Eric Foner’s America

We had great fun this weekend – missed the Friday birthday party but made it to the wedding (which started an hour late) and the reunion on Saturday, where I had a great time dancing with Nancy and other “spouses” while Larry’s fan club kept him busy circling the room. We followed with a quick trip to Cypress to congratulate the bride and groom because we’d left the wedding early. Got home at 2 a.m. Sunday and arose once more at 8:30 a.m. to get the NYTimes. Then back to Cyp to say good-bye to a friend of Larry’s who’d come from Florida for the wedding and was heading back Monday.

I’d devote more space to all this activity, but I have a few topics that have been hanging around so long they’re growing roots. I’ve got to dig them up and transplant them to WordPress.

I had intended to write an entire entry on “Our Lincoln,” Eric Foner’s essay in The Nation. It appeared in just before Barack Obama’s inauguration. It was still hanging around when my friend Thelma gave me a copy of the September issue of Harper’s, which contains Foner’s review of Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People.

The two articles provide a good foundation for examining this brilliant man’s take on race. In “Our Lincoln,” he sees a parallel between Lincoln and his changing attitudes toward slavery, emancipation, and equality on the one hand, and the challenges facing Obama, who Foner says has the opportunity to continue righting the wrongs inflicted by centuries of inequality.

Foner opens by observing that The Nation was founded shortly after Lincoln’s death to “complet[e] the unfinished task of making the former slaves equal citizens.” Lincoln did not call himself an abolitionist, though he rejected the idea that slavery should be allowed to expand beyond the boundaries that existed in the 1850s. The problem, Foner says, is that Lincoln did not put abolition above all other issues. And he had a much more nuanced (some would say misguided) view of racial equality. Men such as Frederick Douglass advocated for total equality and integration of blacks into the mainstream. Lincoln thought there should be a distinction between the “natural rights” of the Declaration of Independence to which everyone is entitled, blacks included, and what we today think of as equal rights: suffrage, right to travel, and so forth. He wanted to send emancipated blacks back to Africa long after most people in the free states had abandoned the idea.

“Our Lincoln” includes the clearest explanation of the Emancipation Proclamation that I’ve ever read. It freed only those slaves in the states that had seceded, which I knew. What I did not realize until I read the article was that the proclamation covered areas under control of the U.S. military  in addition to the slave states remaining in the Union. This information makes total sense since the proclamation was grounded in the constitutional grant of authority under “war power.” So the slaves in New Orleans and the surrounding parishes in Louisiana fell outside the protection of the proclamation.

The White Side of History: Sketches of a Caucasian Past” opens with Lincoln, this time representing a white man who sued his brother-in-law for calling him a “Negro.” Lincoln prevailed, and Foner uses the case as an example of how racial designations in the United States have always had “real consequences.”

Foner’s critique of History of White People appears disjointed, which I suspect is a fault of the book. Painter examines race from ancient (western) times into the twentieth century. Foner uses his review as an opportunity to correct her record on several points. He says she skips over our own country’s colonial period and then covers Ralph Waldo Emerson in three chapters. Foner takes issue with her portrayal since Emerson, like Lincoln, revised his views over time. Another omission, which seems unforgivable, is Frederick Douglass. Without his eloquent speeches and essays, a great many of our views on race might have remained stuck in the antebellum period.

Foner also objects to Painter’s omission of the latter-day racists who portray blacks as “naturally” lacking the capacity to learn. My own personal view is that these folks should come out of the closet with their sheets on.

With these two articles, Foner has drawn a line that takes this country from a dark period when slavery was the lot of most African Americans to a time when we have made great strides but continue to struggle with definitions of race and why such a question remains so important.


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