In February, 2008 the wife of then Presidential candidate Barack Obama said “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country, and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change.” Michelle Obama caught holy hell from conservatives for what seemed like an unpatriotic comment. She was wrong to say it but not for the reasons conservatives groan about. She was wrong to say it because, particularly when it comes to race relations, this country has NOTHING to be proud of.
Let me explain. Last week I went to see the Steven Spielberg masterpiece “Lincoln”, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones. Day-Lewis played Abraham Lincoln in the manner we are accustomed to seeing, the practical, folksy, clever politician. Unlike the Fonda or Massey version, this Lincoln displayed an honest insecurity about blacks. Talking to his wife’s black servant, he confesses that he does not know what emancipation will mean for blacks … that he himself does not have any deep relationships with blacks. I found the honesty refreshing. Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, a Pennsylvania Senator and abolitionist whose views are radical for their time. He wants blacks to not only be free but to vote and be treated as equals in every way. The film makes an interesting commentary on whether the practical man or the ideologue has a better chance at making lasting change. But there was one scene in the film that made me angry and ashamed.
The scene takes place in the Senate chamber where a vote on the 13th amendment to the Constitution, ending slavery, is taking place. Seated in the upper balcony are a contingent of free blacks observing the vote. When the amendment passes, they leap to their feet in enthusiasm, many shedding a tear. As I watched the scene, my mind fast-forwarded to a November night in 2008 at Grant Park in Chicago where thousands of people were gathered to watch newly elected Barack Obama deliver his victory speech. When Obama amassed enough electoral votes to win him the Presidency, the crowd went wild. Particularly notable were blacks in the crowd crying. Hell, I sat at home watching the TV and crying like a baby. I thought about my 80 year old black father whom I’m sure never thought he would see a black man become President. I thought about my four year old black daughter who would never find a black President the least bit unusual. I was 47 at the time and I didn’t think I would ever see a black President in my lifetime.
However “Lincoln” slapped me in the face and made me ask why the hell not?
Why are we “proud” and self-satisfied that it took 143 years after the 13th amendment for a black man to become President? What is it about dark skin that made this event impossible for over a century? And when we finally pulled the lever, it was for a bi-racial black man with an exotic heritage — hell there were some blacks who complained “he ain’t REALLY black”. While I find that a stretch, I do believe that we would NEVER have elected a black man from American slave heritage. NEVER! Barack’s white mother and his youth overseas got him past the marginal bigots. (The hardcore bigots still go by the one-drop rule.) But there we were, crying with joy over our country taking 143 years to elect a black man with enough “mitigating circumstances” to make him acceptable.
I’m sorry folks, “Lincoln” made me angry and ashamed of this country. Now we excuse bigotry by citing the disproportionate amount of crime committed by blacks but there was a time when blacks were hated and denigrated solely for the color of their skin, the features of their face and the texture of their hair. Present day conservatives will be quick to blame the destruction of the black family on liberal policies. Implicit in this criticism is the acceptance that there was a time when blacks did not represent rampant drug abuse, crime and abandoned children. But they were hated just the same. If not hated, then discounted.
I can’t blame Americans entirely. Discrimination based on trivial differences is a human condition. It’s American hubris that bothers me. You don’t see Germans boasting about how they don’t gas Jews anymore, do you? I get angry when we pat ourselves on the back for progress that has been so slow in coming, progress that should never have needed to be made had we been a more decent tribe of people in the first place. It is true that Lincoln’s practicality was better in the long run than Senator Stevens’ ideology but Stevens would have vomited if he had been told that 143 years from the day he voted “Aye” on the 13th amendment we would still be wrestling with America’s original sin.
Photo by D. Van Nostrand [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons