Monday, January 07, 2013

Proclaiming Emancipation

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

15 comments:

Clark Kipp said...

Over break, I was able to get to a theater and see "Lincoln" featuring Daniel Day Lewis as President Lincoln. In my view, there was just tension between Lincoln and the Republican House Reps. and the Democratic House Reps. Never Lincoln had a passionate view or thought against slavery, so for the viewers of the film, one gets the impression that Lincoln would have never wanted African-Americans to stay 'separated' as he said early in the Civil War. I think Lincoln was a great man and he definitely changed over the course of the war as Foner shows us, but he was glorified a bit much in "Lincoln" in my opinion.

Tom Fawcett said...

I agree with Clark that Lincoln seems to have been glorified in "Lincoln". This is interesting because of the lack of representation that Lincoln received in "Django Unchained" (which I will have to take O'C's word for because I have never seen it). Likewise, Lincoln seems to be represented in a more apparent manner in the Emancipation Memorial, than in the plan that the Freedman's Bureau had for the memorial. In the current memorial Lincoln stands tall above Arthur Alexander, as if he is the center of attention. In the Freedman’s Bureau’s plan, the proud and standing African-American soldier seems as if it would have attracted most of the attention, and Lincoln (sitting) would have been a side note. It seems as if the attention towards Lincoln draws a strong connection between these statues, and the movies released recently.

Jeremy Noskin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeremy Noskin said...

Tom makes a good point about how each statue can be translated to each of the two movies. "Django Unchained" refers to the original version, while "Lincoln" is similar to the current statue. What is interesting to me is that "Lincoln" clearly poses Abraham Lincoln in a positive light, just like the current statue. However, the majority of people that have seen this statue in Washington know nothing of the original one. In comparison, I believe that "Django Unchained" was created by Quentin Tarantino as an opposite to "Lincoln", which did not AOS. Since the original statue gets little recognition, just like a slave's view of slavery, Tarantino wanted to capture the less frequently seen viewpoint. I believe that he did an excellent job capturing Django's essence and showing how other whites and even blacks reacted to a free African-American.

Zach Peltz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lily Stein said...

Today in class, Zach mentioned the idea of holiness. I see this portrayed in both Thomas Ball's Emancipation Memorial and the movie "Lincoln." From the first scene when the two soldiers are reciting Lincoln's words to him, it seems that Lincoln is being worshiped as though he is some sort of god. Similarly, the memorial portrays Lincoln in the same way. He stands tall over Arthur Alexander and because of this, it seems like Alexander is praising Lincoln as a holy figure, just like the soldiers in the movie were.

As mentioned, in "Lincoln" and in the Emancipation Memorial, Lincoln has all the agency, which might not have really been the case. Historian William Jelani Cobb wrote, "enslaved blacks poisoned slaveholders, destroyed crops, 'accidentally' burned down buildings." These actions, along with the ones Mr.O'C listed, prove that while Lincoln may have been the face of it, the enslaved people were the agents, as the first monument would have portrayed with more accuracy.

Aj Watkins said...

Like Zach, I also have seen neither movies, but I still can see some major differences in the statues. The obvious difference between the two statues is who would be in control. I disagree with Tom that had the Freedman's Bureau built the statue they envisioned with Lincoln sitting, Lincoln would have been a side note. I think it is really just a question of who is glorified or in control. If the African-American soldier had been built towering over Lincoln, it would be clear that the statue shows the contribution that the African-Americans put in to end slavery. However, in the Emancipation Memorial, Lincoln is standing tall over an African-American, holding on to the Emancipation Proclamation. This statue glorifies the contributions Lincoln put forth - passing legislation to end slavery. And again, though I Have not seen either movies, I think it is quite clear that whoever stands tall is who gets the glorification of contributing to end slavery.

Jerome Janczy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jerome Janczy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jerome Janczy said...

Following some ideas Zach brought up,

One thing I found very interesting in this post was how Lincoln said "We must disenthrall our selves, and then we shall save our country"
I believe this is suggesting that Americans must free their stereotypes towards African Americans. However, it appears this drastic change in opinion came only after he witnessed the fighting courage of the African Americans and the events in "Glory".

