Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Lincoln Revisited

I can't wait to see this upcoming PBS documentary from Henry Louis Gates Jr. I've entered this into the DVR already:

The two-hour documentary arrives on the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth and after the election of the nation's first African American president, an Illinoisan who was sworn in on the Bible Lincoln used, was elected to the same U.S. Senate seat and has professed his admiration for Lincoln as a role model.

Yet few if any journalists have questioned Obama about the irony of his exaltation of a man who believed that African Americans were inferior, told "darky" jokes, used the "N" word, and for a time, believed blacks should be shipped to Africa in a colonization project. Not even Gates.

That contradiction — between the Lincoln of myth and the Lincoln as a man of his time, particularly on race — provides the centerpiece of Gates' documentary.

There was lots of talk about Obama's "team of rivals" in the days after the election. I'm not sure, nor do I really care if that meme really played itself out in the nomination process. Mostly, the Obama administration will be judged on what it does - or doesn't do - for the country.

But since we're in the midst of Black History Month and all, I genuinely like the idea of revisiting this idea of Lincoln as the "patron saint of race relations." Or the Great Emancipator, if you will. This holds a lot more interest, to me, than ad nauseam review of slaves, peanuts and the "I Have a Dream" speech.

For instance, this wasn't one of the Lincoln speech excerpts we were taught in any February that I was in school:
“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Needless to say, there's a lot more to the man than a childhood spent in a one-room log cabin, those debates against Stephen A. Douglas or the Gettysburg Address.

Not to mention, I thought Gates did some great work with his "African American Lives" series of documentaries. Really, how can you not appreciate a dude who was a court witness on behalf of 2 Live Crew?

Check your local listings.

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