Created on Wednesday, 14 November 2012 12:12
Written by Kate Masur
Slave revolt breaks out on a Southern plantation. Unearthing records of the events, clash over African American role in their own emancipation.
Intro by Mike Ely
What is the role of previously-powerless oppressed people in their own emancipation?
This is a fundamental question of life, politics and revolutionary theory. And very different answers to that question have produced very different perspectives on strategy, alliance and the political forms of liberation.
The American Civil War has long been a major arena for this debate. And it is not surprising: First, this war was a major event of emancipation in the first centuries of European colonization of North America. All other wars conducted by the United States were shamelessly about expansion, Manifest Destiny and empire.
But in this, the most bloody of U.S. wars, the central issue was African slavery. For the Confederate states, it was threats to slavery that triggered their secession. And for the states of the North and the federal government, the war started as a defense of the integrity of their national Union — but became a war for the abolition of slavery.
Entwined with the whole emergence and resolution of the Civil War was the struggle of the African people in the U.S. for their freedom — a struggle that started on the slave ships themselves, and on the slave plantations, in dozens of maroon communities, in hundreds of mass mutinies, and uncounted thousands of escapes. In the war itself, they fought in every imaginable way, as informants for the Union armies, as scouts, as insurgents behind Confederate lines, as organizers of countless work stoppages and escapes, and increasingly as uniformed fighters within the Union army itself. And, meanwhile, politically, the African American people and their most radical white coworkers waged a difficult struggle to ensure that the victory in this Civil War would lead to lasting emancipation — first by demanding the formal abolition of slavery and the arming of Black men, but then also seeking to establish the political power needed to overpower the plantation owning class in the struggle over post-war society.
As history shows, this became an experience involving both great victory over slavery and bitter historic defeat with the overthrow of Radical Reconstruction which imposed a semi-feudal form of serfdom, through sharecropping and the Jim Crow system . The question of alliance and “common cause” unraveled as the Northern capitalist leadership of the anti-slavery alliance pursued its class interests and in the 1880s reforged a new national governing coalition with the once-defeated plantation-owning class of the South. There are alliances, of course, in politics — but there emerges the burning question of maintaining independence and initiative among the oppressed, i.e. the question of who leads those alliances, and how betrayal in one moment emerges from the leadership of a previous moment.
At one extreme end of this debate is the paternal racist tradition — that for a hundred years adopted the slaveowners’ own view of African American people, as docile, passive bystanders in their own fate. In the hands of Confederates, that view propped up the argument that Africans were childlike inferiors that needed slavery for civilizing. In the hands of Jim Crow-era historians, those assumptions often continued, and African American slaves were depicted as numb and suffering victims who received their emancipation at the hands of the Northern ruling elite. (And you can see how that historical mythology played into particular liberal strategies during the civil rights struggle…)
Tremendous struggle and work took place in the realms of research and education to get a different narrative onstage. The actual struggle, contributions and fiery activity of slaves and African freemen were documented. WEB Dubois, Herbert Aptheker, and many other writers (often associated with the Communist movement) exposed both the hidden history of Black insurgency and also the extreme complexity of the alliances that ended slavery. The figures of Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman have since come to exemplify the heroic, tireless, and often violent actions of the oppressed in their own emancipation. That change in understanding was itself a result of popular struggle — particularly that engine of reconception unleashed by the fiery Black liberation upsurge of the late 1960s. The ghetto uprisings destroyed the mythology of Black passivity and nonviolence in that political present — and millions of minds were actively looking to destroy that mythology within dominant versions of history.
Controversy continued (and continues, obviously). Malcolm declared that if you put milk in your coffee it becomes weaker, becomes “integrated.” Black nationalist currents in the 1960s declared that “Black Liberation will come from a Black thing.” It declared a militant and impatient end to the whole framework of liberal reformism — the proclaiming of a central progressive role for America’s liberal establishment, the nauseating paternalism of liberal self-congratulation and (especially) the demand for a go-slow respecting of American capitalism, its central institutions and the political limits they prescribed..
At the same time, this Black nationalism came with built in strategic conflicts: How does one go alone as a minority nationality in a much larger and multinational society? What does the future look like? If liberal integration and assimilation are a demand for self-negation, is independence possible as an alternative strategy? And if not, is there a third path possible — of liberation within a revolutionized new multinational society in North America?
And, along side the Black nationalist arguments, there arose views that explored whether in a multinational U.S., political strategy could incorporate the fact that the oppressed classes too were multinational — i.e. that liberation (including the victory of Black liberation) was likely to come from a multinational thing — from some future, complex alliance involving many oppressed nationalities (Native Americans, Chicano people, immigrant people, African Americans, Puerto Rican people) and also (potentially) from significant radicalized and antiracist sections among the white people (including among poor and working people who are Euro-American).
Both views have a sense of the “agency of the oppressed.” The Black nationalist view often assumed that at a very basic level that no other sections of the people could be expected to understand or reliably support the struggle against oppression they themselves didn’t experience. (And here too the experience of the Civil War, and the reversal of Reconstruction, provides a painful legacy of the betrayal or flagging effort by those who were allies and co-fighters and leaders).
The more internationalist view assumed that many diverse kinds of people could develop a common struggle against all forms of oppression — and that a movement needed to be forged with exactly that kind of universality and broadness of mind.
