President Lincoln: Contradictions on Race
President Lincoln: Contradictions on Race
By: Andrew Miller
As part of the commemoration of the Lincoln Bicentennial, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., an African-American scholar from Harvard, specializing in Black History, and author of The Signifying Monkey, discussed Lincoln's views on race with Rick Kogan, a Chicago Tribune reporter, at the Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago. According to Dr. Gates, Lincoln had a surprisingly complex, even a contradictory, view on Black people--a view that might have culminated in his being "shocked by the first American black President, Barack Obama."
Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. introduced the evening’s program to a very diverse audience, filled with young and old as well as white and African-American. Dr. Gates began on a personal note by reminiscing about his dead grandfather's funeral where his father cried. He showed pictures of his ancestors, some of whom were partially white due to their mothers' sexual bonds with their white slave masters. He referred to an obituary of one of his black ancestors, which described her as "an estimable, colored woman."
Dr. Gates debunked several common myths, including "my grandmother was a native." He emphatically stated that an estimated 30% of black men have a white background, adding, almost wistfully, that black people have fantasized too much regarding supposed Native-American backgrounds: "Fewer than 5% of black people have Native -American backgrounds. “
In regards to the Emancipation Proclamation, Dr. Gates was equally strong, lamenting and lambasting its minuscule effect in helping black slaves. Specifically, the Federal government only freed 500,000 black slaves out of a staggering 3.9 million black slaves with this policy.
Turning his attention to black involvement in American wars, Dr. Gates extolled the heroism of black soldiers. According to Gates, 5,000 black men fought bravely in the American Revolution, including some of his own ancestors. He mused--and seemed amused--about his own participation in a patriotic organization, the Sons of the American Revolution, calling it the "whitest group."
In regards to his family history, Dr. Gates's mother had given him a pithy answer to his childhood question: "You are from people." He noted that one of his ancestors was the first black lawyer in West Virginia. To Gates, respect for one's own heritage is crucial and "satisfying" as one seeks answers.
Talking about the current state of black America, Dr. Gates emphasized that, in his opinion, education has sadly and pejoratively become "white." He believes that affirmative action has been beneficial for many black people, including him. Dr. Gates lamented the lack of black people at Yale, where he received his B.A. in history. He praised the rise of the black middle class since 1968, but noted that 37% ofchildren in 1968 were at poverty level, and that percentage has not improved significantly.
Later, while taking questions from the audience, a Rick Kogan reminisced about one African-American girl in an inner-city Chicago school who simply drew a tree when she and her classmates were asked to write what they dreamed of for their futures. At first the audience was perplexed, but then they realized the touching simplicity of the story when the man spoke about leaving the school and not seeing a single tree outside.
Regarding President Lincoln, Dr. Gates painted a complex, nuanced, even contradictory relationship between the President who "freed" the slaves and the black slaves themselves--the same kind of relationship that has often characterized race in America. Dr. Gates said that the president's supposed support for equality for black people was actually false, or, at best, misleading. Yes, he opposed slavery, but, ironically, he also wanted to colonize the newly freed slaves and send them back to Africa.
Although Lincoln slowly began to respect the intellectual level of a select few black people, including Frederick Douglas, he dismissed most of them. And while he was impressed with black soldiers' involvement in the American Revolution, he ironically opposed black people from fighting for the Union; however, he reluctantly gave his approval only after the Union was desperate for more manpower. Much to his surprise, the 200,000 black soldiers, or "black warriors" as he called them, did not just do a satisfactory job; according to Dr. Gates, they helped turn the tide in favor of the Union.
Towards the end of President Lincoln's life, as Dr. Gates pointed out, Lincoln actually seemed to shift his beliefs, making a speech in which he endorsed the idea of his "200,000 black warriors and very intelligent Negroes [being able] to vote." Interestingly, one man, horrified when he heard his speech, would later play another crucial role in history: John Wilkes Booth.
Dr. Gates was critical of black people's compliance in the Lincoln myth, saying that, besides Jesus Christ, Lincoln is the only white man on black people's walls. Even Booker T. Washington had called President Lincoln a "pure white man." In 1876, Frederick Douglas, the first black person to meet with President Lincoln, controversially said that Lincoln was "the white man's president," for he wanted to save the Union first, not the slaves.
Overall, Dr. Gates' position is that perpetuating the Lincoln myth does more harm than good and that the truth is more valuable than long-held fiction, no matter how dear to the hearts of the American people.