Book review: The Fiery Trial

The Fiery Trial both traces the evolution of Lincoln’s ideas and polices about slavery and that of the nation’s from the 1830s through the end of the Civil War. As usual what I thought I knew about Lincoln, slavery, and abolition turned out to be a bit simplistic. Reality is always more nuanced and complicated.

Foner provides a detailed walkthrough of the politics, history, and views about slavery from Lincoln’s time in Illinois through the remainder of his life. At times it did feel like I was trying to drink from a firehose. Foner patiently lays out the details, walking the reader through the ideas percolating in the nation and swirling around Lincoln. The details can be overwhelming and feel ploddingly tedious. But he is laying out an argument based on letters, speeches, and newspaper articles to show how Lincoln did not start out as the Great Emancipator. Far from it.

The picture painted of Lincoln is of a man with little interaction with blacks—slave or free. He just didn’t have opportunity to interact with them or give slavery much more than a passing thought until he moved into the presidency. Yes, he expressed that he personally was opposed to slavery, but fighting slavery was not his concern.

Lincoln was a product of his time and place. His time was one of slavery, the view that whites were superior, and that the Constitution protected slavery and states’ rights. In contrast, he was a firm believer in the Union and protecting it at all costs.

This book disabused me of many ideas. Nothing was black and white, so to speak. Rather than the war being about North vs. South, abolitionists vs. slaveowners, Foner shows a very nuanced political and social country. Democrats existed in the North. Some Democrats, like the future vice president and president Andrew Johnson, were Unionists, who sided with the North despite being racists, slaveowners, or supporters of slavery.

Not all Republicans were against slavery, or at least not strongly. Conservative, modern, radical. Lincoln fought to keep all stripes of Republicans united, not necessarily an easy task. He leaned to the conservative side, it seems, though led anyone who met him to walk away thinking that Lincoln believed what he himself believed.

Those who were against slavery varied too. I thought the US was divided between abolitionists and those who supported slavery. Ah, but that is too simplistic. The abolitionists were the radicals, the fringe element it seems in the North. Not all of those opposed to slavery were abolitionists, who wanted immediate, complete freedom of the slaves. Many advocated for gradual emancipation, where slaves would be freed over decades and generations—in one case slavery would die out by 1907!

And those supporting emancipation (not necessarily the same as being an abolitionist) didn’t always agree. Some advocated for compensated emancipation. In the modern era, compensation and slavery mentioned together refers to compensation paid to descendants of slaves for their labor. Nothing could have been further from this during the mid-1800s. Discussions, deals, and proposed laws covered how much to compensate slaveowners for their emancipated slaves. (In 1833, Britain abolished slavery and compensated slaveowners.)

Even if Americans believed in abolition or emancipation, they mostly did not want blacks to remain in the US. Blacks and white living in the same society was simply inconceivable to most Americans. The American Colonization Society was formed in 1817 and was going strong through Lincoln’s life. Lincoln himself was a strong proponent, unable to envision a non-white society. It wasn’t until near the end of the Civil War, after alternative lands to ship blacks to failed to be viable, that he quietly dropped the push for colonization. Of course, throughout all of this time very few blacks had any interest in emigrating. They saw themselves as Americans and wanted birthright citizenship and equality before the law in the US rather than colonization elsewhere.

I also had assumptions about emancipation, that freedom was tied to rights. But that was far from the truth. For Americans at the time, emancipation did not naturally lead to rights. Rights itself was a loaded term. Which rights? Most Americans who believed in emancipation or abolition agreed that blacks had the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Blacks were allowed to be free laborers. (At least in theory. In practice, things were a bit different.)

Few Americans wanted blacks to enjoy equality before the law or be citizens. And social equality? That was beyond anything that most Americans could handle. For blacks to be considered or treated as equals with whites was unthinkable to most.

The ways that rights were divided (economic, political, or social) and supported or not supported rather surprised me. I realized that I assumed that abolitionists were pro-black rights in my modern-day sensibilities. And yet the nuances make sense.

Despite Americans being opposed to slavery, they were still very racist. Racism was rampant whether in the South or the North, in abolitionist circles or colonization circles. This legacy haunts us today.