I am currently working, with Nat Winn, on an assessment of the Maoist form of communism. And we hope to address what our new movement can learn (for future strategic decisions) from the existing Maoist concepts around mass line and internationalism — which address precisely these core issues of agency and broad alliance.
For now, I’d like to share the following critique of Spielberg’s new film Lincoln — which seeks to situate this art in the context of actual history and America’s long debate over the agency and role of African American people. I have not seen the film yet. I look forward to experiencing it with an open-mind (despite the fact that we have all watched Spielberg approach so many topics — from suburbia to the Holocaust — from the perspective that has its feet planted firmly among the relatively privileged.)
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Kate Masur is an associate professor of history at Northwestern. She is the author of “An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C.” This piece first appeared in the New York Times November 12.
In Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln,’ Passive Black Characters
By KATE MASUR
THE latest film by Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln,” which opens nationwide on Friday, has the makings of an Oscar shoo-in, particularly for Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in the title role. The first scene is arresting: Two black soldiers speak with the president about their experiences in combat. One, a corporal, raises the problem of unequal promotions and pay in the Union Army. Two white soldiers join them, and the scene concludes as the corporal walks away, movingly reciting the final lines of the Gettysburg Address.
Unfortunately it is all downhill from there, at least as far as black characters are concerned. As a historian who watched the film on Saturday night in Chicago, I was not surprised to find that Mr. Spielberg took liberties with the historical record. As in “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” his purpose is more to entertain and inspire than to educate.
But it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them. For some 30 years, historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation; however imperfectly, Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary “The Civil War” brought aspects of that interpretation to the American public. Yet Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.
This is not mere nit-picking. Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation. While the film largely avoids the noxious stereotypes of subservient African-Americans for which movies like “Gone With the Wind” have become notorious, it reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.
The nation’s capital was transformed by the migration of fugitive slaves from the South during the war, but you’d never know it from this film. By 1865 — Mr. Spielberg’s film takes place from January to April — these fugitives had transformed Washington’s streets, markets and neighborhoods. Had the filmmakers cared to portray African-Americans as meaningful actors in the drama of emancipation, they might have shown Lincoln interacting with black passers-by in the District of Columbia.
Black oral tradition held that Lincoln visited at least one of the capital’s government-run “contraband camps,” where many of the fugitives lived, and was moved by the singing and prayer he witnessed there. One of the president’s assistants, William O. Stoddard, remembered Lincoln stopping to shake hands with a black woman he encountered on the street near the White House.
In fact, the capital was also home to an organized and highly politicized community of free African-Americans, in which the White House servants Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade were leaders. Keckley, who published a memoir in 1868, organized other black women to raise money and donations of clothing and food for the fugitives who’d sought refuge in Washington. Slade was a leader in the Social, Civil and Statistical Association, a black organization that tried to advance arguments for freedom and civil rights by collecting data on black economic and social successes.
The film conveys none of this, opting instead for generic, archetypal characters. Keckley (played by Gloria Reuben) is frequently seen sitting with the first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln (played by Sally Field), in the balcony of the House of Representatives, silently serving as a moral beacon for any legislator who looks her way. Arguably her most significant scene is an awkward dialogue with Lincoln in which he says bluntly, “I don’t know you,” meaning not just her but all black people. Keckley replies, as a representative of her race, that she has no idea what her people will do once freed. As if one archetype were not enough, she adds that her son has died for the Union cause, making her grief the grief of all bereaved mothers.
Meanwhile, Slade (Stephen Henderson) is portrayed as an avuncular butler, a black servant out of central casting, who watches in prescient sorrow as his beloved boss departs for the theater on a fateful April evening.
It would not have been much of a stretch — particularly given other liberties taken by the filmmakers — to do things differently. Keckley and Slade might have been shown leaving the White House to attend their own meetings, for example. Keckley could have discussed with Mrs. Lincoln the relief work that, in reality, she organized and the first lady contributed to. Slade could have talked with Lincoln about the 13th Amendment. Indeed, his daughter later recalled that Lincoln had confided in Slade, particularly on the nights when he suffered from insomnia.
Even more unsettling is the brief cameo of Lydia Smith (played by S. Epatha Merkerson), housekeeper and supposed lover of the Pennsylvania congressman and Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Stevens’s relationship with his “mulatto” housekeeper is the subject of notoriously racist scenes in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.” Though Mr. Spielberg’s film looks upon the pair with far more sympathy, the sudden revelation of their relationship — Stevens literally hands the official copy of the 13th Amendment to Smith, before the two head into bed together — reveals, once again, the film’s determination to see emancipation as a gift from white people to black people, not as a social transformation in which African-Americans themselves played a role.
The screenplay, written by Tony Kushner, is attentive to the language of the period and features verbal jousting among white men who take pleasure in jabs and insults. By contrast, the black characters — earnest and dignified — are given few interesting or humorous lines, even though verbal sparring and one-upmanship is a recognized aspect of black vernacular culture that has long shaped the American mainstream. Meanwhile, perhaps the greatest rhetorician of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass, who in fact attended the White House reception after Lincoln’s second inauguration in March 1865, is nowhere to be seen or heard.
It is a well-known pastime of historians to quibble with Hollywood over details. Here, however, the issue is not factual accuracy but interpretive choice. A stronger African-American presence, even at the margins of Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” would have suggested that another dynamic of emancipation was occurring just outside the frame — a world of black political debate, of civic engagement and of monumental effort for the liberation of body and spirit.
That, too, is the history of abolition; “Lincoln” is an opportunity squandered.