Feeds:
Entradas
Comentarios

Archive for the ‘Abolicionismo’ Category

Frederick Douglas

Hoy 4 de julio, los estadounidenses celebran el día de la declaración de su independencia. Para conmemorar tan relevante evento, comparto con ustedes un discurso titulado “What to Slave is the 4th of July” que fue pronunciado por Frederick Douglas el 4 de julio de 1852 en Rochester, Nueva York.  Douglas, quien nació esclavo, se convirtió en una de las voces más poderosas contra la esclavitud en los Estados Unidos.  Leído por James Earl Jones, este discurso forma parte de una serie de actuaciones organizadas por el gran historiador Howard Zinn bajo el título Voices of a People’s History of the United States.

Norberto Barreto Velázquez

Lima, Perú, 4 de julio de 2018

Read Full Post »

download-1El 2018 Lincoln Prize ha sido sido concedido al trabajo de Edward Ayers,  The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (W.W. Norton and Company). Este premio, que consiste de $50,000, es otorgado anualmente por  el Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History para reconocer el mejor trabajo investigativo sobre Lincoln y el periodo de la guerra civil. Ayers es un historiador estadounidense, ex Presidente de la Universidad de Richmond y miembro fundador de unos de los mejores podcast de historia estadounidense: Backstory. Ha sido merecedor tanto del Bancroft Prize como  del Beveridge Prize.

Vale mencionar a los finalistas de tan prestigioso premio:

  • Ron Chernow, Grant (Penguin Press).
  • Gordon Rhea, On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-14, 1864 (LSU Press).
  • Tera Hunter, Bound in Wedlock:  Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century(Harvard University Press).
  • Cate Lineberry, Be Free or Die (St. Martin’s Press).
  • Graham Peck, Making an Antislavery Nation(University of Illinois Press).
  • Adam I.P. Smith, The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics: 1846—1865 (University of North Carolina Press).

Read Full Post »

A mob attacking the warehouse of Godfrey & Gilman in Alton, Ill., where the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was killed in 1837.Credit Corbis

A mob attacking the warehouse of Godfrey & Gilman in Alton, Ill., where the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was killed in 1837.Credit Corbis

Was Abolitionism a Failure?

disunion45Jan. 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, banning slavery in America. It was an achievement that abolitionists had spent decades fighting for — and one for which their movement has been lauded ever since.

But before abolitionism succeeded, it failed. As a pre-Civil War movement, it was a flop. Antislavery congressmen were able to push through their amendment because of the absence of the pro-slavery South, and the complicated politics of the Civil War. Abolitionism’s surprise victory has misled generations about how change gets made.

Today, diverse movements cast themselves as modern versions of the struggle against slavery. The former Republican senator Jim DeMint, now the president of the Heritage Foundation, claimed that small-government “constitutional conservatism” has inherited the cause; the liberal TV host Chris Hayes, writing in The Nation, said battling climate change was the “new abolitionism.” That term has become shorthand for “fighting the good fight.” But the long struggle against slavery shows how jerky, contingent and downright lucky winning that good fight was. 

It’s hard to accept just how unpopular abolitionism was before the Civil War. The abolitionist Liberty Party never won a majority in a single county, anywhere in America, in any presidential race. Ralph Nader got closer to the presidency. In 1860 the premier antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, had a circulation of under 3,000, in a nation of 31 million.

Even among Northerners who wanted to stop the spread of slavery, the idea of banning it altogether seemed fanatical. On the eve of the Civil War, America’s greatest sage, Ralph Waldo Emerson, predicted that slavery might end one day, but “we shall not live to see it.”

In a deeply racist society, where most white Americans, South and North, valued sectional unity above equal rights, “abolitionist” was usually a dirty word. One man who campaigned for Abraham Lincoln in 1860 complained: “I have been denounced as impudent, foppish, immature, and worse than all, an Abolitionist.”

While we remember the war as a struggle for freedom, at its outset neither Lincoln nor the Republican Party planned to ban slavery. To calm talk of secession, Congress passed a never-ratified, now-forgotten 13th Amendment promising that no amendment could ever end slavery. Lincoln backed it. Going into the conflict, Congress offered to abolish abolitionism, not slavery.

Abolitionism gained strength thanks to the uncompromising stance of radical “fire eating” Southerners. By ostracizing Northern allies, seceding and then starting a war, Southern radicals gave abolitionism gift after gift after gift. When South Carolina militiamen fired on Fort Sumter, Frederick Douglass exalted: “Thank God! — The slaveholders themselves have saved our cause from ruin!”

The war’s length and brutality gave further fuel to the abolitionist fire. The historian Gary W. Gallagher has argued that the successful generalship of Robert E. Lee ultimately helped emancipation, pushing bloodied and vengeful Northerners to free slaves. Moderates like Lincoln became convinced that “we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.”

Still, the war, not the strength of abolitionism, made the difference. When he finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln operated under the president’s war powers. And when thousands of slaves freed themselves and fought the Confederacy, they mostly did so as the Union Army entered their regions. Antislavery blacks fought bravely and lobbied cannily, helped by the radicalism of their former masters.

