It started as a simple conversation. “President Lincoln was a white supremacist,” I said. The primary documents of history make this a non-controversial assessment. The retort I received was, “What? But Lincoln freed the slaves?” This exchange, of course, was brought forth by the release of the biopic Lincoln directed by Steven Spielberg. I will not pay to see the film in any way, shape or form. It is, in part, a byproduct of Walt Disney Studios whose originating theme park in Anaheim features the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln auto-animatronic historical white-washing attraction. That aside, the film comes from the same director who commandeered Amistad which, in a simple rhyme by Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine, was described as a “whip” that left the truth “feathered and tarred.”
Interesting it is that Adam Gurowski wrote of Abraham Lincoln at the time that he was “whipped into glory.” From that, author and historian Lerone Bennett Jr. changed the title of his seminal book to Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream. If only the anti-myth scholar’s book had been used as a base for a biopic, the national dialogue in this moment would be made better by it. Instead, Lincoln by its simple stand alone surname title confers great glory.
Bennett wrote presciently that “not only is Lincoln a church, he is also an industry.” The biopic, with whispers of Oscar nominations, is a grand consummation of that. By extension, it is a deep betrayal of the truth. An examination of the full historical record of President Lincoln must acknowledge that he used the N-word, supported the Fugitive Slave Act, opposed interracial marriage, never believed in social or racial equality between Blacks and Whites and subscribed to a vision of deporting Black people out of the United States into colonies. This, from the “Great Emancipator” of the United States whose actual views were better suited for the current internet ramblings of Stormfront!
But what about the Emancipation Proclamation? Bennett’s scholarship affirms it for the exercise in gesture politics that it was as it “freed” slaves where Lincoln had no authority to do so and left those where he could have in shackles.
The theology of Lincoln is bigger than a biopic. In 2007, candidate Barack Obama tapped into it beginning his presidential bid in Springfield, Illinois where Lincoln made a speech declaring that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” As the first Black President, Obama swore upon the same Bible as Lincoln for his inauguration. Bennett described the original moment as one of irony, given who Lincoln really was, saying the bearded one “would have been horrified by the idea.” There is no historical continuum, but the apocrypha of the church of Lincoln allows for an undeserved symbolic potency. We are forced into his glory.
Is there room for nuance? Sure. I was a student of Professor Sterling Stuckey‘s final class and applauded the slave culture scholar when his last lecture ended. Before that, we ruminated over the usage of the term “unrequited toil” in Lincoln’s second inaugural address and when compared to Andrew Johnson, his Vice President for that term, he wasn’t the most odious racist in his own administration! But the nation was not one entirely of racists. For purposes of comparison from another angle, there were true, heroic abolitionists, Black and White, who forced the issue of slavery onto the hands of power, but no one will tell their story on the silver screen.
Instead of watching Lincoln at the theaters, which erases Blacks as agents of their own liberation, view an hour long discussion with Bennett about Forced into Glory on CSPAN from 2000 (or better yet, buy the book!) which I first came across by way of Professor Jared Ball. The reviews of the film will not cover the same terrain. The chatter will more likely be about how Obama should be more like Lincoln, or how far modern day Republicans have strayed from being the party of Lincoln! (Put all of that in a historical pipe and smoke it!) Sadly, there is much that needs to be said, much to rethink. It’s time to stop being dishonest about Abe.
A dialogue with integrity makes returning to Forced into Glory a necessary task, one in which my high school history teacher — a purported Lincoln aficionado — failed me, just as Hollywood is doing now to audiences nationwide. As Bennett says, “People who don’t know when they were emancipated, and if they were emancipated, are never going to be emancipated.”
And that goes for all of us…