Slavery: everyone's talking about it. I've read more about slavery in the mainstream media the past two months than at any time in my life. This is due, in part, to the pair of Oscar-bound movies released this fall. Lincoln, the Spielberg movie chronicling the legislative triumph of the 13th Amendment and Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's entertaining revenge fantasy. So, who did free the enslaved people? Daniel Day Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, or Jamie Foxx?
Renewed interest in slavery is also due in part to a recent anniversary. January 1st not only ushered in 2013, it also marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a document issued during the middle of the Civil War. As we've talked about in class, this document has its own complicated history.
A recent op-ed by Eric Foner — yes, THAT Foner, OUR Foner — argues that the document served as an important step in the evolution of President Lincoln. Early on in the War (August, 1862), Lincoln "seemed to blame the presence of blacks in America for the conflict: 'but for your race among us there could not be war.' He issued a
powerful indictment of slavery — 'the greatest wrong inflicted on any
people' — but added that, because of racism, blacks would never achieve
equality in America. 'It is better for us both, therefore, to be
separated,' he said. But most blacks refused to contemplate emigration
from the land of their birth."
Soon after, a number of events (thousands of enslaved people bravely running away; the stalemated war; the desperate need for manpower in the Union army — remember the film Glory?) conspired to bring Lincoln to a new position. This, Foner says, is "the hallmark of Lincoln’s greatness" and by December of 1862 — less than a month before the Proclamation — Lincoln writes: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present,” he
wrote. “We must disenthrall our selves, and then we shall save our
country.” Foner responds: "Lincoln included himself in that 'we.'" (See how he analyzes the word "we" here for his readers?). Here, Foner suggests, Lincoln frees his past self from his own earlier position on slavery. And on January 1st, he
proclaimed the freedom of the vast majority of the nation’s slaves (those enslaved people living in states of rebellion).
Look again at the image the opens this post. According to Backstory's recent podcast on the history of emancipation, this is the Emancipation Memorial created by Thomas Ball after Lincoln's assassination. The idea of a monument came from the Freedman's Bureau and the original design was a gigantic (60' tall) monument created by a woman that featured the seated (read: fallen) Lincoln and a proud and standing African-American soldier. But, without the money to pay for that statue, the decision went to an all-white charitable organization that settled on the present design.
Lincoln holds in his right hand the Emancipation Proclamation. The figure kneeling at his feet is Arthur Alexander, a formerly enslaved person living in Missouri, a border state. (Remember: the Proclamation only "freed" enslaved people living in states of open rebellion).
The document holds no meaning whatsoever to the fate of this enslaved person.
Can you see a connection between the tension in these two memorial designs and the two movies I mentioned at the top of this post? In one movie, Lincoln is the benevolent Emancipator, the one with agency (in other words, the one who gets to do something). In the other, the "star" is African-American. There is no mention of Lincoln and agency is utterly within the hands of a black man (forgetting for the moment that the director of that movie is white and that Foxx did not receive a Golden Globe nomination but that his two white co-stars did!).
In a follow-up post, I'll examine what emancipation looks like — what it would look like and what it has looked like. Until then, enjoy this video from Mr. B:
Music by Nils Frahm. "Si" from Screws