By January 1865, the tide had turned. Congress moved to ban slavery everywhere (not just in the Confederacy, but in loyal slave states like Maryland and Kentucky). A body that had tried to make slavery un-abolishable a few years before voted to free four million men and women. It could never have passed the amendment if all those Southern congressmen had stayed in Washington to vote against it. Every politician who stormed off to join the Confederacy cast an inadvertent ballot for abolition.

Here’s where the confusion emerges. After the war, many Americans interpreted slaveholder mistakes as abolitionist victories. Abolition looked like a road map for reform. Many claimed to have been on its side before the war. Publishers printed a torrent of memoirs by supposed abolitionists; everyone who ever cast a ballot for the Liberty Party seemed to write a book about it.

The generation of Americans raised after the Civil War modeled diverse movements on abolitionism, from supporters of labor, women’s rights and socialism to opponents of popular democracy and mass immigration. The Boston poet James Russell Lowell even compared a movement to suppress poor voters to abolitionists, writing: “They emancipated the negro; we mean to emancipate the respectable white man.”

Today, we point to abolition as proof that we can improve society by eliminating one glaring evil. This is what unites “new abolitionists” across the political spectrum, whether they’re working to end the death penalty or ban abortion. We like the idea of sweeping change, of an idealistic movement triumphing over something so clearly wrong.

The problem is, that’s not really how slavery ended. Those upright, moral, prewar abolitionists did not succeed. Neither did the stiff-necked Southern radicals who ended up destroying the institution they went to war to maintain. It was the flexibility of the Northern moderates, those flip-floppers who voted against abolition before they voted for it, who really ended 250 years of slavery.

Abolitionists make better heroes, though, principled and courageous and seemingly in step with 21st century values. But people from the past who espoused beliefs we hold today were usually rejected at the time. We can only wonder which of today’s unpopular causes will, in 150 years, be considered the abolitionism of 2015.

Read more about the events of the civil war with this timeline of stories, photos and maps. Follow Disunion at twitter.com/NYTcivilwar or join us on Facebook

Jon Grinspan

Jon Grinspan is the author of a forthcoming book on the role of young people in 19th-century American democracy.

Read Full Post »

“Counter-Revolution of 1776”: Was U.S. Independence War a Conservative Revolt in Favor of Slavery?

Democracy Now    June 27, 2014

As the United States prepares to celebrate Independence Day, we look at why July 4 is not a cause for celebration for all. For Native Americans, it may be a bitter reminder of colonialism, which brought fatal diseases, cultural hegemony and genocide. Neither did the new republic’s promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” extend to African Americans. The colonists who declared their freedom from England did not share their newly founded liberation with the millions of Africans they had captured and forced into slavery. We speak with historian Gerald Horne, who argues the so-called Revolutionary War was actually a conservative effort by American colonists to protect their system of slavery. He is the author of two new books: “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America” and “Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow.” Horne is professor of history and African American studies at the University of Houston.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org,The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in Chicago with our next guest. Juan González is in New York.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, next weekend, the United States celebrates the Fourth of July, the day the American colonies declared their independence from England in 1776. While many Americans will hang flags, participate in parades and watch fireworks, Independence Day is not a cause for celebration for all. For Native Americans, it is yet another bitter reminder of colonialism, which brought fatal diseases, cultural hegemony and full-out genocide. Neither did the new republic’s promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness extend to African Americans. As our next guest notes, the white colonists who declared their freedom from the crown did not share their newly founded liberation with the millions of Africans they had captured and forced into slavery.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Gerald Horne argues that the so-called Revolutionary War was actually a counterrevolution, in part, not a progressive step forward for humanity, but a conservative effort by American colonialists to protect their system of slavery.

9781479893409_FullFor more, Professor Horne joins us here in our Chicago studio. He’s the author of two new books: The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America and another new book, just out, Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow. Professor Horne teaches history and African American studies at the University of Houston.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. So, as we move into this Independence Day week, what should we understand about the founding of the United States?

GERALD HORNE: We should understand that July 4th, 1776, in many ways, represents a counterrevolution. That is to say that what helped to prompt July 4th, 1776, was the perception amongst European settlers on the North American mainland that London was moving rapidly towards abolition. This perception was prompted by Somerset’s case, a case decided in London in June 1772 which seemed to suggest that abolition, which not only was going to be ratified in London itself, was going to cross the Atlantic and basically sweep through the mainland, thereby jeopardizing numerous fortunes, not only based upon slavery, but the slave trade. That’s the short answer.

The longer answer would involve going back to another revolution—that is to say, the so-called Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, which, among other things, involved a step back from the monarch—for the monarch, the king, and a step forward for the rising merchant class. This led to a deregulation of the African slave trade. That is to say, the Royal African Company theretofore had been in control of the slave trade, but with the rising power of the merchant class, this slave trade was deregulated, leading to what I call free trade in Africans. That is to say, merchants then descended upon the African continent manacling and handcuffing every African in sight, with the energy of demented and crazed bees, dragging them across the Atlantic, particularly to the Caribbean and to the North American mainland. This was prompted by the fact that the profits for the slave trade were tremendous, sometimes up to 1,600 or 1,700 percent. And as you know, there are those even today who will sell their firstborn for such a profit. This, on the one hand, helped to boost the productive forces both in the Caribbean and on the mainland, but it led to numerous slave revolts, not least in the Caribbean, but also on the mainland, which helped to give the mainlanders second thoughts about London’s tentative steps towards abolition.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Gerald Horne, one of the things that struck me in your book is not only your main thesis, that this was in large part a counterrevolution, our—the United States’ war of independence, but you also link very closely the—what was going on in the Caribbean colonies of England, as well as in the United States, not only in terms of among the slaves in both areas, but also among the white population. And, in fact, you indicate that quite a few of those who ended up here in the United States fostering the American Revolution had actually been refugees from the battles between whites and slaves in the Caribbean. Could you expound on that?