I believe the Freedman's Bureau statue is giving praise to the African American soldiers that helped shape Lincoln's actions with the Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification the 13th Amendment. While the current statue simply gives praise to Lincoln, even when the Emancipation Proclamation meant nothing to Arthur Alexander.

The current statue and the movie Lincoln both ignore the influence African Americans had upon their own freedom,while giving credit for their freedom solely to Lincoln.

Although, I believe Lincoln should be given some credit for his part, the continued use of this inaccurate glorification to Lincoln is quite ridiculous.

Heidi Blumenthal said...

Similar to many of my classmates, I have not seen either of these new movies. So far no one has commented on the curious fact that a women created the controversial original design of the Emancipation Memorial. I know that many of you must think that I am a big Women's Rights Activist, however I think that it is very interesting how many times throughout history, like during WWI, the Civil War, etc., that women tend to side with the minorities. This statue portrayed the holly "agent" as a black soldier created an uproar, but maybe that was also due to the fact that it was created by a women. Do you think an all-white male charitable organization would sponsor a women's statue which empowered the blacks during that time? These two situations combined are highly unlikely and might be why the Emancipation Memorial looks the way it does today. As Zach said previously maybe we should make a new statue. But that will not happen until we treat blacks and whites equally, for example why would Jamie Foxx not get a Golden Globe nomination if he was the lead actor in Django Unchained, yet his two white co-stars did? Yes this may be related to their acting talent in the movie, or it might have hidden racial implications.

Lily Schroeder said...

After further researching the history of the Emancipation Memorial, I thought it was interesting how a large part of funding for the memorial came from former enslaved people, yet the statue shows Archer Alexander as inferior. It does not do justice to the work the African-American people did to free themselves and their families. So why would the freed slaves fund such a memorial where their, as Jerome put it, influence upon their own freedom was ignored? Too bad Harriet Hosmer's design couldn't have been made smaller or somehow more affordable. Hosmer's design really does illustrate the freed slaves as people who have risen for their own freedom. The current memorial might even be interpreted with ambiguity. Despite the fact that it is named Emancipation, it could be argued that Archer Alexander is still enslaved. In fact, if it wasn't called Emancipation, I might think at first that Lincoln is standing in command over him.


Sarah Henzlik said...

I think art is a good indicator of what a society is really like. As I read more about the memorial pictured, I learned that it is the only memorial to the Emancipation Proclamation in Washington, D.C. If a historian from hundreds of years in the future were to visit this memorial, I wonder what they would think. Would they think that Lincoln, the white man, was superior to the crouching, seemingly black man, a former slave? What does that really say about American society? How could a memorial to the implementation of a document freeing African American slaves 'in areas of rebellion' be somehow racist in its appearance? Going back to how African Americans are depicted in art forms, I think the two recently released movies really do present African Americans in different lights, similar to what Heidi B said. I have seen both movies and I think that African Americans are presented in a more powerful and empowering state in Django Unchained than in the Lincoln movie. I wonder if this was done for political reasons or just artistic license?

Alexis B said...

I noticed that Doc Oc had bolded the sentence, "The document holds no meaning whatsoever to the fate of this enslaved person." I read an article in The New York Times called Dying for Freedom, which was about what happened to freed slaves after they were emancipated. Freed slaves had no money, no medical care and no home. They were very vulnerable to disease, and more died from illness than fighting for the Union in the Civil War. In order to earn money, since the freed slaves had little to no education, they provided cheap labor to Union citizens, many if not most of whom were white people. Concerning the monument, I agree with AJ when he says that Lincoln is glorified and in control because he is standing tall over the formerly enslaved man, Arthur Alexander. I also think this monument visually (and unintentionally) represents the fact that even though the slaves were free, they were still lower in society because they had to work for white people to survive. Are slaves really free if they are still trapped under the thumb of whites?

Noah Quinn said...

I find Alexis' analysis very interesting and wonder for how long were blacks considered below whites in society. Blacks were "trapped under the thumb" of whites in the South during the Civil Rights movement and after recently watching the movie "Mississippi Burning", blacks were treated just as inhumanely as some of the circumstances we read in Frederick Douglass' narrative despite the century difference.