Slavery By Another Name Book Cover

Historical contortionism

My heartfelt thanks to all of you who tuned it to watch the documentary in February. I’ve received hundreds of emails and tweets in the past 12 hours and thousands of visitors to this website.  It’s gratifying to see so many Americans with a serious interest in reconsidering and better comprehending these difficult aspects of our shared history.

Unfortunately, there are also still many people who are desperate to contort every fragment of history that they find into a foundation for a particular political agenda.  In the terrain covered by my book and film, this is done often by both Democrats (who want to forget their ardent opposition to civil rights for African Americans a century ago) and more recently by Republican supporters (who want to claim credit for passage of the Civil Rights laws of the 1960s, even though the moderate wing of the party that cooperated with Lyndon Johnson in those votes has since been essentially obliterated).

Earlier today, I rejected a comment from one person because of the sweepingly inaccurate depiction it contained of what was and wasn’t in the film.  He submitted another post a short while later that was marginally different, which I approved mostly so that others can see a good demonstration of what I call “historical contortionism.”  It’s an impulse to twist history in ways that make it propagandistic, and that can see history only through a lens of the present.  It values history only to the degree that bits and pieces can be used as ammunition in some contemporary fight–usually in ways that are irrelevant and ultimately false.

People who are serious about history, serious about the truth, whether they are conservative or liberal, Democrats or Republicans, realize that that sort of history–the kind of thing that used to come from the “Ministry of Information” in other countries–is dangerous.  Slavery by Another Name is about America’s failures. No one group gets the blame. No one group gets to take credit. Don’t listen to anyone who says otherwise. Don’t become an unwitting, or witless, co-conspirator in a new effort to pollute our understanding of the past.

Here’s the response I gave to the historical contortionist, whose comment is on the blog as well.

It doesn’t seem that you did listen carefully to the film. I rejected your earlier post because, even more so than this one, it misrepresented what is and isn’t in the film. I have no issue with anyone disagreeing with my interpretations, or those of others involved in making the film. But I’m not interested in posts appearing on this site that describe the book or the film incorrectly, written by people who either haven’t seen the film, couldn’t follow it or have chosen to depict it incorrectly.

The documentary makes crystal clear that both the Republican and Democratic parties failed African-Americans over the span of many decades. Indeed, virtually all white Americans, in every region of the country, by and large went along with the denial of citizenship to African-Americans and abided the their re-subjugation in the South. That’s the bottom line of what happened from the 1870s to the 1940s.

The film makes clear that Abraham Lincoln, Republican, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And that his successor, Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, encouraged the return of white supremacist control of the South. That Teddy Roosevelt, Republican, was initially a friend to African-American citizenship and then turned terribly against them. That Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, extended Jim Crow segregation throughout the federal government. And that finally it was not until the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt that the first serious and sustained effort to defend the actual freedom and civil rights of blacks began. Even those efforts were deeply flawed, they did open doors so that for the first time the relentlessly hard work of African-Americans in jobs and schools would accrue to their OWN benefit, their OWN journey out of poverty–rather than for someone else’s profit and pleasure.

I realize that you are not a serious person as far as history. Your interest is only in how to twist parts of history to serve a current day political agenda. But the facts simply don’t support the myth currently being pushed by you and some other people that the Republicans were historically the good guys on race, and that Democrats were the villians, and that black people have blindly gotten things in reverse. The truth is that Abe Lincoln was a good guy, and that after that both parties failed blacks abjectly until the World War II period, when Democrats in the north and some Republicans began to support civil rights and economic opportunity for African-Americans.

It was that coalition of Democrats and Republicans who then passed the civil rights acts of the 1960s, over the bitter opposition of southern Democrats who subsequently, by and large, became Republicans. But “Slavery by Another Name”, book or film, isn’t about that. It is an indictment of America’s failure to preserve the great moral victory of the Civil War, and the mythologies we adopted to hide that failure. Republicans and Democrats and white Americans across the land were all collaborators in that conspiracy against justice.

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