GERALD HORNE: It’s well known that up until the middle part of the 18th century, London felt that the Caribbean colonies—Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, in particular—were in some ways more valuable than the mainland colonies. The problem was that in the Caribbean colonies the Africans outnumbered the European settlers, sometimes at a rate of 20 to one, which facilitated slave revolts. There were major slave revolts in Antigua, for example, in 1709 and 1736. The Maroons—that is to say, the Africans who had escaped London’s jurisdiction in Jamaica—had challenged the crown quite sternly. This led, as your question suggests, to many European settlers in the Caribbean making the great trek to the mainland, being chased out of the Caribbean by enraged Africans. For example, I did research for this book in Newport, Rhode Island, and the main library there, to this very day, is named after Abraham Redwood, who fled Antigua after the 1736 slave revolt because many of his, quote, “Africans,” unquote, were involved in the slave revolt. And he fled in fear and established the main library in Newport, to this very day, and helped to basically establish that city on the Atlantic coast. So, there is a close connection between what was transpiring in the Caribbean and what was taking place on the mainland. And historians need to recognize that even though these colonies were not necessarily a unitary project, there were close and intimate connections between and amongst them.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why this great disparity between how people in the United States talk about the creation myth of the United States, if you will—I’m not talking about indigenous people, Native American people—and this story that you have researched?

GERALD HORNE: Well, it is fair to say that the United States did provide a sanctuary for Europeans. Indeed, I think part of the, quote, “genius,” unquote, of the U.S. project, if there was such a genius, was the fact that the founders in the United States basically called a formal truce, a formal ceasefire, with regard to the religious warfare that had been bedeviling Europe for many decades and centuries—that is to say, Protestant London, so-called, versus Catholic Madrid and Catholic France. What the settlers on the North American mainland did was call a formal truce with regard to religious conflict, but then they opened a new front with regard to race—that is to say, Europeans versus non-Europeans.

This, at once, broadened the base for the settler project. That is to say, they could draw upon those defined as white who had roots from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains, and indeed even to the Arab world, if you look at people like Ralph Nader and Marlo Thomas, for example, whose roots are in Lebanon but are considered to be, quote, “white,” unquote. This obviously expanded the population base for the settler project. And because many rights were then accorded to these newly minted whites, it obviously helped to ensure that many of them would be beholden to the country that then emerged, the United States of America, whereas those of us who were not defined as white got the short end of the stick, if you like.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Gerald Horne, as a result of that, during the American Revolution, what was the perception or the attitude of the African slaves in the U.S. to that conflict? You also—you talk about, during the colonial times, many slaves preferred to flee to the Spanish colonies or the French colonies, rather than to stay in the American colonies of England.

GERALD HORNE: You are correct. The fact of the matter is, is that Spain had been arming Africans since the 1500s. And indeed, because Spain was arming Africans and then unleashing them on mainland colonies, particularly South Carolina, this put competitive pressure on London to act in a similar fashion. The problem there was, is that the mainland settlers had embarked on a project and a model of development that was inconsistent with arming Africans. Indeed, their project was involved in enslaving and manacling every African in sight. This deepens the schism between the colonies and the metropolis—that is to say, London—thereby helping to foment a revolt against British rule in 1776.

It’s well known that more Africans fought alongside of the Redcoats—fought alongside the Redcoats than fought with the settlers. And this is understandable, because if you think about it for more than a nanosecond, it makes little sense for slaves to fight alongside slave masters so that slave masters could then deepen the persecution of the enslaved and, indeed, as happened after 1776, bring more Africans to the mainland, bring more Africans to Cuba, bring more Africans to Brazil, for their profit.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to historian Gerald Horne. He’s author of two new books. We’re talking about The Counter-Revolution of 1776. The subtitle of that book is Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. And his latest book, just out, is called Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow. He’s professor of history and African American studies at University of Houston. When we come back, we’ll talk about that second book about Cuba. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Slavery Days” by Burning Spear, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org,The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in Chicago. Juan González is in New York. Before we talk about the book on slavery, I want to turn to President Obama’s remarks at the White House’s Fourth of July celebration last year. This is how President Obama described what happened in 1776.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: On July 4th, 1776, a small band of patriots declared that we were a people created equal, free to think and worship and live as we please, that our destiny would not be determined for us, it would be determined by us. And it was bold, and it was brave. And it was unprecedented. It was unthinkable. At that time in human history, it was kings and princes and emperors who made decisions. But those patriots knew there was a better way of doing things, that freedom was possible, and that to achieve their freedom, they’d be willing to lay down their lives, their fortune and their honor. And so they fought a revolution. And few would have bet on their side. But for the first time of many times to come, America proved the doubters wrong. And now, 237 years later, this improbable experiment in democracy, the United States of America, stands as the greatest nation on Earth.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was President Obama talking about the meaning of July 4th. Gerald Horne, your book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776, is a direct rebuttal of this, as you call, creation myth. Could you talk about that?

