This morning I read the WP Retropolis piece by DeNeen L. Brown entitled “Frederick Douglass Delivered A Lincoln Reality Check At Emancipation Memorial Unveiling” since there’s currently so much conflict over whether the Emancipation Memorial should be removed and I hadn’t known about this particular monument before. Seeing the pictures of it, I get why people have been and are unhappy with it – the mighty white man standing over the kneeling, shirtless black man with chains still around his wrists (yes, the chain is broken, but shit – they are still chains) is repugnant.
And, I think it complicates things that not only did Freed People raise all the funds for the statue, but the Freedman’s Memorial Association chose the final design (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emancipation_Memorial). In other words, black people came up with the idea of a statue honoring Lincoln, got the funds together, and selected the specific image and so it is doesn’t seem so simple that because the piece reads as racist to many of us now, that it should be removed. I, for sure, don’t know the right answer here, but I think we need to be careful.
I am clear though that the article is a really great piece; it was so helpful to read the Douglass quotes laying out the case that Lincoln was really about preserving the Union and would have preserved slavery had his primary mission of Union preservation required it. Here is an especially myth-blowing statement:
““Truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory,” Douglass said, “Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.””
This is so important. We are so not taught this about Lincoln, much like we aren’t taught that George and Martha Washington owned 300 black people, whom they shuttled in and out of Pennsylvania to avoid them legally petitioning to be freed after being in the state for 6 months (see Michele Norris’s WP editorial; “George and Martha Washington Enslaved 300 People; Let’s Start With Their Names”). Every day for weeks now I’ve been learning “new” things about basic, basic stuff from our collective history that was swept under the rug, papered over, white-washed.
It makes sense that the white supremacy hierarchy would do its best to quash the inconvenient truths about our Founding Fathers. Once it was begrudgingly accepted that black men and then later all women could vote, there had to be a pivot away from the overt oppression and it wouldn’t do to have people continually bringing up how all but one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves or that when a woman married, her independent legal status ceased to exist (new word of the day: coverture, which means “the legal status of a married woman, considered to be under her husband’s protection and authority”), as just two examples.
I just Googled “when was coverture abolished?” and got this back:
“The short answer is that it has been eroded bit by bit. But it has never been fully abolished. The ghost of coverture has always haunted women’s lives and continues to do so. Coverture is why women weren’t regularly allowed on juries until the 1960s, and marital rape wasn’t a crime until the 1980s.” (https://www.womenshistory.org/articles/coverture-word-you-probably-dont-know-should)
The whole article is a must read.
I feel like a child trying to make sense of a ton of old/new information and no doubt will continue to do so as long as I live (barring dementia). Still, though, every old/new piece of the puzzle that I pull out from under the rug or from the dog’s mouth just keeps affirming what I’ve sensed since I was a little girl when I asked my mom why Lincoln didn’t do anything for women, and that is that white supremacy and the patriarchy are all of a piece and must be dismantled in concert. Now, I’m also seeing that what Lincoln did for black people was out of expediency and not borne of heartfelt longing for justice, which feels sad to know but not surprising at all.
May we be safe as we piece together our more real history.
May we be willing to face it unflinchingly.
May we be strong enough to take it all in.
May we accept that we have got to dig deep and broad to unearth what we need to know.