Lincoln, on the whole, comes out looking pretty darn conservation. He did not want a social or political revolution. He wasn’t looking to free the slaves or not free the slaves. For most of the time, abolishing slavery seemed irrelevant to him. He wasn’t necessarily more enlightened than his fellow countrymen. In fact, he seemed very cognizant of not getting ahead of public opinion. Abolitionist views slowly pushed him along, eventually dragging him to their views from decades earlier.

He really did what was expedient in a particular time and place. He let generals accept runaway slaves in some cases, turned a blind eye elsewhere, or removed them when they went too far by granting freedom. He weighed everything, I dare say, against what would have the best chance of keeping the Union together.

He did seem to carefully consider things and his thoughts did evolve with time—he eventually allowed blacks to serve in combat. But he did cling to ideas long past when he should have, such as the olive branch he extended to the border states for years to try to lure them into voluntary, gradual emancipation.

Often I wonder what post-Civil War America would have been like, what Reconstruction would have been like had Lincoln not been assassinated. Andrew Johnson, the racist Democrat from Tennessee who ascended to the presidency following Lincoln’s assassination, seemed to undo the promises of emancipation and the abolition of slavery. But after reading The Fiery Trial, I am not so sure that Reconstruction under Lincoln would have been the utopia I would have wished for. I suspect Lincoln would have been a lot more cautious, a lot more conservative than the myth of the Great Emancipator that arose after his death.

Podcast review (update): Backstory

With some shock, I learned that Backstory, a history podcast, will be stopping production on July 3, 2020. I previously reviewed Backstory and felt I would be remiss if I didn’t announce its impending demise.

Backstory has broadcasted episodes for 12 years. After that lengthy production, I cannot begrudge the historians from moving on to other things, but they and their program will be sorely missed.

Book review: When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-century America

I was introduced to the concept of affirmative action as being mainly for whites during the Scene On Radio series of podcasts about whiteness (Being White). I scoured the podcast’s bibliography and found When Affirmative Action Was White.

To be honest, for some reason, I thought the book was going to be a narrative history from the 1600s onward. In reality, it was an argument that focused on government policies from the 1930s through the 1950s. The New Deal, Social Security, labor laws, the GI Bill were not necessarily racist or written for whites only. But because of political and institutional racism in the US, they ended up being discriminatory.

These laws and federal programs helped millions of white Americans and pushed aside millions of black Americans. While African Americans received some benefits, the aid they received was miniscule compared to what whites received. These federal programs were responsible for creating a middle class. Ironically, these programs increased inequality and the wealth gap between whites and blacks. Thanks to these programs, blacks are now further behind whites.

When Affirmative Action Was White is less a history about affirmative action and more a review of how the programs propped up the Southern racist culture and Jim Crow laws. To cut to the chase, to get sufficient votes for these programs to become law, non-Southern Democrats had to cut deals with the Southern Democrats. The deals they cut? Allow the states to administer the programs locally and distribute the money. In essence, Southern Congress members could ensure that their Southern way of life (read: racist) continued.

It was as if the Civil War and the freedom of the slaves never happened. The result has been generational poverty and wealth inequalities.

About the time that moves were made to include blacks more and more in affirmative action, the cry for color-blindness arose. Affirmative action was OK for whites, but when it extended more fully to blacks, then suddenly race needed to be ignored.

The author argues that the convention of looking at affirmative action as starting in the 1960s with Johnson’s Great Society does a grave disservice to understanding the inequality gap. You cannot cry foal with modern forms of affirmative action (e.g., “Susie Smith didn’t get into Harvard because her spot went to a black student”). This ignores how previous affirmative action preferenced whites over blacks.

The endpoint that the author builds up to is President Johnson’s speech at Howard University in 1965 and Justice Powell’s 1978 decision that both supported and circumscribed affirmative action. Johnson’s vision never came to fruition. And Powell’s description of affirmative action as needing to be clear and specific about racial injuries AND remedying a racist public policy is held up as the gold standard.

Honestly, I am not clear why Powell’s description has such weight.

The author also argues that the opponents of affirmative action have been super clear in their arguments against it. Those in favor of affirmative action haven’t been and must be.

Again I am not sure what these arguments should be other than they must follow Powell’s guidelines.

I feel like this book assumes intimate knowledge about the history of affirmative action and certain laws. (Portal to Portal Act? Taft-Hartley?)

Parts of the book were enlightening and made me think. I realized that WWII led blacks to experience treatment that they did not in the segregated US. Being treated as a human with respect and dignity in Europe made it difficult to return to the Jim Crow South or discriminatory North. The civil rights movement in part came out of the taste of first-class treatment that blacks GIs received abroad during the war.

