lunes, enero 19, 2009

A Pragmatic Precedent

By Henry Louis Gates Jr., the editor of Lincoln on Race and Slavery and the producer of the forthcoming PBS documentary Looking for Lincoln and John Stauffer, the author, most recently, of Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 19/01/09):

Until a martyred John F. Kennedy replaced him, Abraham Lincoln was one of the two white men whose image most frequently graced even the most modest black home, second in popularity only to Jesus. Perhaps none of his heirs in the Oval Office has been as directly compared to Lincoln as will Barack Obama, in part because Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation began freeing the slaves descended from the continent on which Mr. Obama’s father was born, and in part because of Mr. Obama’s own fascination with Lincoln himself.

Much has been written about what Mr. Obama thinks about Lincoln; but not much has been said about what Lincoln would think of Barack Hussein Obama. If his marble statue at the Lincoln Memorial could become flesh and speak, like Galatea, what would the man who is remembered for freeing the slaves say about his first black successor?

It is difficult to say for sure, of course, but one thing we can be fairly certain about is that Lincoln would have been, um, surprised. Lincoln was thoroughly a man of his times, and while he staunchly opposed slavery —on moral grounds and because it made competition in the marketplace unfair for poor white men— for most of his life he harbored fixed and unfortunate ideas about race.

Lincoln had a very complex relationship with blacks. Abolition was a fundamental part of Lincoln’s moral compass, but equality was not. While he was an early, consistent and formidable foe of slavery, Lincoln had much more ambivalent feelings about blacks themselves, especially about whether they were, or could ever be, truly equal with whites.

For example, on Aug. 14, 1862, he invited five black men to the White House to convince them to become the founders of a new nation in Panama consisting of those slaves he was about to free. A month before emancipation became law, he proposed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing financing for blacks who wished to emigrate to Liberia or Haiti.

Degrading words, deplored by most white abolitionists, like “Sambo” and “Cuffee,” found their way into Lincoln’s descriptions of blacks; he even used “nigger” several times in speeches. He also liked to tell “darkie” jokes and had a penchant for black-faced minstrel shows. The Lincoln of pre-White House days was a long way from the Great Emancipator; “recovering racist” would be closer to the truth.

Except for his barber, William Florville, and William Johnson, a servant from Springfield, Ill., Lincoln didn’t know many of what he referred to as “very intelligent” black people before he moved to the White House. (In 1840, only 116 blacks lived in Springfield, and they were domestics, laborers or slaves.) In fact, if we add up the amount of time he spent with black people who were not servants even after he became president, it probably would not amount to 24 hours.

The truth is that successful blacks were almost total strangers to Lincoln, born as he was on the frontier and raised in a state settled by white Southerners. From this perspective, then, Lincoln most probably would have been shocked, perhaps horrified, by Mr. Obama’s election. Like the majority of Northern whites, Lincoln had a vision of America that was largely a white one.

Once in office, though, he met with more black leaders than any president before him, including Sojourner Truth (whom he unfortunately addressed as “Aunty”), Henry Highland Garnet and Martin R. Delany, even if he never invited one to a formal meal. But we also know that Lincoln could recognize exceptional people, regardless of race.

As president, he became quite taken with one black man, Frederick Douglass, who initially seems to bear much in common with Barack Obama. Both Mr. Obama and Douglass had one black and one white parent; both rose from humble origins to become famous before age 45; both are among the greatest writers and orators of their generations; and both learned early to use words as powerful weapons. Lincoln, seeing this masterly orator of mixed-race ancestry, would most likely first have been reminded of his exceptional friend, Douglass.

Lincoln’s respect for Douglass —the first, and perhaps only, black man he treated as an intellectual equal— was total. He met with him at the White House three times and once told a colleague that he considered Douglass among the nation’s “most meritorious men.” And just after delivering his second inaugural address, Lincoln asked Douglass what he thought of the speech, adding that “there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”

The fact that Lincoln was no natural friend of the Negroes arguably makes his actions on their behalf all the more impressive, even if they were motivated by the urgent pragmatism of war. He and Douglass were unlikely allies: Douglass was a firebrand in the prophetic tradition, whereas Lincoln —like Barack Obama— spoke of pragmatism and post-partisanship. While Mr. Obama’s election may mark the triumph of Douglass’s grand historical project for American race relations, it doesn’t mark the ascent of another Douglass.

Lincoln’s great achievement, in the eyes of posterity, was really the outcome of his ingrained pragmatism. The Emancipation Proclamation was born of a certain opportunism (to win the war, Lincoln said, he needed freed slaves to defeat their former masters), and is not a lesser thing for it. Perhaps there is a lesson for Mr. Obama here: those who invoke high ideas and scorn compromise often bring themselves into disrepute. Those whose actions are conditioned by an exquisite sense of frailty, by an understanding that it’s more important to avoid the worst than to attain the best, may better serve those ideals in the end.

Is Barack Obama another Abraham Lincoln? Let’s hope not. Greatness —witness the presidencies of Lincoln, say, and Franklin D. Roosevelt— is forged in the crucible of disaster. It comes when character is equal to cataclysm. A peacetime Lincoln would have been no Lincoln at all. Let’s hope that Mr. Obama, for all of his considerable gifts, doesn’t get this particular chance to be great.

Barack Obama has written that Lincoln’s “humble beginnings … often speak to our own.” Once Lincoln had recovered from his shock that a descendant of “amalgamation” (about which he once expressed reservations) had ascended to the presidency, one suspects their mutual embrace of economic independence and natural rights, their love and mastery of the English language, their shared desire to leave their mark on history, and their astonishing gift for pragmatic improvisation, would have drawn him to a man so fundamentally similar to himself.

Fuente: Bitácora Almendrón. Tribuna Libre © Miguel Moliné Escalona

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