Henry Louis Gates as Filmmaker

99-gatesToday I showed a segment of Henry L. Gates’s “Looking for Lincoln” to my Civil War Memory class.  They enjoyed it and it provides an excellent overview of some of the themes that will be explored in this last full week of classes before the trimester ends.  We looked specifically at the segments on emancipation and race.  Gates spends time interviewing both David Blight and Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Throughout Gates proceeds as if he is on a personal journey to better understand the history of Lincoln as well as the evolution of Lincoln mythology.  In a conversation with Goodwin, Gates suggests that his search has left him disillusioned and disappointed to learn that Lincoln harbored racist views or that the impetus for the Emancipation Proclamation was not borne of pure motives, but political expediency and military necessity.  In a charming little give and take Goodwin encourages “Skip” not to blame Lincoln for the conflict between history and mythology, but to try to reconcile the two. Goodwin hopes that out of conflict will come empathy for Lincoln and a more sophisticated understanding of his life within the context of the war and the mid-nineteenth century generally.

At one point one of my students wondered out loud whether Gates was really confused about Lincoln.  I soon realized that he was inquiring how a professional historian whose area of expertise is race relations and the nineteeth century could be confused about Lincoln.  It’s an excellent question.  After all, Gates is currently the director of the W.E.B. Dubois Center of African and African American Research at Harvard University.  Of course, Gates is not confused about his subject.  I tend to think that Gates is modeling the kind of journey that he likely took when studying this subject seriously for the first time and one that he hopes others will take as well.   His interviews with professional historians pit him as the outsider who is trying to better understand Lincoln; this comes out clearly in the dinner table scenes with Harold Holzer, James Horton, and David Blight.  There was nothing said over dinner that Gates didn’t already know, but the viewer is left with the impression that this is just another step in his journey to better understand Lincoln.  In proceeding in this way Gates entices his viewer to join him on this journey.  It also works to collapse the distinction between the academic and the neophyte.

All in all I think this is an entertaining approach to the history documentary without having to sacrifice content and scholarship.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

23 comments… add one
  • Sherree Tannen Feb 18, 2009 @ 0:47

    Hi Kevin,

    I am forwarding a link to an article in the Virginia Quarterly Review that addresses some of the topics discussed here, in case any of your readers are interested. Thanks again for the conversation. And thanks again to Henry Louis Gates as well for sending us all looking for Lincoln. Maybe if we find him, his ghost will quit haunting us. With Barack Obama as President, we are getting close.

    Here is the link:


    • Kevin Levin Feb 18, 2009 @ 2:05

      Thanks for the link, Sherree.

  • The History Enthusiast Feb 17, 2009 @ 15:22

    I am a big fan of Henry Louis Gates, so I will have to check this out!

  • Sherree Tannen Feb 17, 2009 @ 14:46

    Very interesting observations. I will look into the Burton book. Thank you.

    It is true that birth and childhood geography do not a person make. That was not the point, however. The point was that how Lincoln viewed the world was shaped in significant ways by his Southern roots, either by his acceptance of those roots and all that that entailed, or by his rejection of them–and his rejection of himself. The problem is that we are equating being Southern with all of the stereotypes. I am reaching back to what it meant to be Southern in Appalachia prior to the Civil War. I am aware of all of the deconstructions of history that can be done, and that have been done, to undo the theory that I am proposing. But it is important to understand that something had to exist to deconstruct in the first place, and Abraham Lincoln represents the best of what the South could have been, or at least the South that is Appalachia, and that the South eventually became, since great progress has been made. To me, Lincoln is Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, even though he eschewed farming. I am talking about an idea–a set of values and beliefs. I am also talking about men and women I knew and know, who carried those traditions forward, and who were Abe Lincolns themselves, fighting discrimination and injustice, taught to do so, as was Lincoln, by those who had “the best seats in the house”–as Miss Evelyn, our local historian and a great lady–described the balcony seats in the theater where she and the other black men and women in our town were forced to sit during Jim Crow. The great moral lessons always came from the black community. If you don’t know that, you don’t know what it means to be a Southerner. The great heartache came, too, knowing your ancestors helped cause such suffering.

  • Tim Lacy Feb 17, 2009 @ 11:34


    Great post. I was hoping you’d comment on the Gates documentary. A couple of things:

    1. I was fascinated by the give-and-take with students from Walter Payton High School here in Chicago. I’ve taught cc kids here, and those Payton students beat my cc kids by a mile on engagement, critical thinking, etc. Since I’ve never taught h.s. and only subbed for elementary, that gave me some perspective on the various incoming skill sets in higher education.

