Monday, February 09, 2009

Gates and Lincoln: The Pictures Tell the Tale

The 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth is this Thursday. I'm not nearly as big a fan of Abraham Lincoln as Barack Obama. Presidents and big-time political leaders are much less interesting and important to me than the people I see in the street, meet in the store, or have contact with on the internet. My students and the people I encounter on the internet are a lot more interesting than either George Bush or Barack Obama. The same's the case with historical figure. I'm far more fascinated with the workshop drinking, street scenes, and volunteer fire companies of 19th century Philadelphia than I am with Lincoln or any of the political figures of the time.

But although I'm not super-fascinated by either Obama or Lincoln, I have to admit that I am interested in Obama's fascination with Lincoln. That's especially the case in relation to the questioning of Lincoln's image as "the Great Emancipator" that has come up in relation to Obama. Henry Louis Gates, jr. argues (via the African-American Political Pundit) that Lincoln is a more complex figure than was indicated by the popular black idolatry that he saw toward Lincoln as a youth in West Virginia.
I first encountered Abraham Lincoln in Piedmont, W.Va. When I was growing up, his picture was in nearly every black home I can recall, the only white man, other than Jesus himself, to grace black family walls. Lincoln was a hero to us.
Gates goes through several vignettes showing Lincoln's evolution from the white supremacy of his 1858 Senate campaign to the 1865 speech in which he suggested that black soldiers and other exemplary African-Americans should be able to vote.

That was the speech that spurred John Wilkes Booth to murder Lincoln three days later.

For Gates, as for Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois, much of Lincoln's greatness lay in his ability to wrestle with his white supremacy and come to view support for the African-American cause as the right thing to do. As a result, Gates believes that Lincoln is more interesting than the idolizing pictures on the walls of black homes suggest.

I'd like to suggest that it's really the pictures on the walls of those black homes that are the important thing in considering Lincoln and that Gates should have paid more attention to them.

What the pictures of Lincoln in those black homes accomplish is to conquer Abraham Lincoln on behalf of black history. In those pictures--"the only white man other than Jesus"--the black families of Piedmont, WV represent Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. Whether Lincoln himself knew it or liked it, he ended up allied in the great cause of abolition with David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and William Lloyd Garrison. Moreover, the pictures on those walls portray the Emancipation Proclamation as the most significant dimension of Lincoln's career and prioritize the ending of slavery as the most important issue face by Lincoln or any politician of the time.

It's also important to understand that the pictures Gates saw were also contemporary to the African-American families who put them on their walls. Lincoln's emancipation of the slaves in the past was part of the contemporary struggle against segregation. Just as the pictures portrayed Lincoln's past in terms of Walker, Garrison, Douglass, and Truth, they portrayed Lincoln's post-humous future in terms of W.E. B Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. From the perspective of the pictures, Lincoln was a crucial figure in the history of the African-American struggle for racial justice and the African-American struggle was the most important thing about Lincoln.

Why is this a conquest? Lincoln himself might have thought of "preserving the union" as his primary task. Others might view Lincoln in terms of his efforts to conciliate the white South or in terms of his leadership of the war effort. But the theme of Lincoln as the Emancipator won out as the primary focus of our nation's questions concerning Abraham Lincoln. For more than a century, Lincoln's role as Emancipator was more black history than anything else, but the black historical interpretation of Lincoln has become the dominant interpretation. The pictures Gates saw on those walls have conquered.

Gates sees a little bit of this when he emphasizes the need to "hear Lincoln’s words through the echo of the rhetoric of the modern civil rights movement, especially the “I Have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King Jr."

But if Gates had understood that the modern civil rights movement is the primary lens through which we now understand the historical significance of Abraham Lincoln, he might have had more appreciation for the pictures he saw as a kid.

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