Once again, America is reckoning with its original sin of slavery—this time with the critically-acclaimed movie, Twelve Years a Slave, which had its nationwide release last week. The movie has been lauded for its uniquely unflinching look at the brutality and inhumanity of slavery. What is not so unique about the unquestionably affecting film is that it tells the story of an enslaved man. When will we see a mainstream, big screen film that explores American slavery from an enslaved black woman’s perspective?
For a while now I’ve had a play in my head called “Three Presidents” that, not being a playwright, I haven’t had the wherewithal to think through. The third and sixteenth presidents of the United States meet in front of the White House and introduce themselves. Number 16 knows all about Number 3, of course, while Number 3 is at once charmed and slightly disconcerted that in its selection of presidents like Number 16, the country has become so populist, so …Jeffersonian. After remarking on how the White House is rather less approachable than in their own times, the two men eventually file through security into the West Wing, and finally are escorted into the Oval Office. This in itself captivates them, since the Oval Office as we now know it is less than 80 years old.
150 years ago yesterday, President Abraham Lincoln released his draft Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that on January 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." NPR has a brief exploration of some little-known history here, including this:
Via a Tweet from Ned Resnikoff, this letter from Karl Marx, congratulating President Lincoln on his re-election.
We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery. From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epopee, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver? … The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.
Paul Waldman's post about the uselessness of motives in evaluating politicians reminds me of a question a student asked me this week when assessing the Johnson administration. To paraphrase, my student said that his impression was that while LBJ may have signed two important civil rights bills, his motives for doing so were far from altruistic. My answer was that 1) this is right, but 2) I don't mean that as a criticism of LBJ.
Awhile back, I wasted an evening watching the 2011 film version of Jane Eyre, something that every former lit major should avoid. I loved the novel for its depiction of the vivid, rich inner life of a proud introvert who is passionately engaged in her life despite the fact that she knows it to be outwardly pathetic. The movie, unable to reproduce the character's inner liveliness, reduced the story to a melodramatic and utterly unlikely romance between a poor orphan and an arrogant nobleman. I had wasted marital chits on a movie that I hated as much as my wife knew she would. (Sports movies, here we come. Sigh.)
According to sociologist Kevin Bales, who founded and directs the new abolition group Free the Slaves, an estimated 27 million people are enslaved around the world today—more than were ever enslaved at any single time in history. The United Nation's International Labour Organization estimates are a more modest 12.3 million—which is still a shocking number of people forced to labor against their will, unable to walk away, for no compensation. Much of the reporting on this phenomenon has been on women forced to work in the sex trades. But the U.S.
Months ago, there was a small controversy over Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann signing a pledge put forth by social conservatives in Iowa that stated "black child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African American baby born after the election of the USA's first African American President."
Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and while some white Southerners have chosen to commemorate it with an acknowledgment that the war was absolutely about slavery, others would rather revel in the fantasy that the "peculiar institution" had nothing to do with it:
Frederick Douglass Appealing to President Abraham Lincoln, a 1943 painting by William Edouard Scott. The painting depicts Douglass pressing Lincoln to allow black soldiers into the Union Army during the Civil War.