Frederick Douglass, Spielberg's Lincoln, and more

Thomas Demand. Space Simulator, 2003, (detail). © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / ARS, New York.

Thomas Demand. Space Simulator, 2003, (detail). © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / ARS, New York.


Xi Jinping has cemented himself as a leader at home and abroad, and the proceedings of China’s Party Congress in October testify to that. We spoke with Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, for our January issue about what to expect from Xi’s ambitious plans over the next five years — and why the U.S. is not as weak in Asia as many think.


It does not take a keen perception to look around and realize that, even though it was formally settled over 150 years ago by the thirteenth amendment, the divide over slavery that once split the United States into a bloody Civil War left a chasm in the Union that still hasn’t been bridged. The bitter racism of antebellum America not only facilitated a plantation economy which relied on human misery to remain productive, but it generated levels of violent distrust that not only persevere to this day but propagate the worst kinds of willful ignorance. Although 20th and 21st century liberal thought definitely leans, in retrospect, toward the political aspirations of W. E. B. Du Bois’ Niagara Movement and less so the more cautious underpinnings of Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise, it’s hard to dispute Washington’s ability to underline one of the worst aspects of oppression and certainly the history of American slavery and racism: “You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him.”

It was on this day in history, January 31, 1865 that the 13th Amendment — abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude — was passed by the House of Representatives, completing its Congressional journey. The sacrifices made to reach that point were immense, but the significance of all the reactionary elements which emerged after the passage of the 13th and its eventual ratification later that year — from the Ku Klux Klan to Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats — still lives on and is far too prominent in the riots, protests and mindless political campaigns of today.


If you are, for whatever reason, unsure what those aforementioned sacrifices entailed for the president who is invariably ranked as one of the best the American nation has ever had, legendary director Steven Spielberg already took care of your conundrum six years ago. By all means, do watch the epic historical drama Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the eponymous leader of the Union. This is not a movie about the Civil War – it is about Lincoln’s crisis of conscience after he realized that the Confederacy would be losing: how to ensure that America never practice slavery again while still keeping the American political apparatus intact. What this really means is passing the 13th Amendment before the slave states of the South return to the Union and endanger the passage on any such policy and, furthermore, invalidating the ultimate cause of the war.

Does Lincoln have to be tricky sometimes? Does he not always go all the way for Black Americans in a world of limitations? Is it time to give a great American figure the film-epic and emotional depth he deserves? Yes, yes and yes.


Studying politics and grand strategy only go so far, though, in tackling the very worst, dehumanizing details of slavery. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass as written by Douglass himself is a must-read, especially for any American citizen. Douglass’ reflection on life as a slave and then as a free man is compelling enough, but the specific moments in the book where Douglass analyzes particular American peculiarities are what really shine through. “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” he famously asks. It’s a good question in a country that celebrates its birthday so prolifically but, as Douglass reminds the reader, is reluctant to let its slaves know how old they are.

Perhaps what is most engaging about Douglass is his endorsement of knowledge as the ultimate liberator as he, in fact, provides knowledge to the reader. It is the act of the book’s own existence — as both a fantastic work and its authorship from a black man — that proves its thesis so well in a much different time for social mores on race. If anything, read this before you take a look at Lincoln and its pensive drama; any viewer could use a reminder about just how high the stakes really are beyond the amendments and courtrooms.