Thursday, January 3, 2013

Donnie Betts’ January 1 show on the Emancipation Proclamation




Yesterday, Donnie Betts talked with Linda Mizell of UCBoulder, Winston Grady-Willis of Metro and me about the Emancipation Proclamation. You can listen to the show here.

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Linda, who teaches education, emphasizes the irony of how little she had been taught about – Emancipation and the 13th Amendment (I had stressed learning more deeply about this in writing about “Lincoln,” too, here). She learned about this from Vincent Harding’s rousing There is a River, a book that I helped celebrate the 30th anniversary of at the ASALH meetings (Association for the Study of African-American Life and History) in Richmond last year – see here on Lerone Bennett and Vincent Harding.

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We all emphasized the role of African-Americans in seizing their own freedom. Linda also stressed African-American testimonial culture, the stories that came down (Paul Ortiz at the University of Florida coined this term), and one might add the spirituals (and civil rights songs). The culture of struggle from below, for African-Americans and all oppressed groups, has its own life and integrity, unknown in commercial "culture" and, often, academia. See "Song is hope" here.

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That even the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment are buried in American schools says a lot about the dominance of racism here (for instance, in the continuation of a prison system, which jails 2.3 million people, 25% of the world’s prisoners, the majority black and Chicano). The historiographical battle over the Civil War is a long one, accompanying segregation and lynching by the Klan, the tale of the “noble” South is in "Birth of a Nation" and "Gone with the Wind" as well as in much University “teaching.”

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Among many others, W.E.B Dubois challenged it, for instance in Black Reconstruction. My Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence (Chicago, 2012 – see here) explodes the myth of the Revolution, revealing that black soldiers played a leading role on both sides and that the international revolt against slavery, starting in the Caribbean in the 1750s, shaped the understanding of blacks and poor whites that emancipation was the goal (this was the understanding of revolutionary crowds like the Boston Tea Party) and helped generate gradual emancipation, during and just after the Revolution, in the North.

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All these stories are, amazingly, buried. And the corporate media, led by the New York Times, though with fits and starts (the op-ed page published a fine piece on Lincoln and Emancipation by Eric Foner on January 1), continues to this moment to bury it again by celebrating often unoriginal, recycled, anachronistic about today’s political “problems” biographies of Presidents, for instance. Jon Meacham’s The Art of Power. See here.

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I invoked William Katz ‘s story – not widely known - in Black Indians - see here - of the Creeks rebelling against Confederate seizure of control and marauding. Othola Yahola, a Creek rancher in the territories, led a movement of a thousand people, blacks who had freed themselves (maroons living with Native Americans), and including Seminoles and other Native Americans as well. They tried to get to the North, defeating the Confederates in two battles, but were cornered, outnumbered, and ravaged in a third. They still mostly escaped into Kansas, and many became, under officers who had served in Kansas with John Brown, the first multiracial troops, fighting for the Union.

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It is the reelection of Obama and the film “Lincoln” which also propel this celebration, one of the great moments in American history. It should be a holiday, as Donnie suggested, and Linda added a central one. These two events, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, mark the moment when the Constitution becomes a document of freedom rather than of slave-owners. It marks the emergence of serious freedom for all citizens (it still accompanied barbarism and genocide toward Native Americans – see here) in America.

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We are all feeling our way into this central issue (I think this is also true for all of us as a country), and the conversation is quite wonderful.

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