Saturday, June 19, 2010

Du Bois' Lincoln

W.E.B. Du Bois

If your reading this blog post that means I passed comprehensive exams and I'm ABD--the proof of which is finally here:

Since I finished all of the writing required for the comprehensive exams, I didn't feel like jotting down much about Lincoln. Thus, the gap in the updating of the blog. Something that came up during the course of that week in trying to elaborate "my Lincoln", was W.E.B. Du Bois' Lincoln. In particular, there are two short pieces from the NAACP publication The Crisis which Du Bois wrote that I've been grappling with. Both of these articles were republished in Du Bois' Writings. Du Bois wrote "Abraham Lincoln" (May) and "Again, Lincoln" (September) for the magazine in 1922. That was a symbolic year to be writing about Lincoln as the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. on May 30, 1922. That "temple" as we should remember was dedicated not to Lincoln as emancipator but as the savior of the Union. The seating arrangements at the dedication were segregated. By this time, Re-Union had come at the price of sacrificing integration. President Harding had already been chastised by Du Bois in The Crisis earlier in the year. Du Bois' words about Lincoln from May (published in July) no one writing about the 16th President should avoid considering:

"Abraham Lincoln was a Southern poor white, of illegitimate birth, poorly educated and unusually ugly, awkward, ill-dressed. He liked smutty stories and was a politician down to his toes. Aristocrats--Jeff Davis, Seward and their ilk--despised him, and indeed he had little outwardly that compelled respect. But in that curious human way he was big inside. He had reserves and depths and when habit and convention were torn away there was something left to Lincoln--nothing to most of his contemners. There was something left, so that at the crisis he was big enough to be inconsistent--cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man--a big, inconsistent, brave man"-p. 1196.

In September, Du Bois found himself confronted by responses to the above description of Lincoln. Du Bois found that people did not want to have a complex Lincoln. Nor did they tend to look at great historical personages with warts and all. "As a result of this, no sooner does a great man die than we begin to whitewash him. We seek to forget all that was small and mean and unpleasant and remember the fine and brave and good." What distinguished Lincoln as opposed to Washington for Du Bois was Lincoln's inconsistency and difficulties. As he put it, "The scars and foibles and contradictions of the Great do not diminish but enhance the worth and meaning of their upward struggle." pp. 1197, 1198. To his detractors, Du Bois asked if he had gotten the facts of what he said about Lincoln wrong. Well, he did.

Granted, Du Bois did not get everything wrong about Lincoln. The facts that were false still carry a symbolic meaning narrative. That is to say, despite Lincoln's shortcomings and inconsistencies, he was big enough to become Abraham Lincoln. However, just for the record, Seward didn't hate Lincoln and became one his closest advisors. Lincoln also was not of illegitimate birth. The Lincoln family was not as poor or Southern as it might come off from Du Bois' description either. There are things Du Bois' characterization left unsaid, but it can still serve as a starting point in trying to determine how Lincoln's inconsistency was both an aid and a hindrance, and, how it made him who he was.