Those are the words of that great American historian…umm…I mean news anchor, Brian Williams, on Abraham Lincoln. Who the hell knows what he is talking about. I caught a few snippets of History’s recent series, “America: The Story of Us” and was disappointed on every level. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting much, maybe something with a little more history content than Ice Road Drivers Truckers and Pawn Stars. This little video on Lincoln sums up the fundamental flaws of this series.
First, who cares what Brian Williams, Soledad O’Brien, Michael Strahan, and Michael Douglas think about Abraham Lincoln and, for that matter, how exactly are they qualified to speak about anything having to do with American history? According to O’Brien, Lincoln had a couple of conversations with Frederick Douglass before deciding to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. From Strahan we learn that Lincoln stuck to his beliefs when they weren’t popular. O.K….I get it. Even the historian, H.W. Brands, sounds like a complete fool and I’ve enjoyed his books in the past. According to Brands, there was nothing in Lincoln’s early life that would have pointed to the presidency, as if this were the case with any of our presidents. Talk about narrative gone bad. What I find truly hilarious is that the most coherent and historically based commentary in this short segment comes from none other than Rev. Al Sharpton. If Sharpton had qualified his point regarding Lincoln’s position on black suffrage to a select and educated few he would have nailed it.
The Internet can be a wonderful source for reliable and important information on historical subjects. It can also be, and often is, a source for misleading and damaging information about the past. There is no better example of this than the divisive topic of “black Confederates.” Misinformation abounds on sites organized by individual SCV chapters as well as private individuals. There is no quality assurance mechanism and a search engine’s ranking algorithm has nothing to do with veracity. In the case of black Confederates the problem is not simply that the information is unreliable, but that it is easy for it to spread, which in turn compounds the problem. A quick tour of black Confederate websites reveals that many of these narratives or snippets of evidence are cut and pasted from one website to another.
Not only are the many poorly-constructed narratives filtered around without any attempt at analysis, but individual historians have also fallen victim to this practice. I’ve already mentioned the case of Ed Bearrs, who has regularly been singled out as a historian who has acknowledged the existence of these men. Even worse, he has been quoted over and over as having implied some kind of conspiracy to keep these stories under wraps. There is no evidence that he has ever said such a thing and I’ve learned through reliable sources that he has denied ever suggesting it.
Hope everyone is having a pleasant Memorial Day and has spent a little time in thought about why we set aside this day. President Obama decided to spend Memorial Day at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Illinois. In the spirit of acknowledging sacred sites beyond Arlington National Cemetery here is a news article and video about the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in California. Both the article and video feature UCLA historian, Joan Waugh, whose book on Grant and historical memory is a must read. Enjoy.
Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell will mark Memorial Day with an address at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, which contains the graves of roughly 15,000 Union soldiers. Over at Mysteries and Conundrums, John Hennessy offers a brief history of the earliest Memorial Day observances, which were organized by the town’s African Americans. This continued until the early 1880s when Confederate veterans accepted an invitation to take part with the stipulation that African Americans be excluded.
It’s worth asking, in light of April’s controversial Confederate History Month declaration, why the governor has chosen to mark this important day in a Union cemetery. I am curious as to what he will say. In fact, I think I may attend. What do you think?
This year I was honored to have been asked by the Class of 2010 to deliver the final chapel sermon on the day of graduation. I can’t say that this was the easiest talk I’ve had to prepare, but I am fairly pleased with the final result. The best advice I received was to write a sermon that I would have wanted to hear at my graduation.
I want to begin by thanking the Class of 2010 for this honor. After having to listen to me in the classroom as well as other settings for the past four years I have to say that I am pleasantly surprised that you’ve chosen to give me one more opportunity to speak with you. I hope my brief remarks prove worthy of your trust even if they stray a bit from the standard graduation day talk.
As I struggled to find a way to begin I kept coming back to that final scene in the movie, “Cast Away.” As many of you know the movie tells the story of Chuck Noland (played by Tom Hanks), who ends up stranded on a deserted island for 4 years after his FedEx plane crashes in the ocean. The movie follows Noland as he learns to survive both physically and psychologically on the island as well as his eventual reintegration into modern society. My favorite scene in the movie comes at the very end after Noland delivers one of the packages that washed up on shore and perhaps served as a continual reminder of a life and career that he hoped one day to return to. In that final scene Noland stands at the crossroads not knowing which way to go, but with the complete freedom to choose. The camera moves in and Noland, who stares back, confronts the viewer. It’s Noland’s expression, which I think is worth considering for a moment. It may be tempting simply to speculate about the choice that he will make or perhaps the choice that we hope he will make. However, the more I consider it the more I am convinced that his little smirk is meant for us. In other words, I believe that the audience is the focus of that particular moment and not Noland.
So, what might Noland be asking of us? Perhaps he is challenging the viewer to step back and reflect on her own life. What questions did we ask and what decisions did we make when standing at the crossroads? There may be a certain amount of anxiety for those of us looking back on our lives when confronted by such a challenge, but for those of you who sit in these seats for the final time with a bright-eyed optimism for the future I sometimes wonder whether you have the tough questions at hand for just these moments.