Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together. (1)
If God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” (2)
Left: a white actor in blackface portraying a maniacal black soldier out to rape white women in The Birth of a Nation. Right: a Confederate vampire attacking Union troops in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Vampireface?
The national conversation about race, slavery and our collective Civil War memory has been at fever pitch. With the releases of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, movie critics talk about the two almost like a box set. See them together. Get the serious, political take on how we rid our country of a heinous institution, and then see the cruelties of that institution in full force (plus a little revenge). I’ve followed that advice and I’ve appreciated the ongoing dialogue, but I believe we’re missing a crucial piece from this year.
At the urging of my friends, I didn’t see Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter when it came out in theaters. A review called it “the worst thing to happen to Lincoln in a theatre since he was last in one.” When I finally watched it, I saw that everyone was right.
It’s outrageous. Almost as outrageous as The Birth of a Nation. And in my opinion, almost as important. Let me explain.
In the movie, Abe Lincoln since he was young trained as an ax-wielding vampire killer and tried to rid the North of all vampires and keep them where they lived - in the South. Vampires feasted on slaves and constantly tried to move into new territories and establish their own country. When the war came and Lincoln became President, vampires fought in the Confederate Army against him. (You can replace vampires here with another word and it would actually make sense.)
But here’s the #realtalk in this movie:
“We have to decide whether we’re a country of men or a country of monsters.”
It goes without saying that Southerners were not vampires. And no, slavery wasn’t sucking blood from human beings. But were Southern slaveowners monsters? Was slavery not just as bad as sucking blood from people? Anyone want to argue about that?
Yes, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is a ridiculous Northern-biased fairytale meant to vilify the South. But is it any different from the portrayals of black men as sex-crazed sub-human brutes out to pillage the South in The Birth of a Nation? Is saying that the South was run by vampires any different from saying the Ku Klux Klan was formed to protect white people from black people?
Southern romanticism of the Civil War dominated our national memory for 100 years. From Thomas Dixon’s books to films like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, we were ingrained with the belief that we didn’t fight the war over slavery and that the institution of slavery was kind to slaves. It’s that kind of perversion of the truth that led to support of policies that kept much of black America under Jim Crow laws. It took the Civil Rights Movement to change the tide on this kind of thinking, but 50 years later still 2/3 of white Americans in the Old South believe the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery.
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is simply a mirror. A mirror held up to the Old South to say: the rest of the country can tell outrageous stories too, and this is how it feels.
Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is a remarkable historical rendering, offering a deft, knowledgeable depiction of Lincoln as well as a shrewd handling of the politics of the Civil War and emancipation. But the film’s larger importance lies elsewhere. For a century and more, American culture has been polluted by outrageous and pernicious portrayals of the war that apologize for the Confederacy and, by extension, for slavery. A few exceptionally popular books and movies have played a large part in sustaining, sometimes decades after they first appeared, what American historians know as the myth of the Lost Cause, vaunting the slaveholding South.
Memory is not a cure-all. On the contrary, many of the great political crimes of recent history were committed in large part in the name of memory. The difference between memory and grudge is not always clean. Memories can hold you back, they can be a terrible burden, even an illness. Yes, memory—hallowed memory—can be a kind of disease. That’s one of the reasons that in every culture we have memorial structures and memorial days, whether for personal grief or for collective historical traumas. Because you need to get on with life the rest of the time and not feel the past too badly. I’m not talking about letting memory go. The thing is to contain memory, and then, on those days, or in those places, you can turn on the tap and really touch and feel it. The idea is not oblivion or even denial of memory. It’s about not poisoning ourselves with memory.
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“The conservative movement in America, or at least its most radical wing, seems determined to repeal much of the 20th century and even its constitutional and social roots from the transformative 1860s.
The Civil War is not only not over, it can still be lost. As the sesquicentennial ensues in publishing and conferences and on television and countless websites, one can hope that we will pursue matters of legacy and memory with one eye on the past and the other acutely on the present. The stakes are high.”
- David W. Blight
Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look today, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? Speaking of it relatively, and positively, negatively, and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him. (1)
No Nation can afford to let go its high ideals. The founders of the American Republic asserted the principle that all men are created equal, and made this fair land a refuge for the whole world. Its manifest destiny, therefore, is to be the teacher and leader of nations in liberty. Its supremacy should be maintained by good faith and righteous dealing, and not by the display of selfishness and greed. How far this Republic has departed from its high ideal and reversed its traditionary policy may be seen in the laws passed against the Chinese. Chinese immigrants never claimed to be any better than farmers, traders, and artisans. If, on the one hand, they are not princes and nobles, on the other hand, they are not coolies and slaves. They all came voluntarily, as their consular papers certified, and their purpose in leaving their home and friends was to get honest work. (2)
(1) Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, 1852
(2) Yan Phou Lee, The Chinese Must Stay, 1889
I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about 12 miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. (1)
On a certain day in the year 1861, I was born. I cannot give you the exact date, because the Chinese year is different from the English year, and our months being lunar, that is, reckoned by the revolution of the moon around the earth, are consequently shorter than yours. (2)
(1) Frederick Douglass, The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, 1845
(2) Yan Phou Lee, When I was a Boy in China, 1887