GERALD HORNE: Well, with all due respect to President Obama, I think that he represents, in those remarks you just cited, the consensus view. That is to say that, on the one hand, there is little doubt that 1776 represented a step forward with regard to the triumph over monarchy. The problem with 1776 was that it went on to establish what I refer to as the first apartheid state. That is to say, the rights that Mr. Obama refers to were accorded to only those who were defined as white. To that degree, I argue in the book that 1776, in many ways, was analogous to Unilateral Declaration of Independence in the country then known as Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in November 1965. UDI, Unilateral Declaration of Independence, was in many ways an attempt to forestall decolonization. 1776, in many ways, was an attempt to forestall the abolition of slavery. That attempt succeeded until the experiment crashed and burned in 1861 with the U.S. Civil War, the bloodiest conflict, to this point, the United States has ever been involved in.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Gerald Horne, how does this story, this, what you call, counterrevolution, fit in with your latest book, Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow?

GERALD HORNE: Well, there’s a certain consistency between the two books. Keep in mind that in 1762 Britain temporarily seized Cuba from Spain. And one of the regulations that Britain imposed outraged the settlers, as I argue in both books. What happened was that Britain sought to regulate the slave trade, and the settlers on the North American mainland wanted deregulation of the slave trade, thereby bringing in more Africans. What happens is that that was one of the points of contention that lead to a detonation and a revolt against British rule in 1776.

I go on in the Cuba book to talk about how one of the many reasons why you have so many black people in Cuba was because of the manic energy of U.S. slave traders and slave dealers, particularly going into the Congo River Basin and dragging Africans across the Atlantic. Likewise, I had argued in a previous book on the African slave trade to Brazil that one of the many reasons why you have so many black people in Brazil, more than any place outside of Nigeria, is, once again, because of the manic energy of U.S. slave traders and slave dealers, who go into Angola, in particular, and drag Africans across the Atlantic to Brazil.

It seems to me that it’s very difficult to reconcile the creation myth of this great leap forward for humanity when, after 1776 and the foundation of the United States of America, the United States ousts Britain from control of the African slave trade. Britain then becomes the cop on the beat trying to detain and deter U.S. slave traders and slave dealers. It seems to me that if this was a step forward for humanity, it was certainly not a step forward for Africans, who, the last time I looked, comprise a significant percentage of humanity.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Gerald Horne, so, in other words, as you’re explaining the involvement of American companies in the slave trade in Brazil and Cuba, this—that book and also your The Counter-Revolution of 1776 makes the same point that slavery was not just an issue of interest in the South to the Southern plantation owners, but that in the North, banking, insurance, merchants, shipping were all involved in the slave trade, as well.

GERALD HORNE: Well, Juan, as you well know, New York City was a citadel of the African slave trade, even after the formal abolition of the U.S. role in the African slave trade in 1808. Rhode Island was also a center for the African slave trade. Ditto for Massachusetts. Part of the unity between North and South was that it was in the North that the financing for the African slave trade took place, and it was in the South where you had the Africans deposited. That helps to undermine, to a degree, the very easy notion that the North was abolitionist and the South was pro-slavery.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Gerald Horne, what most surprised you in your research around Cuba, U.S. slavery and Jim Crow?

GERALD HORNE: Well, what most surprised me with regard to both of these projects was the restiveness, the rebelliousness of the Africans involved. It’s well known that the Africans in the Caribbean were very much involved in various extermination plots, liquidation plots, seeking to abolish, through force of arms and violence, the institution of slavery. Unfortunately, I think that historians on the North American mainland have tended to downplay the restiveness of Africans, and I think it’s done a disservice to the descendants of the population of mainland enslaved Africans. That is to say that because the restiveness of Africans in the United States has been downplayed, it leads many African Americans today to either, A, think that their ancestors were chumps—that is to say, that they fought alongside slave owners to bring more freedom to slave owners and more persecution to themselves—or, B, that they were ciphers—that is to say, they stood on the sidelines as their fate was being determined. I think that both of these books seek to disprove those very unfortunate notions.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as we move into the Independence Day weekend next weekend, what do you say to people in the United States?

GERALD HORNE: What I say to the people in the United States is that you have proved that you can be very critical of what you deem to be revolutionary processes. You have a number of scholars and intellectuals who make a good living by critiquing the Cuban Revolution of 1959, by critiquing the Russian Revolution of 1917, by critiquing the French Revolution of the 18th century, but yet we get the impression that what happened in 1776 was all upside, which is rather far-fetched, given what I’ve just laid out before you in terms of how the enslaved African population had their plight worsened by 1776, not to mention the subsequent liquidation of independent Native American polities as a result of 1776. I think that we need a more balanced presentation of the foundation of the United States of America, and I think that there’s no sooner place to begin than next week with July 4th, 2014.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Gerald Horne, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Historian Gerald Horne is author of two new books: The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America as well as Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow. He’s a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Houston.

That does it for our broadcast. Happy birthday to Jon Randolph. Democracy Now! has two job openings — administrative director, as well as a seasoned Linux systems administrator — as well asfall internships. Check out democracynow.org/jobs for more information.