    2. Gates is a cool cat. There can be little doubt that his “exploration” was a deliberate, intelligent Columboing of Lincoln.

    3. What about the crazy female collector of Lincolnalia? Wow. The epitome of dilettante.

    4. Lincoln’s “Southernness” was probably intentionally forgotten due to his being a traitor to the cause. And there’s nothing worse than a traitor, whether real or perceived.
    Besides, birth and childhood geography do not a person make. Your choices as an adult determine your identity.

    – TL

  • Marc Ferguson Feb 17, 2009 @ 7:58

    One of the premises of Orville Vernon Burton in his _The Age of Lincoln_ is that to be understood, Lincoln has to be viewed as a Southerner. Burton argues, for instance, that Lincoln’s sense of honor is fundamentally Southern, and his stubbornness in responding to secession was partly a result of his need to maintain his, and the government’s, honor in the face of secession. I’m not sure if I agree with this, but it certainly throws an interesting light on Lincoln’s steadfast refusal to treat with the secessionists or ever retreat from fully prosecuting the war.

  • Sherree Tannen Feb 17, 2009 @ 7:49

    Thanks everyone for a great discussion. It looks like we are all looking for Lincoln. Have a great day.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2009 @ 6:58


    I found myself in a similar situation at the beginning of my course on Civil War memory. My goal was to bounce ideas off of what I assumed would be a certain number of myths and stories associated with the war, but I soon learned that there isn’t much there. They don’t subscribe to the Lincoln mythology nor do they identify much with the Lost Cause.

    Robert, Will, and Sherree,

    Thanks for the comments, but please bear in mind that I was not suggesting that we see Lincoln as a Southerner, but that we acknowledge that he has roots in the region, even if only for a brief period of time. It’s also important to consider the place of Illinois in relationship to Missouri and Kentucky. It is easy to see that those who lived in the southern part of the state would have had quite a bit in common with a slaveholding culture given the proximity and family connections.

  • Robert Moore Feb 17, 2009 @ 6:55

    Hi Sherree,

    Thanks for that perspective on Lincoln. He was battling a lot more than I think a number of people realize. I know about his odd relationship with his father, but never thought of his actions in life as being a reflection of the rejection of his father’s fundamentalist religion. That’s an interesting view. I’m a bit light in the Lincoln readings, but do we have an accurate description of his father’s religious views and how they were influenced? Didn’t the women in his life have a greater impact on him, and if so, what was their religious background. Again, clearly, I need to read more about this.

    As for my own interests in Lincoln, I don’t think that my ties to Confederate or Union ancestors impact the views because I fear that would be assuming, on my part, that I understood their respective views of Lincoln. I know nothing of them. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel somewhat of a connection to Lincoln for the fact that my Kentucky ancestry is from Hardin and Breckinridge counties. I can say, without a doubt, that the stories of Lincoln (both the mythological and real) helped to drive my personal interests in the war in my youth.

    Thanks for making me think about this some more Sheree.

  • Sherree Tannen Feb 17, 2009 @ 6:33

    Footnore: Of course, I am discussing white Southerners in the above comment. African American Southerners have their own relationship with Lincoln, and have written extensively about it.

  • Sherree Tannen Feb 17, 2009 @ 6:26

    Hi Robert,

    I will have to respectfully disagree on this one, in this sense: even if Lincoln did not see himself as Southern; he was Southern, and that is even part of being Southern, denying that you are. I just read an article in the Virginia Quarterly Review about Lincoln’s religious views, and I was struck again by the familiarity of some of the sentiments expressed. Lincoln apparently rejected the evangelical faith of his father, and the rejection of that faith helped form the spiritual base from which he operated. In fact, it could conceivably be argued that much of Lincoln’s life was lived in denial and repudiation of the tenets of his father’s faith. I know a lot of men and women who did the same, and this rejection of evangelical faith or acceptance of it, marked a clear line of demarcation not only in the beliefs of each individual, but in the actions of each man and woman as well in the 1960s–divisions that still have not been repaired. Yes, there were evangelical Christians who supported integration, but not many. In pursuing this line of thought, I have been able to understand why Lincoln was admired in my part of the South, which I would have to classify as Appalachia. He was not admired by everyone, obviously, but he was admired by some, and most of those who admired him rejected fundamentalist religion. Even what I have read of what has been classified as Lincoln’s “strange” frontier spiritual beliefs in “spells”, etc, fits. Much of what was considered strange and superstitious in the religion of the frontier cultures that escaped the strict structures of Christianity, by and large, came through interaction and intermarriage with Indigenous men and women. This is just a theory at this point, but I wonder how much of Lincoln’s spirituality, and thus his worldview, was formed by a myriad of outside influences upon Christianity in his childhood home in Appalachia, and further, in frontier Illinois. One thing is certain, Lincoln’s father was from Kentucky, and it seems fair to say that Lincoln either spent much of his life either living the legacy his father bequeathed to him, or repudiating it. All in all, the similarities are quite remarkable. This may be the line where different Southern cultures begin to be seen in Virginia. I am from the mountains. Far into the mountains. I truly recognize Abraham Lincoln as a Southerner. You don’t. That is interesting. Maybe you recognize him and admire him as a Northerner because you have ancestors who fought for the Union as well. Who knows? He was a great man, no matter where he came from. Thanks, Robert, as always, for your thoughtful input, and thank you, Kevin, for this forum in which to share ideas. I apologize for the length of this. Sherree

