Thursday, January 17, 2013

Lincoln, the Slaves, and Hollywood

Was Lincoln a recovering racist?
Tell some historians that "Lincoln freed the slaves" and one can virtually see the smoke come out of their ears.

"Please don't get me started," Dunbar says after hearing that phrase.

"There's this perception that good old Lincoln and a few others gave freedom to black people. The real story is that black people and people like Douglass wrestled their freedom away," Dunbar says.

Historians still argue over Lincoln's racial attitudes. The historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. once called him a "recovering racist" who used the N-word and liked black minstrel shows.

Others point to the public comments Lincoln made during one of his famed senatorial debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858 when he said, "There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.

"There must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race," Lincoln said in the speech.

Spielberg's film depicts Lincoln as a resolute opponent of slavery, willing to deploy all the powers of his office to destroy it.

Yet "The Abolitionists" paints another portrait of Lincoln. It recounts how he supported colonization plans to ship willing slaves back to Africa. It says that Lincoln once floated a peace treaty offer to the Confederates that would allow them to keep slaves until 1900 if they surrendered. At one White House meeting with black ministers, Lincoln virtually blamed slaves for starting the war, the film's narrator says. (Read entire article.)


julygirl said...

Popular history has placed him walking on the water next to Jesus Christ based on a few well known speeches that were written for popular consumption only and did not reveal the truth about Lincoln.

May said...

July, have you read SHATTERING THE TRUTH, by Dennis Brandt? It is a pugnacious but ultimately, I think, well balanced take on this and other controversies surrounding Lincoln. We have to keep in mind that someone like Frederick Douglass, previously a sharp critic of Lincoln on the slavery issue, later came to have a deep respect and affection for him, as can be seen in Douglass' autobiography and other writings.

As for Lincoln's own writings, I've read many of them, some public, some private, and it becomes pretty clear that his hatred of slavery was sincere. However, both he and the situation were complex, to say the least.