 

 

Read Full Post »

I Freed Myself: African American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era

Marshall Poe 

New Books in History  June 5, 2014

David Williams

David Williams

Lincoln was very clear–at least in public–that the Civil War was not fought over slavery: it was, he 61eT-apOtrL._SL160_said, for the preservation of the Union first and foremost. So it’s not surprising that when the conflict started he had no firm plan to emancipate the slaves in the borderland or Southern states. He also knew that such a move might prove very unpopular in the North.

So why did he issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863? There are many reasons. According to David Williams‘ fascinating new book I Freed Myself: African American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era (Cambridge University Press, 2014), an important and neglected one has to do with African American self-emancipation. After the war began, masses of slaves began to leave the South and head for the Northern lines. The Union forces received them as “contraband” seized from the enemy during wartime. As such, their status was uncertain. Many wanted to fight or at least serve as auxiliaries in the Union armies like freemen, but they were still seen as property. As Williams points out, the North certainly needed their manpower–as Lincoln knew better than anyone. Bearing this in mind, the President felt the time was propitious to do what he thought was right all along–free the slaves. Listen in.

Read Full Post »

CommunityNewsletter_0

In Defense of History According to Hollywood

by Yohuru Williams

HNN  February 17, 2014

Yohuru Williams is chair and professor of history at Fairfield University. Follow him on Twitter @yohuruwilliams

Image via Wiki Commons.

After weeks of badgering from a friend, I saw Frost/ Nixon a few years back and left the theatre pleasantly surprised. When I called her to discuss the film, she seemed disappointed in my reaction. As a scholar of Twentieth Century United States History, she was anxious to compare notes on the historical inaccuracies she documented in the film.  I had gone in with the same game plan, but somewhere in between the endless parade of advertising, forthcoming features, and the opening credits, I lapsed into casual moviegoer mode. I truly wanted to see how director Ron Howard would tell the story and so I was able to muster the advice of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and “suspend disbelief” in deference to “poetic faith.”

It helps that I had no professional stake in the movie.  My friend reminded me of my incessant petulance after seeing the movie Panther in 1995. As a young graduate student eager to reclaim my topic, I marched into the theatre with a pen and pad and emerged two hours later, with my hands literally bathed in ink from my furious attempt to detail and highlight every factual error.

In this sense, a historian in a history film is very much like the proverbial bull in a China shop. At every moment, we threaten to shatter the delicate handiwork of the shop owner without regard to the intricate and difficult nature of her task. Films that delve into history have the toughest audience. They must satisfy the movie going public’s desire to see a good story, complete with a satisfactory ending — with the reality that the study of the past offers us very few examples of neat, self-contained, happy endings.

That is a big part of the problem for historians. As the Bradley Commission notably observed in 1988, history is unfinished business.  Any medium that purports to neatly package the past and reconcile its meaning in a few hours is immediately suspect. Yet, this is what the “people” demand, underscoring William Dean Howells famous observation, “What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.” Historical narratives, of course, are rarely this uncomplicated. What may worry the professional historian most, in her effort to reconstruct the past from incomplete and not always trustworthy sources, may be of little concern to the historical filmmaker seeking to satisfy a larger agenda. As David Blight observed in Race, Reunion and the Civil War with regard to D.W. Griffith’s deeply flawed cinematic vision of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Birth of Nation was as much a movie as it was a political statement.

Audiences today, one might argue-problematically of course, are more sophisticated. The recent news that film maker Oliver Stone dropped out of a project to bring the life of Martin Luther King to the big screen, did little to quiet rumblings from those concerned that the film would fail to capture the “historical” King. Some questioned, for instance, if such a film would detail Dr. King’s marital infidelities, perhaps understandable given our current preoccupation with the private lives of public figures. This was presumably not an issue in 1978 when Director Daniel Mann brought Dr. King’s life to the small screen in the three-part miniseries, King, starring Paul Winfield in the title role. The film, which still occasionally makes appearances on Dr. King’s birthday and during Black History Month, remains controversial for other reasons. Although the director devoted six hours to telling King’s story, the miniseries is perhaps best remembered for the liberties, and in some cases total falsehoods it concocted in documenting the movement including a scene where Dr. King and Malcolm X engage in a frank chat about nonviolence in Chicago in 1966 — nearly a year after Malcolm’s assassination in February of 1965. Although the invented conversation has the desired effect of contrasting the two men’s views, it is entirely a fabrication.

Directorial license theoretically knows no bounds — except in crafting a story that will appeal to a target audience, even if that includes the manufacture of characters or storylines. In 1988, Coretta Scott King famously weighed in on Mississippi Burning, challenging the film for its skewed view of the Civil Rights Movement — told not from the perspective of the embattled Civil Rights workers who risked their lives but the white FBI agents who, for the most part, watched from the sidelines.

So, if Hollywood is so terrible at getting it right, why do historians and history teachers continue to go to and in some cases, show such movies in class? In his celebrated essay “Why We Crave Horror Films?” author Stephen King laid bare the art of his craft. Although geared toward a different genre, his view may have some relevance for us. “The mythic horror movie,” he explained “like the sick joke has a dirty job to do….It deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us. It is morbidity unchained, our most base instincts let free, our nastiest fantasies realized . . . and it all happens, fittingly enough, in the dark.”

