In response to the recent election, #ADPhD is sharing reflections, short takes, and responses from scholars of slavery. To submit yours, click here.
On November 12, 2016, Patrick Rael, professor of history and scholar of slavery at Bowdoin College, posted this reflection on Facebook. It is republished here with his permission:
I’ve spent most of my life now studying my country’s history, and in particular the ways it has so consistently, so systemically, failed to live up to its ideals. Those are the ideals that justified its bloody founding, the ideals Americans say make their country exceptional. We are a beacon of liberty in a world of darkness, are we not?
For me, it’s always seemed like basic honesty to be willing to test those claims against the historical reality. No one likes a hypocrite, right? — especially when fundamental principles like freedom and equality are at stake. We wouldn’t want to be like those other places — the places we despise, the places we promise we can never become. The places that proclaim their principles only to traduce them when it’s convenient.
That’s why we study history. And if we have the strength to see, we learn that from its very inception ours has been a deeply flawed democracy. Our past is replete — with genocide, slavery, racism, labor exploitation, misogyny, intolerance, mob rule, lynching, and state-sponsored violence of every sort. Every hero we honor — from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Susan B. Anthony, to Caesar Chavez — was spat on and shat on, by mobs composed of our grandfathers and great grandmothers and great great aunts and uncles and distant kin we’ll never name. Those relatives collected the ashen bones of the prophets and made trophies of the flesh that remained.
Six months after the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, it is worth revisiting scholars’ reflections on what his death, extrajudicial killings of people of African descent, and histories of slavery and diaspora have in common. Last August, Patrick Rael placed present-day re-articulations of respectability politics against a long history of black political rhetoric, beginning with antebellum free black activists’ debates about moral uplift … Continue reading Rael on Ferguson, Respectability Politics, and the Early Republic
Amidst the widespread discussions of Steven Spielberg’s recent film Lincoln, few have sought to place the film within its own tradition of Civil War films. There’s nothing new, of course, about focusing a film on the character of Abraham Lincoln, though it has been well over thirty years since a major television or film production took him seriously (Hal Holbrook in Sandburg’s Lincoln ).
In the early days it was different. The American film industry grew around his figure. In The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s ground-breaking, racist masterpiece of 1915, Lincoln appeared as a wizened and tolerant executive at war with the maniacal Radical Republicans, whose racial tolerance merely masked their desire for vengeance against the rebels. In Griffith’s film, Lincoln’s premature death unleashed the Radicals, necessitating the bloody turmoil of Reconstruction. In the form of the Ku Klux Klan, only the energized spirit of white supremacy could save white womanhood — and, indeed, Anglo-Saxon civilization — from the rampaging black beast.
Rael, Patrick, ed. African-American Activism before the Civil War: The Freedom Struggle in the Antebellum North. New edition. New York City, NY: Routledge, 2008. From the Routledge website: African-American Activism before the Civil War is the first collection of scholarship on the role of African Americans in the struggle for racial equality in the northern states before the Civil War. Many of these essays are … Continue reading BOOK: Rael, et. al. on African-American Activism