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150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation: Distinguishing Between Historical Myths and Facts

Q&A with Janell Hobson, UAlbany Associate Professor of Women’s Studies

President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, at the height of the Civil War.

This year, the United States honors the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln's executive order to end slavery in America. The order was delivered on Jan. 1, 1863. The commemoration precedes the 100th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s death, allowing the nation an ideal opportunity to reflect on the history of, and progress made in race relations.

UAlbany Associate Professor of Women's Studies Janell Hobson is an expert on race and gender relations. Hobson is also the lead organizer for a March 2013 UAlbany symposium to honor Harriet Tubman, the legendary black feminist, Underground Railroad conductor, Civil War veteran, suffragette, community leader, and freedom fighter.

Hobson discusses the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as Harriet Tubman's role in ending slavery in the U.S.

Q: Why is it important for contemporary audiences to recognize the anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation?

A: It is vital for contemporary audiences to have a sense of history and an appreciation for the journey this country has endured to right its wrongs. As a democratic nation, it’s equally important to recognize our failings when we tolerate oppression and social inequality. While the Emancipation Proclamation eventually led to the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, our nation allows legal segregation to continue and discovers loopholes such as the continuation of slavery through imprisonment and criminalization. These effects are still felt today with the mass incarceration of so many African Americans in this country.

Q: How can contemporary audiences distinguish between the myths and the facts relating to this history?

A: This is a critical part of individual and communal empowerment: Who has the power to perpetuate myths and pass them off as "facts" and who controls history? While President Lincoln has become a symbol of liberation, he wasn't always consistent in his views on slavery nor did he have progressive views about African Americans. Yet, we cannot overlook the ways that prominent black abolitionists, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, persisted and influenced Lincoln to advance the liberation of African Americans. According to literary historian Barbara McCaskill, Truth successfully arranged to meet with the president through the help of Lincoln’s family dress designer and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley. Therefore, African Americans were not passive recipients to this story, but rather they helped shape the narrative.

Q: Do the recent Lincoln movies do justice to our understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation?

A: The recent Lincoln movies are part of this myth-making process, and yet their huge, big-screen visual spectacles tend to have more power than a long-winded biography or history book. The story is told on a grander scale, which means that we can't underestimate its influence in how we understand the Emancipation Proclamation anniversary.

I found the performances quite impressive in Spielberg's "Lincoln," yet I was disappointed in the marginal way that African Americans are rendered in the film. While Keckley played a key role in the adaptation, Douglass and Truth, critical anti-slavery movement leaders, were missing. Why is Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones) dramatically shown in bed with his black housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith (played by S. Epatha Merkerson)? Lydia Hamilton Smith was every much an active abolitionist as Stevens and assisted with the radical work on the Underground Railroad, but in this movie, she's simply reduced to a sexual partner of a powerful Congressman (quite reminiscent of her role in D. W. Griffith's “Birth of a Nation”).

Harriet Tubman illustration by artist Curtis James
Legendary Civil War veteran Harriet Tubman passed away in 1913. (Illustration by Curtis James, used by permission)

Even in contemporary narratives, black people are portrayed simply as objects for white people's good deeds - or evil ones. When we examine historical narratives, we must consider how our present-day perceptions guide our understanding of these histories. Strangely enough, the absurd blockbuster film, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” actually afforded its black characters with far more radical and militant intervention. However, given the vampire plot, we don't take such a movie seriously. Why is it that

a fantastical vampire action movie portrays black historical figures in all their radical militant glory, but in a more serious movie like “Lincoln," blacks are reduced to servants, mistresses or the occasional noble Union soldier?

Q: What has been the progress of race relations since the time of the Emancipation Proclamation?

A: Obviously we have come a long way from a nation that tolerated slavery and justified it through racism and white supremacy. However, we never truly addressed why a democratic country like the United States perpetuated abuses and violations against other human beings. It was purely based in capitalism and controlling and devaluing labor by reducing black bodies to commodities. We don't say that in our historical narratives -- at least not enough. We simply infer that something about those black bodies were not quite human or deserving of equal status with white bodies.

Slavery might have been abolished, but the ideologies justifying such oppression continued. We're still feeling the effects of this through the perpetuation of the legal segregation era of Jim Crow and in today’s post-Civil rights, so-called "color-blind" and "post-racial" era. The latter perpetuated in the systemic structures of racism manifested through unequal housing, education, employment, and media representations, as well as other systems of inequality felt in gender, sexual, and national differences.

Today we have an African-American president, but he is often presented as the exception, not the rule, of black achievement and success. All the racist undercurrents of the 2012 presidential election highlight how, even with this symbol of black achievement, it's not enough to challenge those of us who still believe in white supremacy as a legitimate system for leadership and representation of the body politic.

Q: Other milestones relating to African American history are also being celebrated this year. What can you say about those anniversary dates?

A: Despite the struggles of the past, we have so much to celebrate in 2013. Apart from the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we also have the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Civil Rights and the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Rosa Parks on February 4. UAlbany’s Department of Women's Studies is honoring the 100th anniversary of the passing of Harriet Tubman with a national symposium and celebration the weekend of March 8 and 9.

As we reflect back, it’s amazing that 100 years ago one legend would be born while another one passed. The legacy of resistance for black women and women in general, will always continue. These milestones offer us an opportunity to reflect on where we have been, as well as where we need to go.

Q: What conversation does Women's Studies bring to these events?

A: Women's Studies brings a complex conversation to these significant events including the intersectional relationship between race and gender. We remind everyone of the significance of women in marginal communities who ignited social revolutions or helped great men such as Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr. to navigate their way on the path to freedom through our labor and our various means of resistance.

The first feminists in this country, both black and white women, were ardent supporters of the anti-slavery movement. Because even progressive men expected women to sit back and quietly support men in liberation struggles, women decided to organize our own gender equality and liberation. When we think of women's movements, they go hand-in- hand with racial liberation movements. We simply can't have racial equality without the other gender equality. Black women and other women of color feel this more viscerally than any other group of women, which is why I'm so excited about the milestone conversations we will start in 2013.

Learn more about the Harriet Tubman Symposium.

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