However, I didn’t think about this same situation occurring after WWI. The 1920s, immediately after WWI, was a horrible time in terms of racism in the US. Not that other times were great but the 1920s saw a sharp rise in racism, e.g., lynchings, KKK hysteria. Why? The implication is that black GIs returned to a US where they were not treated as human beings. They needed to be controlled and forced back into the sub-human places the dominant white culture demanded they be.

The utterly disheartening and enraging point that surfaces again and again is the acquiescence to Southern demands that Southern culture (i.e., white supremacy) not be touched. State administration was demanded and the cry of states’ rights raised repeatedly.

I realized, thanks to this book, how completely US public policy has been hijacked by the South and their racist agenda. Blacks have not truly been free. The South dictates everything in all spheres of life. And non-Southern politicians have allowed the racism to persist and have helped prop it up. This is unconscionable.

State’s rights, which have always made me uneasy, are clearly code for racism and discrimination. Leaving states to decide how to implement federal programs or distribute money is kind of like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Not a good idea if you want to have hens. Or if you want federal programs to positively impact the economic and social betterment of all Americans.

Book review: Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man

I had heard about this book in the last year and thought it would be fascinating to hear the perspective of someone transitioning from female and male. What privileges would he realize that he inherited? In what ways was he restrained by masculine norms? How did he exist as a man with the lived experience of being a woman in the past in a world designed and controlled by men?

Amateur is a window into Thomas’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences about his life Before and After the Transition. The vehicle for exploring his transition and masculinity in general was an article that he was going to write about training for a charity boxing match. The readers get to go along for the ride and watch as he experiences the mostly masculine world of boxing and strives to figure out what it means to be a man.

Thomas is very forthright with his past and his family—supportive mother and siblings but an abusive stepfather. He describes how he was treated and related to as a woman, and then how things flipped during and after his transition when the world started seeing him as a man.

Suddenly he was no longer invisible or discounted. He mattered in the eyes of the world. He found that by opening his mouth and using his voice, he could silence rooms. People listened to what he said. They assumed a degree of competency on his part that women continually fight for and are rarely given.

He notes not only the differences between how he was treated before and how was treated after, but how he treated women before and after. By merely training for five months for a charity boxing match, his status was elevated in the eyes of other men. He was deemed an expert of sorts. He was listened to about boxing. Never mind that he barely knew how to throw a couple different types of punches. He saw this differential at the first gym he was training at. A female trainer there had to work twice as hard to prove herself. And still she was, not discounted really, but not taken as seriously as a guy who could walk into the gym without much boxing experience.

Or his sister who had boxed for years and had expertise much beyond his own. Thomas recounts an experience where he was out walking and talking with a group. A question about boxing came up. His sister, an expert, spoke up, but was ignored. Thomas talked over her. He was listened to. She wasn’t. Not even by him. It was as though he knew all about boxing. As though he had boxed for years.

Any woman can relate to this story. Talked over. Ignored. Your experience and expertise irrelevant. You are irrelevant.

Thomas didn’t realize what he did during this conversation about boxing until later. In fact, he didn’t really realize it. His girlfriend pointed it out to him later. Of course, he felt horrible. At some point he did eventually manage to bring it up with his sister and apologize. Which is great but kind of beside the point. I could feel for his sister, my own experiences projected on her and her feelings, accepting the apology but stoically resigned to this is just what men do.

To be a man, it seems, is to fundamentally degrade women. Interestingly, Thomas mentions that the phrase “be a man” is culturally contextualized. In Denmark, “be a man” means do not be a boy. It is linked to the admonition to be an adult. In the US, “be a man” means do not be a woman. Being a man is linked to a gendered hierarchy.

This hierarchy really is inherent in the American system. I find myself frustrated and angry when once again I find myself discounted, devalued, talked to disparagingly—in essence, I realize that I am being treated “as a woman” and I find it enraging because being treated like a woman means I am being treated as someone less than human, who can be discounted and shoved aside. A second-class citizen of sorts.

Another point in the book that I found illuminating s the talk about violence. Violence is a form of male bonding. The boxing gym in some ways is the epitome of maleness. You are setting out to physically overcome someone else. Blood, sweat, bruises, black eyes. But Thomas also recounts very tender moments, words of encouragement and physically caring for other men.

