". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Spielberg's *Lincoln* - Kate Masur Watched So I Don't Have To

I had been thinking about paying the $14 + admission to see this film, inspired by the historically mis-leading Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. But then, I thought, "Spielberg. Naw, I'll just get po-ed. I'll wait for netflix."

But not only Spielberg mis-leads. Masur inaccurately labels Mrs. Keckley as a White House servant.  Mrs. Keckley was a free woman, who was an independent dressmaker, not employed at the White House.  Indeed, Mrs. Keckley  was the established dressmaker to the 'stars' of the Washington D.C. social scene,  before Mary Todd Lincoln ever arrived. Among her most devoted clients was Varina Davis, who, according to Keckley's memoir-novel, persisted in her attempts to persuade Mrs. Keckley to come back down south with her, once Secession was in progress.

In Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln,’ Passive Black Characters

By Kate Masur
The New York Times
November 12, 2012
Evanston, Ill.

Pulls from Masur's article:

[ " Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation. While the film largely avoids the noxious stereotypes of subservient African-Americans for which movies like “Gone With the Wind” have become notorious, it reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress. " ]

[ " It would not have been much of a stretch — particularly given other liberties taken by the filmmakers — to do things differently. Keckley and Slade might have been shown leaving the White House to attend their own meetings, for example. Keckley could have discussed with Mrs. Lincoln the relief work that, in reality, she organized and the first lady contributed to. Slade could have talked with Lincoln about the 13th Amendment. Indeed, his daughter later recalled that
Lincoln had confided in Slade, particularly on the nights when he suffered from insomnia. " ]

[ " Even more unsettling is the brief cameo of Lydia Smith (played by S. Epatha Merkerson), housekeeper and supposed lover of the Pennsylvania congressman and Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Stevens’s relationship with his “mulatto” housekeeper is the subject of notoriously racist scenes in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.” Though Mr. Spielberg’s film looks upon the pair with far more sympathy, the sudden revelation of their relationship — Stevens literally hands the official copy of the 13th Amendment to Smith, before the two head into bed together — reveals, once again, the film’s determination to see emancipation as a gift from white people to black people, not as a social transformation in which African-Americans themselves
played a role. " ]

[ " The screenplay, written by Tony Kushner, is attentive to the language of the period and features verbal jousting among white men who take pleasure in jabs and insults. By contrast, the black characters — earnest and dignified — are given few interesting or humorous lines, even though verbal sparring and one-upmanship is a recognized aspect of black vernacular culture that has long shaped the American mainstream. Meanwhile, perhaps the greatest rhetorician of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass, who in fact attended the White House reception after Lincoln’s second inauguration in March 1865, is nowhere to be seen or heard. " ]

[ " It is a well-known pastime of historians to quibble with Hollywood over details. Here, however, the issue is not factual accuracy but interpretive choice. A
stronger African-American presence, even at the margins of Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” would have suggested that another dynamic of emancipation was occurring just outside the frame — a world of black political debate, of civic engagement and of monumental effort for the liberation of body and spirit. "

That, too, is the history of abolition; “Lincoln” is an opportunity squandered. " ]

Kate Masur, an associate professor of history at Northwestern, is the author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C.

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