The shooting of the Lincoln movie was huge for the city of Richmond. It continues to generate tourism dollars for the city, and is attracting more movies to be shot here. Being that I work downtown (off Broad Street) every day, I saw the set design at the state capital, the horse buggies, the actors, the production trailers, it was a monstrosity of an affair. Richmond loved it. Here was a chance to celebrate the historical aspects of the city under the guise of the Great Emancipator. However, if you watch the Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Lincoln,” you would think that black people were sitting waywardly, passively twiddling their thumbs, waiting for white folks to pass the 13th amendment for freedom. As it was a biopic and not a documentary, we can only be but so disgruntled at Spielberg’s interpretation of history. Unfortunately, the oversight of active black participation in their own liberation, in a movie about slavery that takes place in Richmond, VA proves a truly sad discourse. It perpetuates the ideal of the white man’s burden; or that it is the responsibility of Europeans to “give” freedom to someone as if the synergy of our collaborative action catalyzed by the unrelenting desire for liberation by the black people was not the spark that ignited the flame.
The initial scene of the movie features two Union soldiers talking to Lincoln, one arguing for equitable pay and promotions and reciting part of the emancipation proclamation. Later in the film you meet Elizabeth Keckley and later William Slade, two African Americans who were close to the Lincoln family. Their speaking parts are extremely limited and it wasn’t as if Lincoln was an action film deprived of dialogue. So essentially, you have a talking film that is 3 hours long about black people where black people don’t get a chance to talk. The way in which Spielberg incorporated black people – as in not at all – in the movie Lincoln says volumes. The fact that there were so few critiques from people who watched it in Richmond saying much of anything about the lack of black activity in the film says so much more. It was as if the ongoing cognitive dissonance that resonates in Richmond when talking of the Civil War; you know the conversation that starts with it being more about state rights than the states right to enslave Africans, finally took hold of everyone in Richmond’s mind and caught their tongue. Or maybe we were too focused on a film about a fictional character named Django to care about the depiction of real life events in the movie Lincoln.
Anyway….I can let my last black history month post on the Cheats Movement blog for 2013 serve as a cinematic review. Also for the sake of brevity, I am not going to argue the reasons behind Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, nor why he pushes for the passage of the 13th Amendment. I can say that I agree with most scholars who concur that his main objective was the salvation of the Union – not to free enslaved Africans; and from his own pen quote a letter he wrote from August of 1862, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it,” We know that the war couldn’t have been won without African’s fighting for their freedom against the confederacy in it. After Africans had fought so bravely for their freedom there were limited ways to re-enslave us except through Black Codes whereas you could still have slaves if it were punishment for a crime. Yet that is another longer discussion. In fact the only reason I am talking about the movie is because Richmond was the capital of the confederacy and this is essentially where the Civil War ended.
There is no talk in Lincoln of the African American XXV Corp of the Union Army, which on April 3rd, 1865 was the first command to enter Richmond signaling the end of the Civil War though. There are no references to Frederick Douglas’s ongoing dialogue with Lincoln regarding the abolition of slavery. There is no reference to the highest commissioned black officer in the Civil War in the form of Martin Delany and his proposal for black resettlement in Liberia. There is no reference to the invitation of black militant abolitionist Henry Highland Garnett to speak to the Congress, making him the first African American to do so and that it was under invitation by Lincoln to commemorate the signing of the 13th amendment. No mention of major uprising of Africans such as Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, or John Brown – that would inspire abolitionist to fight for the end of slavery. No Garnett, no Douglas, no Delany – no prominent African American abolitionists of that time who were known to historically have talked to Lincoln were featured or referenced to at all. The movie did what a lot of movies (and people) do when they talk about racial justice – it focused on President Lincoln and others helping black folks; instead of actually mentioning the active conversations of Africans working together so we can all be free from the bondage of oppression – both oppressor and the oppressed.
The lack of black voices in Lincoln speaks to an ongoing reality for people of African descent who live in poverty in the city of Richmond. We are stripped of our voice. The city of Richmond Virginia is 54% black and has a poverty rate of 25%. Just like in the film, there are conversations being had about us, decisions being made for us, on issues that affect us directly – however those who are in power rarely hear from us, nor take time to invite us to the table to discuss what it is we want for ourselves. It was a strange example of art imitating life. I mean I honestly never saw Jamal, from Creighton Court, in Leadership Metro Richmond or Tanesha, from Ruffin Road, at any of the Capital Region Collaborative meetings. Yet their perspective is valid and needed if we are to make decisions for all of Richmond.
Paternalism is behavior by one group that seeks to keep another group’s autonomy limited for reasons the offending group considers the latter group’s best interest. Essentially the offending group attempts to constrain the latter group’s ability to act in their own best interest by making decisions for them, instead of allowing for self-determination. How paternalistic are we when we operate in an exclusionary, non-inclusive, manner when we are in rooms discussing the future of the city of Richmond and we can count on one hand how many people of African descent are there – and very few in that number live in poverty? In what ways are we re-affirming the silence of marginalized voices when we don’t invite stakeholders to the table when we start talks of demolishing housing projects? How effective can our efforts to alleviate poverty be, when we are not welcoming the poor to participate in the planning of the plan?
Richmond is now full swing in celebration of the sesquicentennial. Where are we as a city 150 years later? With 25% poverty, 54% blackness, and the major movie production, made in Richmond, basically put the black folks in it on mute – perhaps still in bondage – by the same ideologies that create such inequality and sparked the Civil War in the first place.
Duron Chavis (Brother Manifest) is the director of Happily Natural Day and coordinator of the Mcdonough Community Garden. He will be writing about RVA Black History every Friday this month.