I just returned from a week of vacation. That means I’m just catching up on the Oscars.
I was surprised to return to find that Lincoln didn’t do as well as many entertainment media pundits predicted. After all, even the likes of Senator Barbara Boxer claim to have seen it twice, and once in a White House movie night apparently intended to remind members of Congress of the nobility of compromise. Movies with that kind of gravitas generally do well in the Oscars race. But not this time. Good from my point of view because I frankly hated Lincoln…the movie, I mean.
I’m a fan of both Tony Kushner and Tommy Lee Jones, and have nothing in particular against either Steven Spielberg or Daniel Day Lewis. Sally Field, on the other hand, I will never forgive for permanently imprinting the Flying Nun on my brain. But, apart from whatever they may have been forced over the years to do to pay the bills, the lot of them seem like fine people. No problem here.
But their movie? That was an example of how we rewrite and white wash history.
In brief, Lincoln took the history of the fight to win passage of the 13th Amendment and finally end legalized slavery (and win the Civil War for the Union side) and turned it into a melodrama about white angst. Worse, it twisted the story of a mass movement guided by high ideals concerning one of the greatest acts of inhumanity in the history of the world into a a tale about the value of compromise.
Where was Frederick Douglass? Wasn’t he the Dr. King of his day, leading the abolitionist movement after himself escaping from slavery? And where was Harriet Tubman in this story? Tubman wasn’t just an abolitionist famous for leading enslaved people to freedom on the Underground Railroad, she was a Union spy.
People like Tubman and Douglass were leaders of an abolitionist movement without which the 13th Amendment might never have been proposed to begin with. They were, unlike Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, believers in the full humanity of black people. In short, they weren’t white supremacists. And for this reason, they weren’t gradualists when it came to the end of the slavery. That impatience, also expressed in the Raid on Harper’s Ferry led by abolitionist John Brown (with assistance from Harriet Tubman) was a driver of abolition, upping the cost of slavery to slaveholders while building necessary support for abolition among liberal Northerners.
To tell a story about this period of history as though high ideals were less significant to the end of slavery than compromise among powerful white men among whom many were white supremacists, would be like telling the story of the Civil Rights Movement as a struggle between Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats, and Lyndon Johnson over eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In that movie, there would be no King, no Rosa Parks or Fannie Lou Hamer. There’d have been no reference to Ella Baker and the legions of activists that organizers like her led to leadership, including Congressman John Lewis. There’d have been no March on Washington, nor a Bloody Sunday to contemplate. These efforts and the pressure they put on our leaders, not to mention the support they build among liberal whites, would have meant less than the conscience of President Johnson and the racism of Strom Thurmond.
Distortions of history like that committed by Lincoln matter. They matter because the racism that justified slavery is still as vital to American culture and politics as the idea of democracy itself. In fact, the American way of life was created and continues to live in the contradiction between white male supremacy and the ideals of democracy.
The passage of the 13th Amendment didn’t end opposition to abolition, nor even, in totality, bring an end to slavery itself. And while World War II and the Cold War put an international public relations imperative before our government that would finally bring a formal end to post-abolition forms of legalized slavery, Jim Crow survived that acknowledgement. And while Jim Crow, in turn, would be abolished as a de jure fact of life in the U.S. during the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson, de facto segregation and denial of rights and opportunities live on.
74% of African American and Native American students attended majority minority schools in the 2009-10 school year. The unemployment rate of black and native people are twice the national average. Almost half of people of color in the U.S. live within two miles of a toxic waste site. Two-thirds of those incarcerated in U.S. prisons are black or Latino.
This is white supremacy today, manifested not just in these disparities but in a lack of broad acknowledgement by government that these injustices even exist. In order to defeat racial injustice, we need movements like those that ended slavery and Jim Crow. We cannot, as suggested in Lincoln, rely upon those with power to compromise in our names, and in ways that do as much or more on behalf of the interests of forces that perpetuate injustice as for their victims.