But violence, he points out, is central to being male. As a man, you cannot let yourself be dominated by someone else. Why do men fight? When they feel humiliated, shamed, not powerful.

Violence is approved towards those who are “legitimate targets”. Who are “legitimate targets”? Someone you are entitled to dominate, who has less power than you—in other words, a woman. And here we see the rationale for domestic violence. You cannot take out your anger on your boss. He is not a legitimate target. But your girlfriend, wife, daughter. You can take it out on them.

Thomas realized that he was now rewarded for what previously he was punished for doing. He could speak up. Stand up for his ideals. He could push back. He could take credit for things. He could play power games. All things he was punished for doing when he was a woman. To exist in the world as an individual is to do all of these things, but women are beaten down again and again for doing them. For men, it is expected, a birthright, and an accepted way of moving through the world.

Thomas has tried to be conscious of these differences, to remember how he was treated as a woman and not to perpetuate this treatment of women. But it is different. Fish forget the water they swim in. At first when you encounter something, a new way of being treated, you notice it because of its newness. But with time, it becomes the new norm.

He tries to remember and be conscious. He tries to combines bits of his former self that he doesn’t want to lose—the caring, emotions, asking for help, aligning with women. But it isn’t always easy or possible. When his mom was dying, it was his sister who cared for her. It was expected that another woman would. As a man, he was kept out of that world and lost out in the closeness and tenderness of caring for his mom.

He tries to monitor himself. He mentions watching at work who talks over whom and why. Out for a run, he notices a female runner ahead of him looking over her shoulder, clearly worried about these footsteps fast approaching from behind her. Where previously he experienced fear of other men when he was out alone as a woman, he realizes what his presence as a man means to this runner. In the future, when he encounters another female runner, he calls out that he is passing on the left. An attempt to allay fears of an unknown man approaching from behind.

In Amateur, Thomas seeks to find out what it means to be a man in a world with abusive fathers and toxic masculinity. Without growing up male, he seems to feel a bit bereft. But through observation and reflection, he is crafting masculinity that feels right for him. The book takes us on his journey and lets us share in his observations about what it means to be male and juxtaposed against that what it means be female in a male-dominated world. And ways men can be that can heal both themselves and women from toxic masculinity.

Book review: Go Tell It on The Mountain

The value of a novel is in revealing truths that move the reader, leaving the reader changed. Go Tell It on the Mountain does just that.

As I closed the book upon finishing it, an audible expression of astonishment escaped my lips. Go Tell It On The Mountain is a surreptitiously powerful book. The story seems so simple—a fourteen-year-old boy raised in a house led by stepfather who is a Pentecostal preacher.

Baldwin draws the reader deeper into the lives of major characters one by one. Their sins, their pain, and the suffering of their lives are laid bare for the reader to see. No judgement about them is clear-cut.

He plays with the role of sin and religion in the lives of African Americans. Sin envelops and morphs, rationalized away and looking different from various perspectives and through the eyes of various people. Religion both uplifts and destroys. Religion is a truth that brings salvation and partial healing. And a hypocrisy that brings damnation and harm. Salvation is never final and sin exists everywhere.

Racism of the early 20th century dances through the storyline. The poverty, the lack of opportunity, the despair screams of racism. Hatred of and distrust of white people pervades the life of some characters. Indifference of white people is the reality of other characters. White people appear on the fringes of the story as absent employers, violence to black lives, and the very present threat of police and the criminal justice system.

The novel shows lives cut short or full of pain. Lots of lost opportunities, snippets of love but mostly punctuated with hatred. Family and community are not idealized. The reality of relationships is on full display with its raw harshness.

My heart ached for each character in turn. They all exist in hell and live with a past that they wish to return to or long to forget. Life is a long series of pain and loss. Ironically in a such a family where religion plays such a central role in their lives, God seems absent.

Go Tell It on The Mountain is James Baldwin’s first major work, a semi-autobiographical novel. It is generally considered an American classic, and I can see why. His storytelling is superb and he reaches into the soul of the characters he describes. He touches on important themes, bringing them briefly front and center to the reader’s attention without preaching or belaboring his points. He relates truths in American society that leaves one pondering the items weighing down one’s soul from the telling of his story. The value of a novel is in revealing truths that move the reader, leaving them changed. Go Tell It on the Mountain does just that.