Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist?

As the only “White Guy” with enough clout to deserve mention during Black History Month, do most Americans harbor an overly rosy view of the 16th president of the United States?

By: Vanessa Uy

As the closest thing to America having her own Jesus, is the book written by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. titled Lincoln on Race and Slavery serve as a polemic as damning as the Nag Hammadi Documents? Given that an overwhelming number of Americans have an overly rosy view of America’s 16th president, it might as well be.

As the Director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University Professor Gates has the unique position of having access to very important - and the not so pertinent – knowledge. On how then-President Lincoln’s policy on the emancipation and drafting of former African-American slaves to fight for the Union Army during the civil War. In his book, Professor Gates managed to use the not so flattering aspects of then-President Lincoln’s policies with great effect in his warts-and-all biography of Abraham Lincoln.

Compared to recent biographies about Abraham Lincoln, Professor Gates’ view on America’s 16th President is a stark contrast compared to the overly rosy view harbored by Adam Gopnik’s book titled Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life. While Adam Gopnik praises Lincoln’s “Liberty for All” idealism even to the black African slaves, Professor Gates paints a somewhat more somber view on Lincoln. Especially on his not so popular policies instituted during his presidency, not to mention Lincoln’s well-documented racism against black slaves.

While Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin is probably the “book-of-the-moment” when it comes to biographies about Abraham Lincoln. Not only because it influenced President Barack Obama about Lincoln’s “emotional temperament” of living through and resolving crises, but also because Goodwin’s book concentrates more on the aspects of Abraham Lincoln that most Americans hold dear.

In recent years, books and movies that portray the less flattering aspects of Abraham Lincoln – no matter how historically accurate – never seems to attain mainstream success. Even the relatively popular movie titled Cold Mountain. Which is about then President Lincoln’s questionable policies during the Civil War was remembered more for Renée Zellweger’s overuse of BOTOX – rather than the movie’s historical merits. Though the movie did inspire a few Americans to voice out that Abraham Lincoln should be tried posthumously for war crimes under the rules of the Nuremberg Convention.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is no less flattering when it comes to Abraham Lincoln’s “human frailties”. Historical documents did cite Lincoln’s racism. Not only on Lincoln’s vehement opposition of interracial marriage, but he also harbored grave doubts about the intellectual capacity of African Americans, publicly used the “N-word” until at least 1862, enjoyed “darky” jokes and black-faced minstrel shows. All of which a middle-school civics teacher in the United States would rather wish their students never learn about Abraham Lincoln.

Even though Lincoln finally freed the slaves and drafted them to fight for the Union Army. But whether this was all in the name of political expediency or a genuine concern for African American welfare at the time is anybody’s guess. Professor Gates was leaning towards the political expediency angle. Nevertheless, the Civil War redeemed then President Lincoln - which was nevertheless a miracle in itself.


Sherry Rashad said...

Was the movie Cold Mountain also controversial because it wasn't shot on American soil? Anyway, I've just started reading Lincoln on Race and Slavery by Dr. Henry lois Gates, Jr. and I can only say the book is really controversial despite of its historic authenticity. About as controversial as W.E.B. DuBois joining the American Communist Party.
Abraham Lincoln is also one of the few Americans who is held in high regard in the Islamic world. Stranger still, it was the American Civil War that redeemed him. Unlike the former President Bush whose reputation was ruined by the 2003 invasion of Iraq in search of nonexistent WMDs.
AS for President Barack Obama aspiring to be as great as Abraham Lincoln, to me, its a good thing.

Yoav said...

Isn't the whole of February 2009 the most interesting President's Day, Black History Month, and Abraham Lincoln's birthday ever? After watching the PBS documentary Looking for Lincoln, I too agree that the Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin's "view" on Abraham Lincoln is more suitable for middle-school-level students. Just imagine the shock of their parents if middle-school kids start reading Friedrich Nietzsche's The Will to Power or Beyond Good and Evil as part of their civics class.
The noted historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s historical assessment of Abraham Lincoln reminds me of that moment back in my youth when I found out that my childhood heroes - namely Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner - were anti-Semitic.
As we celebrate the 200th Anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birthday, Professor Gates' "catharthic" assessment of Lincoln's "complex" life will not be easily forgotten.

Nadine said...

As a fan of Abraham Lincoln, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Richard Wagner, I do agree that an overwhelming majority of great people of the 19th Century were a complex bunch. I've also just discovered a few weeks ago that W.E.B. Du Bois did join the Communist Party USA.
Professor Gates' book reminds me of a story of Francisco Felix de Souza - one of the historical personalities of the Transatlantic Slave Trade , who is still remembered in Benin - not as a tyrant - but a hero for defying colonial powers. Which only shows that mythical delusions are a more enthralling form of subjugation than mere pig iron shakles alone.

Michelle said...

Abraham Lincoln's past finally caught up with him? Historical evidence of Lincoln's "unconventionality" had been published by noted historians since the 1990s - facts include that Abraham Lincoln's gay lover since his law college days named Joshua Speed was revealed to be an owner of black African slaves. Even a prominent socialite who knew Lincoln - named Virginia Woodbury Fox - posted on her diary, which for all intents and purposes a Victorian Era Twitter, that he saw Lincoln sleep with his bodyguard back in 1862.