Saturday, February 7, 2009

Lincoln And Race

Two hundred years ago next week will mark the birth of one of the most important figures in United States history - Abraham Lincoln - and, yet, his legacy remains a hot topic of controversy. Was the "Great Emancipator" a racist? Many scholars believe so and the evidence is certainly damning. In the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Lincoln had this to say about race:

"I will say, then, that I am not nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white 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 will ever 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."

Most Americans today would scoff at the notion of racial superiority. Is that because we are better than those who we believe to have held ignorant ideolologies in the 19th Century or are we merely the products of an integrationist society in which race is nothing more than an afterthought? Few would argue today that slavery was wrong, but it's a completely foolish notion to think that your ideals of today wouldn't have changed or been any different had you been born in those times. I, myself, was raised in a racist culture and my thoughts on race were clouded by prejudicial beliefs that surrounded my existance. When you are ignorant(as I was) and don't have opposing viewpoints in your formative years, you simply accept your environment as the norm. It wasn't until my acceptance into a black college - a black college, I might add, that would accept any fool off the street with any grade point average, which was the only way my dumb ass could have ever entered college in the first place - that my ways of thinking began to change. I was exposed to black history; black literature; as well as black professors who would have, in my opinion, blown any Ivy League professor away in debate. It was a life-changing experience.

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, to two uneducated farmers. What I was exposed to at Southern Universtiy wasn't available to Lincoln in his times. When I was in high school, the only thing I remember learning about black history(a topic which was slightly covered in the month of February during black history month) was that George Washington Carver invented a thousand different uses for the peanut. It was a joke. How progressive of a mind are we to expect out of Lincoln in his formative years?

Yes, you can find any number of references to racist remarks attributed to Lincoln and, yet, I assure you that had he spoke in favor of racial equality while running for office, he would have simply become a footnote in history. Throughout his campaigns, Lincoln's opponents tried to paint him as an abolitionist - which is the modern day equivalent of being branded a terrorist. Was Lincoln a completely open-minded individual in regards to race? Probably not. But, while the abolition of slavery seems logical to those of us in the modern age, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation as well as his push to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which completely outlawed slavery throughout the nation, was undoubtedly a radical move of that particular time period.

Pretty much everyone in my family, as most in the South were when I was younger, were Democrats - not because they were liberal-minded but, rather, because the Republican Party was seen as the party of Lincoln - the party that freed the slaves. He was a hated man even decades after his assassination.

Lincoln suffered from crippling bouts of depression and once commented to his colleague in the Illinois state legislature - Robert L. Wilson - "that although he appeared to enjoy life rapturously, still he was the victim of terrible melancholy." He also added that "he was so overcome with mental depression, that he never dare carry a pocketknife in his possession." It was that sort of depression combined with a sensitivity and intellectual curiosity that I'm sure enabled him to empathize with the plight of slaves during that era though his words, at times, could be interpreted otherwise. Lincoln is an enigma and I'm quite convinced that very few people of his era could have tiptoed his way through the highly charged issue of slavery the way he did and forge its demise and, for that, he deserves all the praise that history bestows upon him.

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