Robert E. Lee: Civil Rights Leader

Here is a short clip of Tom Dugan portraying Robert E. Lee.  There is a short interview with Dugan and the director, but the clip that I found most interesting was Dugan’s portrayal of Lee’s views on slavery and race.  What you get is a very loose reading of the historical record and a great deal of fantasy.

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Kate Masur Tries Again

Historian Kate Masur has published another op-ed piece on Spielberg’s Lincoln in which she responds to unnamed critics of her earlier review of the movie at the New York Times. It’s difficult to see what, if anything, is new in this follow-up piece, but in reading it I think I have a better sense of what she and other academics find troubling.  First, I am struck by the fact that the movie has enjoyed close to universal praise.  Yes, there are quibbles with the length of the movie and especially the way the last rush to include a series of events leading up to Lincoln’s death at the end, but overall it looks like Americans enjoyed the movie.  Unfortunately, much of the academic debate over the movie simply ignores the groundswell of enthusiasm for this movie.

Masur uses the opportunity to once again drive home the point that Lincoln gives us little more than passive black characters that in the end are given their freedom by Lincoln and Congress.  This is not an insignificant oversight:

[I]t is now received wisdom among professional historians that African-Americans—both enslaved and free—were active participants in debates about slavery and race and that slaves’ refusal to stay put or side with their owners had enormous consequences. As Eric Foner wrote in a recent letter to The New York Times: “Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives.”

It’s not that there are no voices of blacks fighting for their freedom, but that they are either not central enough to the story or they are the wrong voices altogether.  Consider her critique of the opening battle scene:

Even so, the scenes that feature soldiers—including the first one showing intense hand-to-hand combat and the later one in which the audience views, with Lincoln, scores of soldiers lying dead where they fell—mainly function to frame the film’s central concern: political deliberations in Washington. Violence, suffering, and death on the battlefield remind us of the stakes of Lincoln’s decisions and help us understand why he was (according to the film) tempted by the possibility of forging peace without emancipation.

I agree that they function in this manner, but they also impart a clear sense of just what was at stake for African Americans in the war and their central role in forging that “new birth of freedom.”  Masur too easily ignores this and instead offers up her own imagined scenes that she believes could have been used in the film to bring it more in line with current historiography.

Masur closes with the following:

We’re all entitled to imagine how we would make a blockbuster film about Abraham Lincoln—what scenes we’d include and what messages we’d drive home. No one, however, commands the resources, wherewithal, and audience of Spielberg and Kushner. Their power to shape our collective understanding of race and democracy is enormous. Their historical dreams and fantasies matter more than ours. That’s why it would have been nice if they had gotten this part of the story right.

Indeed, and perhaps that is what this comes down to.  What we see in this critique as well as others is the continued tension between biography and social history.  It’s not simply that Masur wants more voices, what she appears to want is a different kind of story/narrative altogether.

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Commemorating What May or May Not Have Happened

Click here for previous posts on the story of Sgt. Richard R. Kirkland.

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John Brown and Frederick Douglass Live!

Just returned from a weekend in Lake Placed, New York where I took part in a conference sponsored by a small grassroots organization called John Brown Lives!  The conference brought together historians, teachers, students, and activists working to end modern day slave trafficking.  It was an incredibly enjoyable and intellectually stimulating weekend.  Many of you are no doubt aware that John Brown’s home and his burial site are in Lake Placid hence the name of the organization.

We talked mainly about the history and memory of emancipation from a number of different perspectives.  David Blight talked about emancipation during the centennial and sesquicentennial; Margaret Washington focused on female abolitionists; and Franny Nudleman led a fascinating discussion about how the Emancipation Proclamation is discussed in history textbooks.  I contributed by hosting a public screening of the movie Glory that was attended by roughly 100 people on Friday evening.  We discussed how the movie depicts black soldiers as well as its interpretation of emancipation and the following day I led a discussion about specific scenes in the movie that went into much more detail.

The most interesting talk by far came from Ken Morris, who is the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington and the co-founder of the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation.  Ken’s presentation on modern day slave trafficking and his current campaign called “100 Days to Freedom” was incredibly inspiring.  You can learn more about it in this cute video that was produced by his two daughters.   I encourage teachers to get their students involved.  It’s an incredible way to bridge the present and the past in the classroom.

Since many of us stayed at a beautiful private home on the lake the conversations went well into the wee hours of the night.  Needless to say I am very tired, but I return home energized and with the mental juices flowing.  Thanks so much to Martha Swan, who invited me to take part this weekend.

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Trace Adkins Ruins Christmas With Confederate Earpiece

Looks like Trace Adkins decided to ruin a perfectly good Christmas special at Rockefeller Center by wearing a Confederate earpiece during his performance.  As you can see, this is a very important story. :-)

 

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