  • Robert Moore Feb 17, 2009 @ 5:07

    Sorry Kevin, I stray from your original post…

  • Robert Moore Feb 17, 2009 @ 5:07

    Even well before his connection with the Republican party, I don’t necessarily believe that Lincoln was culturally Southern. While he had limited Southern roots (keeping in mind that the Lincoln family was a migratory bunch) and he spent his first… what, eight years(?)… growing up in Ky, he spent the rest of his formative years in Indiana and Illinois. Even the disconnect he had with his father reveals that there may have been, to some degree, a disconnect with the feeling of being culturally Southern. While he identified himself, I believe, with being among the “country folk,” I don’t think he saw himself as a Southerner.

  • Sherree Tannen Feb 17, 2009 @ 4:02

    “I tend to assume that Lincoln began to be seen as ‘not Southern’ when he became the Republican candidate for president, or possibly when he first became a national figure during the debates of 1858, taking a stance against the spread of slavery.”

    Not Southern in whose South?

    Also, so white Southerners are criticized for embracing Lincoln, and white Southerners are criticized for not embracing Lincoln? Whose purpose does that serve? Lincoln’s? The nation’s? No region of the country owns Lincoln’s memory. Lincoln belongs to all of the people. When we realize this, he will save the Union again.

  • Will Hickox Feb 17, 2009 @ 2:24

    “Of course, Lincoln was a Southerner. That is what puzzles me. When did Lincoln begin to be seen as not Southern? Is that perception compliments of the Lost Cause myth?”

    I tend to assume that Lincoln began to be seen as “not Southern” when he became the Republican candidate for president, or possibly when he first became a national figure during the debates of 1858, taking a stance against the spread of slavery.

  • Greg Rowe Feb 17, 2009 @ 2:22

    OK, I’m sorry. In my earlier comment, I painted the entire elementary educational system in the US with a very broad brush. Perhaps my experience is only an isolated occurrence, the ideas just didn’t stick or were not presented properly to the students I have or something, but one can only hop that this is the case. Or perhaps, and this is the better hope, I actually did succeed in challenging their notions of Lincoln throughout all this and it surprised them so much that all previous knowledge of Lincoln is being reexamined in light of new information. Of course, I am dealing with middle schoolers, who, at times, appear to have let any knowledge gained in elementary school seep out of their adolescent and hormonally-impaired brains. That, my friends, is the challenge of what I do as a middle school teacher. But, I’d probably live a very boring life if not for these students.

    My goal, as a middle school teacher, has always been to spark interest in historical inquiry at an early age. And I mean true historical inquiry and research, not convoluted, hand-me-down tradition and blatant hero worship disguised as historical commentary. That is why I can appreciate what Gates does in “Looking for Lincoln.” Lincoln goes from being the rail-splitting, honest-to-a-fault folk hero, to the “three dimensional” (the term used several times in the film) human figure that changed this country for the better, even with his faults.

    I’d probably be shot, but perhaps I should document my personal changes in perceptions of Lee in this same vein. Now, that would be truly eye-opening, but not nearly as popular!

  • Sherree Tannen Feb 17, 2009 @ 1:21

    Hi Kevin,

    I find this documentary powerful because Gates has very quietly, deftly, and in an understated way, put all issues concerning both Lincoln’s legacy and our remembrance of the Civil War on the table for discussion, and he does this without passing judgment on any of the players. That is quite remarkable, since his ancestors were at the center of the storm.

