Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog

7.09.2009

President Lincoln: Contradictions on Race

By Andrew Miller

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.    

 

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SHAWN HEALY

Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project


Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.



Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.


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Dave Anderson
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McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project


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