If this is true, what might we say about the mythic History film? For it surely also has a job to do, within much tighter confines — and in the blinding light of hindsight. While the horror film can take liberties with our imagination in making the unthinkable real, the historical film faces its own burdens of voice and authenticity. The history filmmakers lens must serve simultaneously as a time machine and a mirror to society.  When viewing our image in that mirror we need to recognize ourselves in its reflection and whether it is a positive view (Band of Brothers) or a negative one (Mississippi Burning) it needs to be familiar — even if (12 Years a Slave) uncomfortably so. As John Hope Franklin and Abraham Eisenstaedt have observed “every generation writes its own history for it tends to see the past in the foreshortened perspective of its own experience.”

Historical films thus have an inherent degree of tension. In addition to their mission to entertain, they often speak problematically to two audiences, one looking to safeguard its legacy and the other to understand its values. For those old enough to remember, historical movies can be a pleasant or disturbing trek down memory lane. For those with no memory or connective tissue, they very much represent a roadmap of sorts, which is probably why we remain so deeply invested in getting it right and debating the finer points of historical movies. History matters. From the military history buffs ready to pounce on the slightest variation in a unit’s insignia, to the participants ready to challenge those who question their motivations, to the now adult who never quite understood why her parents wept so bitterly the day Kennedy died, we are constantly negotiating and renegotiating the meaning of the past. History films are like our own fickle and often, subjective memories committed to celluloid. What they reflect or who we see reflected in them can tell us a lot about where we are at any given moment. In a society rapidly transitioning away from oral and written to visual sources, soon they may become even more significant – as a means to not only imagine the past, but also shape its meaning.

George Will famously referred to Oliver Stone’s 1991 docudrama JFK as a “three hour lie from an intellectual sociopath.” It nevertheless grossed 205 million worldwide and sparked intense debate and discussion. A Newsweek magazine cover featuring a photo of actor Djimon Hounsou manacled and with the subtitle “Should America apologize for slavery or just get over it?” attempted to use the film to promote a national discussion over slavery. As a High school teacher, I took my class to the film and despite my blistering critique my students literally spent the next month and half referencing it. That is the rub. Even when they get it wrong, as they often do, there is still tremendous value in the exercise.  It creates for those with no memory and or no engagement with scholarship a frame of reference, no matter how flawed.

There is another important consideration beyond this as well. As the movie Forest Gump reminded us, it not just the facades and the fashions that transport us back, not merely the music or the language, although clearly they help. It is the culmination of our collective hopes and fears transferred to the big screen starring back at us to affirm not only who we are but what we aspire to be.

Critics challenge history movies for a host of reasons, including historical inaccuracies, manufactured dialogue, and/or conflated characters. A film can never reproduce a life, nor for that matter can a historian. Even with the most complete sources, we cannot know with absolute certainty that what we write is 100% accurate. It is why we discuss history in terms of changing interpretations rather than ironclad narratives.  It is also why we crave history films as a means of judging not only our values but also the narratives that prevail currently. In stark contrast to Stephen King’s horror film, the mythic history film represents morbidity, in the form of the unknown, checked, our most base instincts subdued, and our best qualities, in the form of manufactured heroes and happy endings idealized. To their detractors, of course, these qualities can make history movies a horror of a different stripe for they deliberately appeal, usually in the creation of heroes, to the best in all of us — at times at the expense of frank discussions about our not so glorious past. Nevertheless, even in all their flaws, they invaluable as teaching tools especially in terms of getting people thinking and talking about past.

Yohuru Williams is chair and professor of history at Fairfield University. Follow him on Twitter @yohuruwilliams

 

Read Full Post »

Untold History: More Than a Quarter of U.S. Presidents Were Involved in Slavery, Human Trafficking

Democracy Now     February 17, 2014

As the country marks Presidents’ Day, we turn to an aspect of U.S. history that is often missed: the complicity of American presidents with slavery. “More than one-in-four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery. These presidents bought, sold and bred enslaved people for profit. Of the 12 presidents who were enslavers, more than half kept people in bondage at the White House,” writes historian Clarence Lusane in his most recent article, “Missing from Presidents’ Day: The People They Enslaved.”

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the country marks Presidents’ Day today, we turn to an aspect of U.S. history often missed: the complicity of American presidents with slavery. The first person of African descent to enter the White House was most likely a slave. The nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., once hosted markets where human beings were sold for profit. Slaves built some of the country’s most famous landmarks, including Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, Boston’s Faneuil Hall, James Madison’s Montpelier. Last week, President Obama mentioned the role of slaves in building one specific landmark: Thomas Jefferson’s plantation estate in Charlottesville, Virginia. Obama was touring the home of America’s third president with French leader François Hollande. This is what Obama had to say about Monticello.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This house also represents a complicated history of the United States. We just visited downstairs, where we know that slaves helped to build this magnificent structure, and the complex relations that Jefferson, the drafter of the Declaration of Independence, had to slavery. And it’s a reminder for both of us that we are going to continue this fight on behalf of the rights of all peoples, something that I know France has always been committed to and we are committed to, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama speaking last week during French President François Hollande’s visit to the U.S.

We’re joined now by Clarence Lusane, who has documented the racial history of Washington, D.C., and the presidency. His most recent article is “Missing from Presidents’ Day: The People They Enslaved.” Clarence Lusane writes, quote, “more than one in four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery. These presidents bought, sold, and bred enslaved people for profit. Of the 12 presidents who were enslavers, more than half kept people in bondage at the White House,” he writes. Clarence Lusane is author of The Black History of the White House, a member of the D.C. Commission on African American Affairs, also professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

Professor Lusane, welcome to Democracy Now! So, talk about this history of slavery and U.S. presidents.

