. You would think that by  now, 200 years after his birth in 1809, we would be doing better.

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