Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Abraham Lincoln rocked this house last night!

In commemoration of Lincoln's Bicentennial on February 12, PBS is showing a series of documentaries on Lincoln, both his life and death. Last night, PBS aired the extremely well-made documentary on Lincoln' death, "The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln".

Ok, who has heard of a 6-year-old crying because he had to stop watching a documentary to take a bath? Mine did! He cried through the whole bath to the point of hyperventilating, and only stopped crying when he was led in front of the TV to finish watching the documentary. It must be because of all the things on Lincoln he has been learning at school this month... I wonder how much he was able to understand?
This is the same kid who exclaimed, "Abraham is so lucky! He was born on President's Day!"

It was enlightening to learn that John Wilkes Booth asked for newspaper to be delivered to his hiding place (some pine bushes) so he could read about the public reactions to Lincoln's assassination; he was surprised and saddened by the fact that he was perceived as this monstrous murderer and not as a savior who carried out God's will to save the nation from self-destruction. He kept a meticulous journal while in hiding detailing his reasoning and conviction for doing what he had done, hoping that the future generation would see the light and agree with him.

In addition to "The Assassination", there will be a series of shows dedicated to Lincoln this week. The most notable one, in my view, is the 2-part series by Henry Louis Gates "Looking for Lincoln". Gates is an outstanding historian dedicated to African American histories. There have been considerable attempts to re-evaluate Lincoln as a pragmatic politician, as a man of his time (harboring the necessary biases and, frankly, racism). And in Gates' own words, "My urge to judge Lincoln outside of his times is a strong one." Of course, none of these theories or "re-reading" are taught at the grade school level.

"He was preeminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery. His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government. The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration."

Like many prominent historical figures existed outside of the school textbooks, Abe Lincoln was a complicated individual, shaped by his times and circumstances, worked with whatever conditions he was thrown in. Frederick Douglass recognized this because he continued to say:

"I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined."

To be able to explain the complexities of who Lincoln was (and is), I will need to be able to explain to my kids the complexities of race. The school curricular seem to concentrate on teaching our kids that everybody is the same yet different at the same time, that in the end, it does not matter what the color of your skin is. By singing to the tune of "We are the World" (I am dating myself by bringing up this song...), the real issues of race and ethnicity and the reality of remaining racism are then glossed over.

Once again I asked myself: how much of the ugliness should I teach them and at what age? And yes, I am fully aware of their privileged position to even have such a choice about "when to learn about race and racism"...

p.s. The Freedman's Monument is not without controversy itself. Many in the African American community are infuriated, and perplexed to say the least. You can see why from the picture of the statue itself...

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