If you want to make sense of a lot of what it happening in US national politics, I’ve found Chris Hayes’ show Up! to be a consistent source of diverse and thought-provoking analysis. As an avowed and unashamed ‘man of the left’, he manages to break issues out of the left/right divide and instead field panels with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, from a Wal-mart striker to the CEO of Bain Capital. I consider him to be an indispensable voice in political discourse, and his show is a regular watch for me (and when you consider how little time I have to watch TV these days, that’s saying a lot).
One of the things that I like most about his show is that, whether consciously or not, consistently puts people of colour at the table to discuss things that aren’t “the black perspective on” whatever issue is being discussed. It’s a refreshing change from how I am accustomed to seeing black folks being involved in discussions – as though their (our) race was the only relevant topic about which we could speak intelligently. In the face of this unfortunate trend, Chris (and, seemingly, the other producers at MSNBC) books his panels in such a way as to occasionally make white people a minority presence around the table, even when not discussing a race-specific issue.
It is with this in the background that I take issue with a recent segment in which he showered unreserved praise upon Tony Kushner, writer of the screenplay for the movie Lincoln. Chris was glowing in his praise for the script and the movie itself, and Mr. Kushner obviously did not object. The reason why this love-in was so disappointing is because I read a number of the critiques of the film from writers and historians of colour, and they consistently complained that the movie, in keeping with a long-standing Hollywood tradition, almost completely wrote out black people from the story. And so it was with more than a little joy that I saw Chris tweet a link to this article earlier today:
In short, if you widen your field of view, you will discover that W.E.B. Du Bois argued a century ago—and as the historical scholarship has increasingly come to agree—that slavery was already all but dead by the time Lincoln got around to declaring himself an abolitionist, far less because the North gave slaves their legal freedom than because they had already effectively taken it, because it had become the new status quo that would have required force to dislodge. At the end of the Civil War, with the South defeated, the choice for the north was not to end slavery or leave it; the choice was to ratify the fact that it was already dead or to re-impose it by military force.
In short, the idea that the white north “gave” freedom to the slaves draws from and reinforces an attractively simple and flattering myth, one which formed around the old historiography of the period like a noose cutting off oxygen to the brain: the myth that black slaves were rendered passive by their condition, and that—absent an outside force interrupting their state of un-freedom—they would simply have continued, as slaves, indefinitely. It’s only in this narrative that freedom can be a thing which is given to them: because they are essentially passive and inert, they require someone else—say, a great emancipator—to step in and raise them up.
I will not presume or pretend to lecture you on the historical errors in this movie, because a) I don’t know very much about American history (indeed, I’d just be pulling stuff out of the article), and b) I haven’t seen the movie. Instead I will simply strongly suggest that you take the time to read the linked article, because it is not only well-written, but meticulously cited. The part that stands out most strongly to me is this one:
Spielberg and Kushner are interested in a kind of scrupulous (almost farcical) accuracy about things that do not matter, while working very hard to place everything else that was going on in the period—and everything else Lincoln was responding to—off camera. “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,” as Kate Masur points out, and Lincoln’s own servants were leaders and organizers in this community, something of which Lincoln simply could not have been unaware. But the film makes a point of not showing any of this: while the vast majority of the movie takes place in cramped and smoky rooms, even the exterior shots (usually of conversations in moving wagons) show us very little of what was going on in the streets and neighborhoods of Washington (much less what was going on in the South). Which is to say: they give us the illusion of perspective without giving us its substance. They show you the elephant’s tail quite accurately, and then they declare, on that basis, that the entire beast is a snake.
It is one thing for a movie to simply fail to tell all perspectives within a story. After all, history is far more involved and complex than any 2-hour span could possibly reflect in its entirety. My complaint is not that Kushner and Spielberg apparently focussed only on the procedural/political battle instead of telling the story of black abolitionists and slaves agitating for their freedom. That’s an artistic choice – I might prefer the other story, but whatever. No, what concerns me more is the fact that black voices are apparently all but completely absent from the film, but would not have been absent from the conversation that actually happened. This isn’t mere omission, this is excision. And it’s part of a larger narrative that puts black people in the passenger seat of history, waiting to be given rights and freedom by well-intentioned and forward-thinking white men with political power.
The exact opposite is more reflective of reality – the African American story is one of struggle against overwhelming odds to push a hostile or indifferent sociopolitical system out of its moral hypocrisy in order to fight its oppression. African Americans were not recipients of history – they were its crafters; a fact that is entirely absent (again, apparently) from Kushner and Spielberg’s film.
There’s one more point I want to make really briefly here, as I am over my word limit at at the end of my lunch break. I once watched a documentary about the Exodus story. Archaeological exploration has shown that there is absolutely no evidence to support the biblical account. There is, however, evidence to support a different (and much more interesting account). It could be that the original Caananite exodus was not Jews fleeing Egypt, but an enslaved group of Caananites overthrowing a brutal ruling class (of other Caananites) and leaving for a fertile area some distance from their former home. After being settled there, they met with a group of migrants who had crossed the desert from Egypt, bringing with them a war god they called Yahweh. The two groups settled together, and their stories mingled to form a new oral history, built on a combination of the two stories. This account was, the documentary said, far better evidenced than the whole “parting of the seas/plague of frogs” account from the Bible.
My reaction was this: that is a much better story than the one I was taught in Sunday school. It’s a story of an oppressed people rising up and taking control of their own destiny. It’s a story of two cultures coming together and forging their differences into a shared identity. It’s a profoundly pro-human story. We should be teaching that instead of marvelling at the “mercy” of a god who slaughters thousands of babies because of the decision of a political leader whose heart was hardened… by that same god (look it up!).
In the same way, the real story of emancipation of slaves in the United States is a much better story when told accurately. It’s about a people with no power who organized, agitated, and took possession of their own freedom. It’s about a people who forced a country to live up to its own vaunted ideals in the face of overwhelming military disadvantage. It’s the story of the powerful actually listening to the voices of the oppressed and fighting alongside them for what is right. It’s so much better than the story of a bunch of pasty white folks deciding to get around to giving freedom to a bunch of mute and eternally-patient black folks.
We do ourselves a disservice by allowing ourselves to believe these histories in which only one group makes decisions. It hurts us all, and we shouldn’t stand for it. I’m glad Chris didn’t.
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