CLARENCE LUSANE: Well, I’m glad that you pointed out that President Obama, when he went to Jefferson’s home, pointed out the slave history there. But it’s also important to note that the most iconic building in the U.S., the one that represents the country to the world, the White House, also was a place where slavery existed. Not only that, it was built by slaves. And none of that has been publicly acknowledged. There is over a million people who visit the White House every year, who go on tours, who come for meetings, and you can go through that building and never have a sense of that important history.

And that’s critical because I think Presidents’ Day should be a period of critical reflection, not some kind of blind celebration, but it should be one where we really try to get a better sense of the country’s history. And part of that history, part of what I think resonates even to this day, is that, significantly, before the Civil War, nearly every U.S. president was a slave owner, which meant that they were compromised on the issue of slavery, and that had repercussions that, you know, redounded through history. So it’s really critical, I think, that we have that acknowledgment, because we grow up, we go to school, we have history classes, and none of that history is told to us.

AMY GOODMAN: So, give us a black history of U.S. presidents, as you call it.

CLARENCE LUSANE: Well, in looking at the White House—and I use that as the prism to try to look at this longer history that basically led up to President Obama—one of the things that we find that’s missing in that history is the voices of people, particularly African Americans, who were enslaved during that long, long, long history. And that was critical because when you think about George Washington, Madison, Monroe, all of the early presidents, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, they wrote the Constitution, they wrote the Articles of Confederation, all of these documents, these founding documents that extol the principles of democracy, liberty, equality, they were living a contradiction. And that contradiction is that every single day of their life, every moment in their life, they were surrounded by people who were enslaved.

Now, fortunately, because of some of the historic records that have been kept, we now know who some of those people were. George Washington, for example, when he was president and his presidency was in Philadelphia, had at least nine individuals with him who were enslaved—Oney Maria Judge, for example, who was a young woman of about 22 who escaped from George Washington. She escaped—this was in 1796, when she found out that Martha Washington was planning to give her away as a wedding gift. And she made contact with the free black population in Philadelphia, was able to escape. Now, this is remarkable because we’re talking about a young woman who basically traveled nowhere by herself, who escapes from the most powerful person on the planet, pretty much, certainly most powerful person in the United States. Her story is important because she lived—she outlived Washington. She lived to be, I believe, in her eighties and lived a life where she learned to read, became active in her community. You also had Hercules, who was Washington’s cook, who also escaped from Washington.

So there are people who we were in and around the White House who had stories to tell that are part of that history that we literally were never taught about for all of the years that, you know, we took schooling and we took classes in history. And so, I thought it was important, and there are others who have written to re-enter into the historic narrative the stories of these individuals, because they really are critical if you really want to understand the politics of George Washington or the politics of Thomas Jefferson or any of the other presidents who held slaves.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Paul Jennings.

CLARENCE LUSANE: Paul Jennings, again, is another fascinating character. He was enslaved to the Madisons, to James and Dolly Madison. He was, in fact, the first individual to actually write about working in the White House. He published a memoir—this was in the late 1860s—that talked about the time when he was in the White House. And he was there in 1814. He was there when the British literally were burning down the city, and was part of the contingent of folks who were attempting to get materials out of the White House and preserve them before the British came. So he really had a fascinating history.

He was supposed to be free when James Madison died, but Dolly Madison basically reneged on the deal. So he—it took him a few years to buy his freedom, which he eventually did. And then he actually came to help Dolly Madison. She fell on hard times. She wasn’t wealthy. She wasn’t a wealthy person, and she wasn’t part of the social elite of Washington. And so, when she fell on hard times and her family and friends abandoned her, Jennings would often bring her food and bring her money and basically would look after her. But what was also important about James Jennings is that he also was—

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Jennings.

CLARENCE LUSANE: Paul Jennings, I’m sorry, is that he was also central to the largest attempt at escaping from slavery that happened in Washington, D.C. This happened in 1848. For a number of reasons, the escape attempt failed, but Jennings was never brought in. He was never seen as being part of it. And it was only literally after his death that it was revealed that he had played a very critical role in that. So, my point is that you had these individuals who were enslaved to presidents, who really had fascinating kinds of stories and fascinating kinds of lives that we should know about, because they really are also a part of the history of the White House and the history of the presidency.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from the trailer of the film Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg, released last year, about President Abraham Lincoln and the fight to end slavery in the United States. In this clip, you first hear Abraham Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, followed by the voices of Thaddeus Stevens, the congressmember from Pennsylvania, and Mary Todd Lincoln, the first lady. Let’s go to that clip.

PRESIDENT ABRAHAM LINCOLN: [played by Daniel Day-Lewis] We’re stepped out upon the world stage now, the fate of human dignity in our hands! Blood’s been spilt to afford us this moment! Now! Now! Now!

THADDEUS STEVENS: [played by Tommy Lee Jones] Abraham Lincoln has asked us to work with him to accomplish the death of slavery.

MARY TODD LINCOLN: [played by Sally Field] No one’s ever been loved so much by the people. Don’t waste that power.

