“A black woman doesn’t really know how beautiful she is until she’s about 50.”
Andrew Young casually tossed that into the air as we sat in the lobby of the Dearborn Inn near Detroit the night of April 20th, 2009. Andrea, the daughter of the Civil Rights icon, former Ambassador and former Atlanta Mayor was there, too. Our knees practically touched as the conversation drifted from the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission (ALBC) town hall we’d participated in earlier that evening, to places that warm the souls of black folks on chilly nights in early spring – especially the soul of this particular black woman who was “about 50.”
The town hall was at The Henry Ford down the street, a museum I came to think of as a history amusement park. The event was one of nine I was responsible for in cities across the nation while serving as director of the ALBC’s national town hall program. That experience allowed me to visit cities I had never seen (Detroit and Newark are underrated), meet people I would never have met (actors Richard Dreyfuss and Hill Harper give great hugs) and genuinely feel the impact of our nation’s past on the present.
Those memories, and countless others, enveloped and haunted me as I recently watched the new film Lincoln surrounded by most of my former ALBC colleagues.
Yes, Daniel Day-Lewis was brilliant. The same could be said of Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, and almost every other member of the cast. And yes, I was happy to see David Oyelowo, Gloria Reuben, Stephen Henderson, and S. Epatha Merkerson bring to life, despite their small roles, the humanity of people of African descent in Lincoln’s time.
More than anything, Lincoln reminded me that despite the involvement of people like Andrew Young, the worlds of Lincoln and Civil War buffs still appear to be curiously monochromatic. I was the only African American on the ALBC’s staff of nine, and there were two African American men among the commissioners. To the ALBC’s credit, we worked to make sure most of our event audiences were as diverse as possible. Now that the Civil War Sesquicentennial is in full swing, I hope event organizers share that commitment. Even in the theater on Lincoln’s opening weekend, I did not count a handful of African Americans in the audience.
After seeing Day-Lewis’ version of Lincoln the irrepressible storyteller, I felt thankful for the fact that I live in Virginia of 2012 instead of 1912, or 1862. I trust President Lincoln, who also gave us Thanksgiving, would appreciate the sentiment. I hope he would also appreciate the way the film stirred a connection to history with an intensity I had not felt since the ALBC sunset in 2010. Of course, history is easier to relate to when you’re “about 50.” Race relations are top of mind for me. I know we’ve made a lot of progress in that area since Lincoln’s day, but the battle of the hearts and minds rages on. I feel its percussion every day.
I remember feeling deflated after overhearing several white attendees of the February 12, 2009, Lincoln Memorial bicentennial ceremony express their confusion about the appropriateness of Nikki Giovanni’s poem “The American Vision of Abraham Lincoln AT THIS MOMENT.” I was among the African Americans who had smiled ear-to-ear as Giovanni acknowledged, on a day when everyone was talking about the greatness of Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and the nameless slaves who helped make the 16th president’s legacy, and the nation itself, possible. However, when we left there for the Capitol ceremony with President Obama, I was also able enjoy memories of white Americans, and Americans of every stripe, who had worked tirelessly to place him in office. I saw it again in several parts of Virginia this year.
The funniest thing for me is that the main message I left the ALBC and Lincoln with was for African Americans: get more involved! History is not only written by the victors, but by those who tell their stories. The Civil War Sesquicentennial offers a perfect opportunity.
“African Americans almost have a dual duty to become more publicly engaged, involved, present at the events that acknowledge the sesquicentennial for two reasons,” according to Clement Price, founder and director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University in Newark.
Price, the renowned scholar who chaired President Obama's transition team for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), said, “One, historical illiteracy about the Civil War is something that blacks cannot afford. That war and the major consequence of the Civil War – the crushing blow it dealt to slavery – is the beginning of a credible future for black people on American soil. Also, it worries me very much that now that we’re nearly 150 years removed from the emancipation season, not to mention the Emancipation Proclamation, it seems to me that African Americans in the early decades of the 21st century have less of an emotional connection to that season than our forbears.”
“The other thing is that the sesquicentennial will be quintessentially public,” said Price, who I met while working on the ALBC’s Newark town hall. “Much of that will be rolled out in public settings. And I am always concerned, as a public scholar and as a public historian, when I go to historic sites and I see so few of us in these sites.”
“Looking nationally, one wonders whether blacks will go to events where they may be in the minority. Where their story might not be central to the drama,” Price said. “And I wonder if I were in Virginia, would I go to something that was billed as a commemoration of First and Second Bull Run?”