    I am fascinated (and also somewhat perplexed) by the idea explored by one scholar–an idea that you mentioned in another post–that Lincoln could be seen as a Southerner. Of course, Lincoln was a Southerner. That is what puzzles me. When did Lincoln begin to be seen as not Southern? Is that perception compliments of the Lost Cause myth? Lincoln’s early, formative years were spent in Kentucky. He was from Appalachia, like Henry Louis Gates. His family belonged to the Hardshell Baptist Church. That is big. Lincoln, however, never joined a church. That is bigger. Lincoln’s original ancestor came from Massachusetts and drifted South. Happened all of the time. I have the same lineage–“old man Cole”, he is called in the records in Massachusetts, before he came South and helped form the Primitive Baptist Church. (another name for Hardshell) There are Baptists and there are Baptists, and then there are backsliding renegades. Looks like Lincoln was a backslider, thank God. (Seriously, Kevin, has anyone even bothered to explore this? If so, my apologies. If not, it is time to take a look) I am back to the original idea that brought me to your blog–what happened to Jefferson’s yeoman farmer? Here is the answer: he became the sixteenth President of the United States and saved the Union and helped to free black men and women from slavery. Looks like Jefferson was right about the yeoman farmer and how the hopes for the success of our fledgling democracy might lie in the yeoman’s hands.

  • Greg Rowe Feb 16, 2009 @ 16:43

    I showed parts of the film to my middle school World Events class as we have been focusing on Lincoln’s life and legacy. Over the course of our study, I have had to explain certain perceptions of Lincoln Gates deals with and I am left with a sense that many of the perceptions Gates is trying to overcome are gradually being dealt with, but not in a good way. So much emphasis is placed on reading, math and science initiatives in elementary schools; students are losing their bearing on the historical landscape. My students, unfortunately, had little more knowledge than that Lincoln was the dude on the five dollar bill and the penny. Most know he was a president, but until this class, could not be certain as the when he served. That he “freed the slave” was almost a foreign idea. Before even watching Gates’ film, I had, more than once, had to encourage students not to examine Lincoln with modern filters of racism’s definition. I realize educational agendas do not prioritize history, but, in my opinion, they do so at the expense of our historical identity. With what I have discovered over the last month and a half, conservative groups should not fear that schools are teaching “incorrect” or “revisionist” history. We might ought all to be concerned and marveled that our students have any historical awareness at all.

    (I’m sorry if that comes across as a “rant.”)

  • Kevin Levin Feb 16, 2009 @ 15:11


    Excellent observation re: the influence of the Kunhardt family. I completely overlooked that and thanks for the link.


    That’s interesting because I tend to think that Ferguson’s book falls more in line with Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic and I don’t think that Gates has much of anything in common with him.

  • Harry Feb 16, 2009 @ 14:53

    I tend to think Gates modeled the journey on Andrew Freguson’s “Land of Lincoln”. In fact, a little too closely for my comfort.

  • Bjorn Feb 16, 2009 @ 14:43


    Like you, the more I watch Looking For Lincoln, the more impressed I am at Henry Louis Gates, and his willingness to take the audience on a journey where he challenges his own preconceptions about Abraham Lincoln, and Lincoln myths and legends.

    But I would also draw your attention to the producers of the film, Kunhardt-McGee Productions. This isn’t some run of the mill video production outfit, it is a company built by the oldest family of Abraham Lincoln collectors/scholars in the field. Four generations of the family have utilized a collection of over 200,000 Lincoln artifacts and images to explore and interpret the life and memory of Abraham Lincoln. Each of those four generations have produced well-regarded scholarship. Phil Kunhardt, III, is the lead author of the companion book to the film, also called Looking For Lincoln, and is seconded by his brother and his nephew.

    But I have a particular criticism of Professor Gates from the film. He takes Frederick Douglass’ quote about Lincoln being “the White Man’s president” out of context. Douglass himself repudiated the statement in the very same speech. I think Doris Kearns Goodwin’s arguement that one should not blame Lincoln for Lincoln mythology is useful. But it is also true that some of the very sources that supposedly built up the myths were actually misinterpreted by later generations. I think the above quoted phrase is such an example.

    Phil Kunhardt appeared on Virtual Book Singing last December, and he discussed this very issue. You can see his discussion about Douglass-Lincoln in Part 2 of the program, which is posted here http://www.virtualbooksigning.net/archive.html#2008 .

    Full disclosure: I am the producer of Virtual Book Signing. I draw your attention to our program in the hopes of contributing to the discussion here, not to sell anybody anything.



  • Marc Ferguson Feb 16, 2009 @ 14:27

    I wondered the same thing as your student, and concluded that it was a narrative strategy for linking together the historical material with the contemporary reflections on Lincoln. Overall, was the film effective in class, and how was it received?


    • Kevin Levin Feb 16, 2009 @ 14:30

      I only showed a segment of the film, but for the most part they found it to be quite entertaining as well as engaging.

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