Historian John Stauffer, whose books include Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, worked with the town hall program almost from its inception. He said African Americans should mark the sesquicentennial with pride because “most scholars acknowledge that … without the aid of African Americans the Union could never have won the war.” Chair of Harvard University’s History of American Civilization program, Stauffer also said African American participation is necessary to help shape the way Civil War stories are told in the future. This would be a departure from the years immediately following the war.
“Beginning in the 1880s, the Civil War gets cast as the equivalent of a national Super Bowl,” Stauffer said, “in which it’s about white northerners battling against white southerners, and both sides are gallant and both sides are courageous, and both sides are great athletes and warriors and it’s a tragedy with a happy ending. No one’s to blame. No one is at fault. It’s not about slavery.”
I told Stauffer I am convinced the white general public is comfortable with his Super Bowl version of the war. Blue and Gray balls are just fine with them, and most of their ancestors did not own slaves. Besides, slavery was a long time ago and they think African Americans should just get over it. “Americans have been really bad at coming to terms with the sins of their past, particularly slavery,” Stauffer said. “It’s in their interest to ignore slavery and the memory of slavery … we can acknowledge the crucial significance of African Americans in the Civil War, the fact that the Confederacy was formed to defend and perpetuate slavery, without at all compromising the role that most whites had. In other words, we can still honor whites without having to lie about the past.”
Or the present, which is – whether we want to admit it or not – informed by the past. We are uniquely American based on what we believe about ourselves as a result of the Civil War and what ALBC Commissioner and now former Member of Congress Jesse Jackson, Jr., described as its “aftershocks.” Those beliefs are shaped more by our memories of so-called historic events than actual data, which is evident by the steady stream of new or updated Civil War scholarship and sesquicentennial activities. In that case, it mattered that this “about 50” black woman helped shape the commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial, and that I continue to share my memories of that experience -- memories that are colored, if you will, by my black skin and American pride.
I remember the awe I felt when I watched the crew of the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) efficiently reorganize a ship’s hangar after our onboard event in February of 2009. I still have days when I see their young faces, wonder how many of them were deployed and include them in my prayers. I remember smiling as I watched the late political scholar and activist Ron Walters leaning close to columnist Armstrong Williams as they stood in the cold after the Washington, DC town hall. The theme was voting rights, and they were politically polar opposites, but there they were looking for common ground. In Atlanta, I listened as dozens of leaders discussed the continuing impact of race on their community, and ways to overcome it. They braved buckets of rain to attend the day-long leadership forum which was part of their Lincoln bicentennial observance. Los Angeles area students asked insightful questions of award-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks during their private session with her before the town hall there. It was the last in the series, held in January of 2010, partly because Lincoln wanted to visit California after his presidency. There were great questions and performances by students in almost every city, many of them from supposedly failing public school systems.
I relate these events with the reverence old folks use when adding names to the family Bible, or telling stories of the old days, or the Old Country. I want more African Americans to join me in sharing our experience of this nation since the Civil War because, as old folks know, history is more than data. It is the shape that data takes when infused with memories, charged with emotion and kept safe for the future. With more African American involvement, a black woman who is “about 50” when the film Lincoln celebrates its bicentennial will be able to focus more on the beauty of her skin than the fact that her nation once hated her for it.