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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Optimism is the true moral courage: Shackleton and Obama

Posted on January 13, 2009. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

I just got around to reading Clarence Jones’ article on the upcoming Obama inauguration. In it, Jones, an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., makes a profound and wonderful statement:

“Dr. King had an abiding belief in the basic goodness, fairness and decency of America. He never abandoned his confidence that a majority of Americans would ultimately embrace the precepts of our Declaration of Independence: That all persons are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

The power of King was that he didn’t say America needed to do something new, to become another people, to end racism. He didn’t say that racism was part of the fabric of America, the legacy of America, the nature of Americans. King said racism was un-American, that it contradicted our basic founding principles, and that racism turned us into another, lesser people. King had the founding principles and documents of the United States on his side, and he knew it. He called for a return to our true nature and our original commission. He denounced racism as having no part in the American experience, and not worthy of us as Americans.

So rather than angrily or cynically dismissing our founding principles as lies and shams, King demanded that we all live up to them. And he won, because he was right.

I’ve noted elsewhere that Barack Obama shares this quality of King’s; he believes in the founding principles of this nation as the best thing about us, and, when we live up to them, the only thing that gives us integrity in the larger world.

My title comes from Ernest Shackleton, the Irish explorer to Antarctica whose 1914-1917 expedition is the stuff of legend. His ship, the aptly named Endurance, was trapped in ice and eventually crushed. For 10 months, Shackleton and his crew waited for a thaw, and once the ship was gone, spent four months drifting in the open ice on an ice floe until they hit land at Elephant Island. Knowing they couldn’t survive there for long, Shackleton took a small crew in a modified whaleboat they had saved on the floe and rowed 800 miles across the Antarctic Ocean to land, then marched for three days and nights through the ice mountains of South Georgia Island to a whaling station. He briefly rested, then took a whaling ship back to Elephant Island to rescue the rest of his crew. There was not one life lost.

When an astonished reporter, much later, asked Shackleton whether he believed any of the men he had left at Elephant Island would survive for his return, expecting that Shackleton would admit that of course he had not, Shackleton replied of course he had. “Optimism is the true moral courage,” he said, meaning that if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you will fail, because you will not have the strength of mind or body to succeed.

Obama is an example of that optimism. Belief in our founding principles in the face of their distortion is true moral courage. Believing we can live up to our principles allows us to do so. From King to us, that is the message for all Americans.

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We all have a dream

Posted on August 29, 2008. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , |

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

This could have been Barack Obama’s opening line at the DNC on August 28, 2008, as he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for president. But it was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s opening line on August 28, 1963, as he addressed the Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

That 1963 gathering was a “demonstration for freedom” because Americans of all backgrounds met to demand the fulfillment of our nation’s founding principles of freedom of opportunity and justice for all. The 2008 gathering was also a demonstration for freedom, because again Americans met to demand that our nation’s leaders respect and obey the Constitution and Bill of Rights when governing.

But it was also a demonstration of freedom, of the enormous progress this country has made since 1963. In that year, if you had said that in 45 years, within the lifetimes of most of the people there at the Lincoln Monument, a black American would be close to winning the presidency, you would have been ridiculed. Few could have believed that King’s three little children would live to see a black American close to becoming president (by narrowly beating out a heavily favored female candidate; throwing that in would have made people in 1963 wonder what parallel universe was coming). It wouldn’t have been cynicism or despair that fueled the disbelief, but a pragmatic understanding of how much would have to change to reach that moment.

So a lot has changed. But, more accurately, Americans have grown and evolved, challenged their own prejudices, and worked for change. It’s true that some Americans simply submitted to change, others grudgingly went along with change, and others refuse to change.

But even more miraculous than those who worked hard for change are those who were simply born into it. Americans born in 1990 find it hard to believe that restaurants were really segregated, that they wouldn’t have gone to schools filled with kids of all races, that mixed-race marriage was once illegal. Much as they can’t believe you once couldn’t talk about homosexuality, let alone have gay TV or movie heroes, American young people can’t believe racism was once government policy.

Are many young Americans still racist? Sure. But for most Americans, racism is becoming more and more a personal thing, a private prejudice that one might feel comfortable sharing only with a few others, or expressing obliquely. Like sexism, and homophobia, racism is becoming something fringe, that only a radical element is willing to pronounce publicly. Rather than having one’s racism comfortably mesh with a full personality, now if one is publicly racist, at the office or on the stump, one is labeled a wacko and marginalized.

Nineteen sixty-three was indeed not an end, but a beginning. Beating racism underground to a shameful lair in the soul is just the start. But we can celebrate our progress. Barack Obama’s nomination is a watershed we can act on to destroy racism. Children born in this year will find it hard to believe a black American had never been nominated by a major party for president until 2008, because by 2026 it will be a commonplace. Women, gay Americans, Jewish and Muslim Americans will all be able to become president. This is a moment to push more change, and it would be fatal, as Dr. King said, to overlook the urgency of the moment.

Does that sound ridiculous? As ridiculous as saying in 1963 that a black American would be the Democratic candidate for president in 2008?

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