AMY GOODMAN: That was an excerpt of Lincoln. Clarence Lusane, talk about Abraham Lincoln and slavery.

CLARENCE LUSANE: Lincoln was—the Lincoln administration was a turning point in terms of the history of the relationship between African Americans and the White House. It was during Lincoln’s tenure that the first meeting took place between a U.S. president and leaders of the black community. This happened in 1862, I believe. Now, this was critical because up until that point, although African Americans, particularly free African Americans in the North, had been organized and had been raising issues, policy issues, issues around slavery, they simply had no access to the White House or to policymakers. Lincoln, however, opened up some of that space.

And part of what I think moved Lincoln from being not just simply anti-slavery, but ultimately to recognizing that you had to eliminate slavery, that abolition was the only path forward, in part, came because of his discussions with black leaders, not only church leaders, but people like Frederick Douglass, but also—and this is in the film—discussions with Elizabeth Keckley. In the film, she’s the woman who’s often seen with Mary Lincoln. She’s played by Reuben, Gloria Reuben, in the film. And the film is a little bit disingenuous in that you could think that maybe she was a servant, but in fact she was an independent businesswoman who had become basically best friends with Mary Lincoln, but also she spent a great deal of time at the White House having discussions with Abraham Lincoln about race, about slavery, about the future of the country. And again, her story is important to be told because she, again, was part of a contingent of African Americans who thought to influence the presidency and to address issues that needed to be dealt with. And so, the movie Lincoln doesn’t quite take you there to show you that side of the people who influenced Lincoln, but it’s an important part of understanding what happened in the Civil War and how Lincoln actually got to the point where he said the only way out of this situation is that slavery has to end.

AMY GOODMAN: Then that moment, that meeting, August 14th, 1862, Abraham Lincoln does something unprecedented: He meets with a small delegation of black leaders, clergy.

CLARENCE LUSANE: Right. And at that point, Lincoln had already decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. There was some debate about which date to issue it on, but he was already moving in a position where he saw the country’s future as a future without slavery. And these leaders that he met with were people who mostly were tied to the black church community, but people who also had ties to abolitionists, to people who were active in the other kinds of issues around the country. So that really was kind of a turning point. And since that point, there has been a considerable amount of effort on the part of African Americans to negotiate and to meet with and to lobby not only in Congress, but the president themself.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the buildings, these iconic structures that kids, adults go to in Washington, D.C., to honor this country—the White House, the Capitol. Who built it?

CLARENCE LUSANE: This is really important, because I think there may be some sense, more generally, that Washington owned slaves and Jefferson owned slaves, but I think there’s a general ignorance about the role of people who were enslaved in actually building the nation’s capital. In 1790, after the country was founded, the Congress passed legislation to build a capital. Washington, D.C., did not exist. And so, there was a decision that land that was ceded from Maryland and from Virginia would become the nation’s capital, and it had to be built, and it would take 10 years. This is why Washington spent all of his presidency either in New York or in Pennsylvania. But to build Washington, D.C., you needed labor. And George Washington, who was more or less in charge of the project, initially wanted labor to come from Europe, but it was very, very difficult to get people to come all the way over on these really harsh trips to work in basically a jungle. So they basically relied on enslaved labor, which meant cutting down trees, moving rocks, digging holes—you know, all of the harsh, harsh labor that had to be done literally to clear the area. But it also included skilled labor, people who were carpenters and plasterers. We know for a fact that both at the White House and—the building that became the White House and the U.S. Capitol, there were at least five highly skilled carpenters who worked for years to build those two buildings.

And again, this needs to be acknowledged, because it reflects that ongoing contradiction, what President Obama talked about with President Hollande, of this conflict between the principles of equality and democracy, and the reality of slavery. Now, in the Capitol a few years ago, there were two plaques that were put up to honor or to acknowledge the people who were enslaved that built the Capitol. One is on the House side, and one is on the Senate side in the Rotunda. And in Philadelphia, at the pavilion where the Liberty Bell exists, the new Liberty Bell Pavilion was actually built over the old house where—or the land where George Washington lived when he was president. There is also a plaque there that acknowledges the people who were enslaved to Washington during the time of his presidency. What we do not have yet, and it actually may happen, is something in the White House that will have that kind of acknowledgment.

AMY GOODMAN: Final comment, Clarence Lusane, about what you think we should understand on this Presidents’ Day? And take it all the way—you write about Teddy Roosevelt.

CLARENCE LUSANE: Yeah, I think that the most important thing is to understand that there is a long and rich history of African Americans in the White House long before President Obama. And all of that history tells us a great deal, I think, about the current situation we face, where we continue to see racial disparities and racial discrimination pretty much across the board. The story you did earlier about the shootings in Florida, for example, I think, in part, reflect an unawareness of this history and the degree to which the country still has not acknowledged and reconciled this past. A year ago, I went with students to Rwanda, and we visited a great—a large number of memorials. And it became so clear to me that the degree to which the country acknowledges its past in an honest and straightforward way goes a long way towards healing and reconciliation. It doesn’t necessarily end up with all the justice that needs to be happening, but it certainly is a first step, that acknowledgment and recognition of your history becomes really important.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks so much for being with us, author of The Black History of the White House . We’ll link to your piece, “Missing from Presidents’ Day: The People They Enslaved” at democracynow.org. Clarence Lusane is also a professor at American University. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »