By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
As African people, at some point in our lives we must think like the popular African-American spiritual: “My heart/soul looks back and wonder how I got over.”
How did we as a people survive 400 years of chattel slavery and the rabid racism to which we have been subjected since slavery was abolished? One of the many examples of how we are still marginalized is the portrayal of Africans in movies and even documentaries. The recent movie Lincoln, which portrays Abraham Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator”, also denigrates the role that enslaved Africans played in their emancipation.
By omitting the work that Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and even the characters played by S. Epatha Merkerson (Lydia Hamilton Smith,) Gloria Rueben (Elizabeth Keckley) and Stephen Henderson (William Slade) did before and during the Civil War, Spielberg does a disservice to African-Americans.
Similar to the distortion of African-American life in movies like Gone with the Wind, Birth of a Nation and several Blaxploitation movies of the 70s, Lincoln depicts the mistaken idea that many White Americans have about their African-American compatriots. The movie misrepresents the lives of the three main African-American characters that appear in it.
Hamilton Smith, Keckley and Slade were not mere props to the lives of White people as they are portrayed in the movie. They were movers and shakers in their community. African-Americans, both enslaved and free, contributed mightily to the eventual freedom from chattel slavery of all Africans in America. So it is alarming that in this 21st century a movie like Lincoln is receiving the kind of rave reviews it is from some quarters.
In spite of the White supremacist culture of North American society, Americans elected the first African-American president to a second term. The first term was a turbulent four years during which it became very clear that America was not a post-racial nation as some posited.
Instead, the White supremacist culture was very evident. They came out of the woodwork, the Donald Trumps and the Clint Eastwoods who really (as the elders of my youth would say) showed their cloven hooves. Regardless of the many criticisms of President Barack Obama, his re-election was not surprising, especially when we consider who the Republican candidate was.
White men and women of all types and stripes were vicious in their disrespect for the President of their country. Even George W. Bush, as dim as he was, never received the kind of vitriolic criticism incited by Obama’s presidency.
Obama has been criticized by some African-Americans and Africans in the Diaspora for not being pro-active in dealing with African-American unemployment and not addressing other problems that plague African-Americans. For example, the Black Agenda Report radio program and blog were vociferous in their criticism, especially during the election campaign.
Some of Obama’s harshest critics were African-Americans. They voiced their concerns in terms of what they saw as lacking in someone who garnered extraordinary support from the African-American voting population. On the other hand, White people seemed bent on ensuring that Obama’s reputation would be destroyed.
The level of contempt, disrespect and hatred towards him and his family was almost overwhelming. On January 25, 2012 the image of Governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, pointing her finger in the President’s face as she appeared to be chastising him was an example of the contempt and disrespect.
The Tea Party movement and other White supremacist groups which sprouted seemingly overnight after the 2008 election is an example of the hate groups and individuals who hectored the President and his family for the entire four years.
The disrespect began with the infamous “terrorist fist bump” remark by a Fox Television news reader, which was exacerbated by the racist cartoon in the New Yorker magazine in their July 14, 2008 edition. Things went downhill from there, including (California Republican) Marilyn Davenport’s racist e-mail depicting the President as the child of chimpanzees.
White Americans have really showed their unwillingness to accept African-Americans as their equal. On the other hand, the African-American groups and individuals who took Obama to task never sunk to those levels. On his blog, the Black Agenda Report, Bruce A. Dixon posted this slogan:
“Halting gentrification, reining in big oil or Wall Street? Rolling back the prison state or shrinking the drug war? Making underwater homeowners or student debtors whole? Bringing the troops home? Ending the drone wars? Will voting for this guy or Romney make any of these things more likely? Is it time to look outside the two establishment parties yet? Or is a Black face in a high place all you really need?”
After the election, a group of 60 African-American leaders met and formulated a very different Black agenda to present to the President. The Reverend Al Sharpton, who was a member of the group, reportedly said: “It was a historic gathering of over 60 leaders from civil rights, faith-based, academic, social, and youth organizations, to put together the framework of an agenda for African-Americans to present before the President and the Congress for the next four years. We must move beyond rhetoric to create results and from attacks to action.”
In presenting their agenda the leaders wrote:
“The plight of the African-American community underscores the urgency of our demand. The African-American community was disproportionately battered by the Great Recession, and has benefited the least from the fragile economy recovery. Unemployment remains unacceptably high; income inequality and the ever-widening wealth gap threaten to relegate the Black community to perpetual underclass status. Those who wish to curtail investment education and career preparation further dim the prospects for upward mobility for our young people.”
The problem now is to get the seemingly mean-spirited Republican dominated House of Representatives to pay any attention to what African-American leaders have set out as the Black agenda even with an African-American president.
The history books tell us that Lincoln was a Republican and his party supported emancipation. The Democrats, who at the time were slave holders, were naturally the enemies of African-Americans. How things have changed!
The two parties changed their politics beginning in the 1930s in reaction to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” policies. Today a majority of African-Americans are Democrats as evidenced in last year’s election where the Democrats gained 93 per cent of African-American votes and the first African-American President elected to a second term is a Democrat.
The second Obama inauguration ceremony will take place on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday, January 21. There have been reports that the President will use Dr. King’s Bible during the oath. He is also supposed to be using Abraham Lincoln’s Bible (not sure how that will work). Maybe he did not read Lerone Bennett’s book, Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.
During the last inauguration ceremony many African-Americans watched with tears as they witnessed a sight none of us thought we would ever see in our lifetime; an African-American family living in the White House.
None of us could have imagined an African-American President and President Obama, in spite of criticism about what he has not done for African-Americans, has been a figure of inspiration for many.
Regardless of whether or not Obama is just a “Black face in a high place” do people really think that anyone except rich White men and women would be better off with the other guy as President?