Not seen the visions of black people harding writes

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not seen the visions of black people, Harding writes, “had not yet rightly measured ‘the judgments of the Lord,’ the movements of Providence.” Like Bennett’s Lincoln, Harding’s is a dedicated white supremacist afflicted with tunnel vision. His obsession with saving the white Union “at all costs” blinds him to the spiritual and revolu- tionary nature of the conflict. He cares nothing for black people. For two years he will not let them serve in his armies, will not adopt an emancipation policy, lest that offend his “tender allies” in the “loyal” slave border. But the slaves could not care less. They swarm into Union lines in relentlessly increasing num- STEPHEN B. OATES / 27
bers, until Lincoln’s armies find themselves “in the midst of a surging movement of black people” who in effect are “freeing themselves from slavery.” But then a harried Lincoln steps in and steals all their glory. Mainly to justify the use of the South’s black “property” in his military forces, 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 “so deeply longed to experience,” and it sends “a storm of long pent-up emotions 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 his view, the Emancipation Proclamation was one of the worst things that ever happened to black people in this country. For the joy with which Civil War Negroes greeted the proclamation produced the myth of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. It was an ugly irony. “While the concrete historical realities of the time testified to the costly, daring, courageous activities of hundreds of thousands of black people breaking loose from slavery and setting themselves free, the myth gave the credit for this freedom to a white Republican president” who never saw beyond the limitations of his own race, class, and time. “Yet thanks to the mythology of blacks and whites alike, it was the independent, radical action of the black movement toward freedom which was diminished, and the coerced, ambiguous role of a white deliverer which gained pre-eminence.” For the devel- opment of black struggle and black radicalism, Harding says, the consequences of this myth were many and profound. To emancipate today’s Afro-Americans from the shackles of that myth, Harding has created an alternative myth, writing in a musical style that radiates the voice of soul. Here is how his message might be summarized: Far from being the passive recipients of freedom, as white history has so long described them, our heroic, blood-stained forebears were gaining it for themselves dur- 28 / ABRAHAM LINCOLN
ing the Civil War. Yes, we were winning our own freedom, were forging a black radical consensus that could have liberated us from dependence on the white-man’s Union. We didn’t need Lincoln, didn’t need the racist

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