...From the Slave Quarters.
This is not a review of a big movie. Everyone knows the story and many of us have seen the film. But I will put this in the category of Mr. Spielberg’s three other serious masterpieces: Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and now Lincoln.
The book from which Lincoln was drawn bears little resemblance to the film. Historian Doris Kerns Goodwin sought to tell the story of just how agile and willing to compromise the 16th President was in order to accomplish a greater good. Whether that good was preserving the Union of the Republic, ending slavery or both can be debated. Keeping the United States whole at this critical time of expansion and in the face of growing threats from the ambitious powers in Europe, Mexico and the Indian Nations was clearly paramount. Lincoln was a tinkerer, and knew that the world was about to change in a most profound way as invention after invention mechanized nearly all aspects of life. A fundamental cultural disparity of slavery – among other things – would prevent that union from mending, and the war fought over those differences caused a wound that had no hope of healing itself.
While one might find that the mindset of the mid-nineteenth century could support moral equivocation on the subject of slavery, any study of the man would suggest that Abraham Lincoln found the practice abhorrent. The creators of Lincoln seemed most comfortable focusing on the indignity of slavery and Lincoln’s obsession with ending it. For me that is as good a starting line as any.
Being black in America has always presented certain challenges. Being black in 1865 was not much better than a birth defect, and that is no exaggeration. Throughout this film, from the very opening scene, the specter of black equality was both fearsome and inevitable. But there were options for former slaves and the society charged with assimilating them. One was leaving the country, returning to Africa as generations removed were not so many and memories of a homeland not so distant.
Elizabeth Keckley, the dress maker and confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln was asked by Lincoln, “are you afraid of what lies ahead for your people, should we succeed?” Mrs. Keckley said, “white people don’t want us here.” And the president acknowledged, “many don’t.” This was a powerful little moment in a movie filled with powerful moments large and small. But for me it set the stage for many battles yet to come. Mrs. Keckley went on to be a very successful businesswoman and friend to the powerful. Her point in that conversation with the president, in which she said, “I never heard any ask what freedom would bring, freedom is first,” is a note of caution. “What more can we be?”
Many in those smoky rooms, engaging in their haggard debates were concerned about maintaining their superiority over the society they had built, stolen and inherited. They claimed to know the mind of God; that they and they along were masters of the planet, and no black or brown skinned people – if indeed they are even people – could encroach upon that providence.
As I witnessed this well-told story, I could not help but wonder exactly what was the goal of these men. Did they want the over-reaction, ill-conceived realities of the Reconstruction that followed? Did they foresee the evil of segregation and the violent Jim Crow society that ushered in the 20th Century and in many respects stayed for more than half that troubled 100 years?
This story ended with the man himself making the ultimate sacrifice and dying at the hands of a committed believer in slavery and the Confederacy. But America’s story, the answer to that question put to a quiet seamstress who had been born into slavery, what’s to become of your people, goes beyond Black Americans. It was a question for generations to come, for all Americans, from a man who changed the meaning of morality and set us upon the treacherous path to a true and lasting Union.