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Our Lincoln, Ourselves: Rethinking Slavery and Abolition

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My Facebook newsfeed is blowing up with posts about the new Lincoln film. My historian friends bemoan Speilberg's failure to adequately represent black characters as principal actors in the saga to pass the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery; while my nonacademic friends rave about the film's ability to capture a moment in history "where gains in the name of equality were so valiantly fought for." The last thing I want to do is to join the legion of historian-turned-script doctors who take Spielberg to task, yet I worry about how non-historians actually understand one of the fundamental turning points in U.S. history.

The plot of the film centers on President Lincoln's quest to pass an amendment to abolish slavery, but the film never explains why Lincoln insists on this measure, nor does it detail the long history of how the cause of abolition morphed into an antislavery platform. In the rare moments when Spielberg's Lincoln does explain his reasoning for the termination of slavery he tells of how his father left Kentucky for Indiana because he disliked slavery, and he even discusses an ancient geometric principle "that it is self-evident that things that are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another." These comments seem rather detached from the war's crisis of emancipated slaves living as refugees in Union camps throughout the South as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation, which he issued as a wartime measure to deplete the Southern labor force.

At that point, I wanted to jump up in the theater in the spirit of Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire and exclaim, "show me the money." Were there no economic motivations for abolishing slavery? Economic concerns were integral in starting the war -- the South wanted to move west to expand cotton production and needed slave labor to ensure its capital growth. The North feared that if slavery expanded to the West, then the Northern economy would crumble as a result of competition and the general desolation that slavery left in its wake. Yet Speilberg's Lincoln never tips his stovepipe hat to economic considerations for ending slavery nor do any of the members of Congress who speak ardently for passage of the bill. In the film, the Speaker of the House, in an unprecedented move, interrupts the proceedings to announce that he wants to add his vote to the tally, claiming that he was breaking parliamentary procedure and voting for the bill in the name of history. Are we really supposed to believe that the whole of Congress voted to end slavery based solely on how they thought history would remember them, or did their economic self-interests play a part?

If Speilberg had presented the Congressmen supporting the amendment for economic reasons, my Facebook friends might well not have hailed the movie as an epic of American equality. The film might have become a rally cry for the Occupy movement and not a valiant story that most Americans would embrace. Spielberg played to that yearning many Americans have for narratives of redemption, and in this particular narrative, freedom plays a starring and mythical role. For these devotees of Lincoln, freedom seems like it was some kind of sacred chalice handed down from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln, without ever realizing that freedom always has a subtext; it functions sometimes as Trojan Horse; and that freedom came at a cost.

By ignoring the underlying motivations that led to freedom, Lincoln feels more like C-Span in drag than an epic about equality. According to Spielberg, politics seems to be the province of white men who sit around dark wooden tables in secluded rooms, never realizing that beyond the draped chambers of the White House, slavery as an institution had been crumbling throughout the South. If Spielberg's Lincoln would have drawn the drapes of his office and looked out to DC, he would have seen the vast arrival of former slaves flocking to the nation's capitol -- some on horseback, a few arriving on wagons, and many of them barefoot with little clothing and barely anything to eat. Historically we know that the migration of former slaves could be seen from the White House, as Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln's seamstress, observed and even documented it, "Poor dusky children of slavery, men and women of my own race -- the transition from slavery to freedom was too sudden for you!" Arriving in Washington, DC, without the lack of shelter, food, and clothing, many freed slaves became sick and died. Their families turned to the federal government for help and the government responded by establishing the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, designed to evaluate the effects of emancipation.

Throughout the film, Lincoln nonetheless insists to his advisors the need for an amendment to ensure that the courts would not drag slaves back into bondage once the war ended. This is a tricky historical moment in which Spielberg's Lincoln may be partially correct. On one level, the legal ending of slavery necessitated political action but on another level, if we consider how emancipation unfolded outside the United States, we would find significant examples of slavery not dying with a single blow as it seemed to in the Confederate South. In Cuba and Guadeloupe, for example, emancipation unfolded as a social process with both advancements that led to liberation and retractions that folded people back into bondage. If Lincoln's formal amendment were not passed, emancipation in the United States could have resembled what happened in the Caribbean and Latin America.

This, however, does not justify the omission of former slaves' presence in DC on Lincoln to pass an amendment to end slavery; in fact, the common dominator that links the history of Cuba, Guadeloupe and the United States is that emancipation never emerged purely based on the political decisions that powerful white men made in closed rooms. In each of these cases, enslaved people influenced the course of emancipation. Thusly for Spielberg to omit former slaves' influence on Lincoln's administration not only misrepresents emancipation in the United States history but also misleadingly distorts a worldwide phenomenon.

When the script does not portray Lincoln as divinely inspired abolitionist, the film lapses into other problematic formulations of why people fought to end slavery. Enter the radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, a congressman from Pennsylvania and one of the 19th century's most ardent champions of black equality. Stevens' political biography reveals a long career of attempting to turn abolition, which for most of the 19th century was a fringe grassroots movement, into a polarizing national issue that compelled Americans to debate the question of slavery. Stevens and others radical Republicans succeeded in bringing the subject of slavery to the Congressional floor. Yet, the film reduces this long, turbulent history to a scene with Stevens handing the 13th amendment to his African-American housekeeper and common-law wife Lydia Smith, suggesting that Stevens fought to end slavery because of his interracial romance. It further implies that the only reason why a white man, who was not a Christ-figure like Lincoln, would be an abolitionist is rooted in sex, which unwittingly plays into the 19th century Southern proslavery argument that abolitionists' sexual desires fueled their campaign to terminate slavery. Once slaves were free, Southerners taunted, whites and blacks would procreate and promote the 19th century crime of miscegenation.

Yet the mere representation of Lydia Smith and other black characters in the film has many historians fuming. They argue that Speilberg portrays enslaved people as "passive" and "patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee." It is reasonable to portray slaves as passive or black domestics as "avuncular" -- because the institution of slavery and the fundamental constitution of domestic work dictated no other available choice for most slaves. The historians-turned-script doctors suggested for Spielberg to include a scene of Elizabeth Keckley bringing Mary Todd Lincoln to an underground meeting of black activists or of Lincoln's butler, William Slade, offering Lincoln political advice when he could not sleep at night. In a world in which more black people remained in bondage and efforts to challenge white people's ideas led to violent punishment, I am not sure that the 19th-century White House during the Civil War resembled the set of The View.

More to the point, by representing black people as passive, Spielberg may actually be getting something historically correct. Passivity does not translate to inferiority -- it simply reveals their status as enslaved people. The assumption seems to be that the absence of black agency implies inferiority. Yet the reverse is actually true. To argue that we need to see examples of black organizing seems more to play into the debate about inferiority. In other words, nineteenth-century black activism does not operate like the tree falling in the woods proverb: just because you can't see it, does not mean that it did not make a sound. Black political activism did not always unfold in open, public places, nor was it amenable to white guests or observers.

Why can't we see these moments of passivity as masterful portrayals of "double consciousness" or "dissemblance"? Scholars from W.E.B. Du Bois to Darlene Clark Hine have explained how black people engage in "double consciousness" or enact modes of "dissemblance," as an effort to protect their true selves, they perform what whites expect in given moments. Why can't black actors perform subtlety, and what does it mean that certain historians always need to see black characters as overtly political?

Gloria Reuben's masterful portrayal of Elizabeth Keckley does not connote passivity but instead it signals a masterful portrayal of subtlety and dissemblance. Each time Reuben appeared on screen, she expressed so much in her facial expressions, gesticulations, and overall presence. She appeared in the balcony above the Congressional proceedings as astutely engaged in the debate. At one point during the contentious deliberations, a Congressman espouses racist claims, Keckley abruptly excuses herself from the crowded balcony and then deftly pauses, turns around, and then listens to the final remarks. In this brief scene, she expresses a political disagreement within the confines of what was possible for 19th century black Washingtonians in a formal political setting. In another scene, she rushes into the president's chambers to inform Lincoln of his wife's emotional breakdown; Lincoln's son interrupts Keckley and asks if she was ever abused as a slave. Keckley at first avoids the questions and then manages to squeeze in a line about being violently beaten as a child. Throughout the film, Keckley does not appear as passive but as a politically conscious and intellectually astute character, who evinces more in her silence than in her speech.

Gloria Reuben's portrayal of Elizabeth Keckley powerfully illustrates the brilliant arguments that Harvard historian Walter Johnson made in his multi-prize winning book, Soul by Soul. Johnson encouraged historians to read the subtle moments of resistance that enslaved people enacted as they stood on the action block as part of the domestic slave trade during the antebellum period. He explained that enslaved people dictated the terms of their sale by subtly modifying their body language and presentation. By revealing how enslaved people slouched, coughed, or spoke back to the buyers, Johnson demonstrated to us what Stephanie Camp in Closer to Freedom would later refer to as "acts of defiance," subtle moments that articulated black political consciousness. Reuben's portrayal of Keckley as a servant who says little but acts a lot embodies what cutting edge historians, like Johnson and Camp, have been arguing for over a decade.

That said, we should always be mindful about the cinematic portrayals of black characters based on the long history of slavery and racism in the United States, but we should also expand her our understanding of how black people articulated political consciousness beyond the most visible forms of political mobilization. Historians should encourage filmmakers to probe the past, and not eviscerate them for their sincere efforts to capture a complicated period. The beauty of history is that it's a process--told and retold by each generation seeking to understand the past but ultimately disclosing more about themselves and the present.

So, if the brouhaha that is unfolding on my Facebook newsfeed serves as a barometer of the present, it would seem my non-academic friends still want to believe in the unalloyed dream of American freedom, while my historian friends seem invested in particular image of black characters.

Jim Downs is the author of Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction and is Associate Professor of History at Connecticut College.