I grew up nearby a street named Lincoln Way. This transcontinental highway runs all the way from Lincoln Park in California to Times Square in New York. And, it ran through the town I grew up in, giving me a kind of landmark for directions, much like I was taught to treat the street’s namesake when it came to history. I grew up being told to admire Abraham Lincoln––the 16th president of the United States, a man of the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), one who fought for the Union and to end slavery… or did he?
While it’s not surprising, our history books lied to us and Lincoln got it wrong.
Recently, I’ve been reading a number of books by theologian James H. Cone including Black Theology & Black Power, The Cross and The Lynching Tree, and God of the Oppressed. Struck by his words and my growing understanding of truth as clearly laid out before me, I couldn’t help but fumble around when I read about this “great” president. I’ve come to realize that when we see the history we’ve been told is a lie, it’s not only our responsibility to listen, learn it, and apologize; It’s our responsibility to not look away. This writing is my apology. This writing is my refusal to look away.
“There is no place in this war of liberation,” Cone writes in 1969, “for nice white people who want to avoid taking sides and remain friends with both the racists and the Negro.”
While reading Black Theology & Black Power, I came across Cone’s notes on Abraham Lincoln and the frequent lies told about him as a man who longed for the freedom of slaves. Cone writes, “Whatever may have been the motives of Abraham Lincoln and other white Americans for launching the war, it certainly was not on behalf of black people. Lincoln was clear on this:
“My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” (Abraham Lincoln)
Cone goes on, “If that quotation still leaves his motives unclear, here is another one which should remove all doubts regarding his thoughts about black people:
“I will say then that I am not, nor have I ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races––that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and interior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” (Abraham Lincoln)
With a whitewashed history, what does the future hold? Years from now, will the 45th president be portrayed with the light of racism and white supremacy under which he stands? Or will we––yes, we––continue to add layers and layers to the facts and perpetuate a world of hatred and injustice, a world comfortable enough for the nice white person who wants (and thinks under these severe circumstances that there is) progress without any conflict or discomfort?
“A man is free when he accepts the responsibility for his own acts and knows that they involve not merely himself but all men.” ––James H. Cone
If the truth no longer propels us to care, what will? If we can look upon the suffering of our fellow human and remain neutral because we are comfortable, we have lost our humanity. There is no time for neutrality when humans are suffering. Or as Cone says, “There is no time for talk when men are suffering.”
Cone’s words in Black Theology & Black Power were written 50 years ago this year. His preface contains his own newfound truths including a recognition and apology for the sexism within the book (both in his gendered language and leaving out the leadership notes and significance of black women) as well as a new clarity that “we need to develop a struggle for freedom that moves beyond race to include all oppressed peoples of the world,” in accordance with some of the lessons he heeded from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Some may say, “The history books didn’t lie, they only didn’t share the whole truth.” Some may say, “Often times our imperfections are used for ultimate good and slaves were freed, weren’t they?” I, for one, refuse to bow my body or tip my cap to a man whose blatant racism was left out of history so that he might be elevated as some kind of white savior. Lincoln did not free slaves, he did not believe in the equality of our black brothers and sisters. To “free” a human from the labor and life of a slave in language yet to continue to treat them as less-than in any way is to keep slavery alive.
I am not a history expert. I claim no in-depth knowledge about slavery or presidential history. That being said, I do know my history books got it wrong. I do know there is a sitting president who is an undisguised racist and I do not want my nephews reading anything less than the truth in their history books. I do know that I am sorry for my ignorance. I do know we have a long, long, long way to go and we must bind ourselves together so that we can all stand on equal ground or we will continue to fall deeper alone.
And, some may say “How can the Republican party go from the 16th president of the United States to the blatant racism of the 45th president of the United States?” Relearning history makes it not only obvious but abundantly clear. Patterns are being repeated. History covers up racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia––by rewriting history through erasure, by perpetuating lies and therefore perpetuating hatred.
Next time I visit my hometown, I will remember the truth about the namesake of the street which runs through my town. The inevitable thought will make me consider just how many daily reminders we have of unabashed racism. The result will be a reminder to be louder against hatred, bolder against falsities, and clearer about the truth. Because I want my fellow human’s value in this world to be clear, known, and not just a pretty phrase. Because we can’t keep lying about our history. Because I want my nephews reading truth. Because I’m done being another nice neutral white face in the crowd.
“The liberal, then, is one who sees ‘both sides’ of the issue and shies away from ‘extremism’ in any form. He wants to change the heart of the racist without ceasing to be his friend; he wants progress without conflict. Therefore, when he sees blacks engaging in civil disobedience and demanding ‘Freedom Now,’ he is disturbed. Black people know who the enemy is, and they are forcing the liberal to take sides. But the liberal wants to be a friend, that is, enjoy all the rights and privileges pertaining to whiteness and also work for the ‘Negro.’ He wants change without risk, victory without blood.” ––James H. Cone
Text from: Black Theology and Black Power by James H. Cone, 1969.
Cone’s references for Lincoln quotes:
First quote by Lincoln: “Reply to Horace Greeley,” 1862, in The American Tradition in Literature, Vol. 1; revised, S. Bradley, R.C. Beatty, and E.H. Long, eds. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1962), p. 1567.
Second quote by Lincoln: Quoted in Charles Silberman, Crisis in Black and White (New York: Random House, 1964), pp. 92-93.
(***Image from Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving” 1978.)