Sign of the times… Frederick Douglass: Zombie Killer or Why Let Lincoln Have all the Fun?

Read this great post from Phenderson Djèlí Clark HERE


The modern popular history of the Civil War and slavery is roughly this–slavery was bad, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, the end. This is a marked improvement from past depictions of slavery that dominated popular culture and much of academia well into the mid 20th century–where the Dunning School reasoned that slavery wasn’t really so bad, while films like Birth of a Nation bemoaned the freeing of slaves in the first place. Hollywood would tone down the crazed rape-prone brutes of DW Griffith’s depictions with dancing asexual Uncles like Billy “Bojangles” Robinson (consistently paired with child star Shirley Temple), and an endless array of sassy (but doting and loyal) Mammys in films likeGone With the Wind. The social upheavals of the Civil Rights Era would coincide with a dramatic shift in academia away from the Dunning School, towards a more humanizing study of slavery. And by the late 70s Alex Haley’s television miniseries Roots brought the brutalities of the peculiar institution directly into American living rooms. What has remained consistent however is the depiction of Abraham Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” and that blacks–both free and slave–were pretty much passive recipients of America’s belated good will. No wonder that the writer of a 1977 TIME article on Roots could say, with quite a straight face, that while white America had enslaved African-Americans, they would do well to remember that it was whites who had also ended slavery. This condescending sentiment was spoofed perfectly on an episode of Family Guy where Stewie, on behalf of white America, tells a black visitor at Gettysburg–”you’re welcome.”

It’s a trope that has woven its way into modern media depictions that feature the American Civil War. In Ken Burn’s sprawling documentary on the conflict, slavery and slaves play a minor role amongst a story of grand white military leaders. Folklorist Shelby Foote is given seemingly endless screen time to wax charmingly of the heroic exploits of Confederate Nathan Bedford Forrest–abetter of the racially motivated Fort Pillow Massacre and a postwar leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Even the much acclaimed 1989 movie Glory pulls a fast one in its dramatic recreation of the famed black 54th Union regiment of Massachusetts. For one, it tells the story near completely from the point of view of Robert Gould Shaw (played by actor Matthew Broderick)–using his private letters, and conveniently omitting personal conflicts with his own racism he mentioned in those letters. Most telling, the film’s main black characters are fictional runaway slaves played by actors Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Isiah Washington. But the men of the 54th Massachusetts weren’t initially made up runaway slaves (not in the majority); they were free blacks, who came from the North, Canada and as far as the West Indies, risking their lives to fight a war against slavery. They wrote letters of their own, telling their own stories. However, perhaps fearing their presence would diminish Shaw as leading hero, Glory instead gives us fictionalized black characters who can fit the role of thankful ex-slaves shaped into men by a noble-hearted white savior. Cue Stewie again–”you’re welcome.”

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