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not seen the visions of black people, Harding writes, “had not yetrightly measured ‘the judgments of the Lord,’ the movements ofProvidence.” Like Bennett’s Lincoln, Harding’s is a dedicated whitesupremacist afflicted with tunnel vision. His obsession with savingthe white Union “at all costs” blinds him to the spiritual and revolu-tionary nature of the conflict. He cares nothing for black people. Fortwo years he will not let them serve in his armies, will not adopt anemancipation policy, lest that offend his “tender allies” in the “loyal”slave border. But the slaves could not care less. They swarm intoUnion lines in relentlessly increasing num-STEPHEN B. OATES / 27
bers, until Lincoln’s armies find themselves “in the midst of a surgingmovement of black people” who in effect are “freeing themselvesfrom slavery.”But then a harried Lincoln steps in and steals all their glory. Mainlyto justify the use of the South’s black “property” in his militaryforces, he issues an “ambiguous,” restricted Emancipation Proclam-ation, which from “a certain legal view” sets free no slaves at all.Alas, though, the proclamation symbolizes all that blacks have “sodeeply longed to experience,” and it sends “a storm of long pent-upemotions surging through the churches and meeting halls.”Their rapture is understandable, Harding writes, “but like all ec-static experiences, it carried its own enigmatic penalties.” In hisview, the Emancipation Proclamation was one of the worst thingsthat ever happened to black people in this country. For the joy withwhich Civil War Negroes greeted the proclamation produced themyth of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. It was an ugly irony.“While the concrete historical realities of the time testified to thecostly, daring, courageous activities of hundreds of thousands ofblack people breaking loose from slavery and setting themselvesfree, the myth gave the credit for this freedom to a white Republicanpresident” who never saw beyond the limitations of his own race,class, and time. “Yet thanks to the mythology of blacks and whitesalike, it was the independent, radical action of the black movementtoward freedom which was diminished, and the coerced, ambiguousrole of a white deliverer which gained pre-eminence.” For the devel-opment of black struggle and black radicalism, Harding says, theconsequences of this myth were many and profound.To emancipate today’s Afro-Americans from the shackles of thatmyth, Harding has created an alternative myth, writing in a musicalstyle that radiates the voice of soul. Here is how his message mightbe summarized: Far from being the passive recipients of freedom, as whitehistory has so long described them, our heroic, blood-stained forebears weregaining it for themselves dur-28 / ABRAHAM LINCOLN
ing the Civil War. Yes, we were winning our own freedom, were forginga black radical consensus that could have liberated us from dependence onthe white-man’s Union. We didn’t need Lincoln, didn’t need the racist