Lincoln, slavery and self-emancipation

Submitted by Matthew on 13 February, 2013 - 7:23

I’m interested by Eric Lee’s idea that Quentin Tarantino’s takes on Nazism and American slavery (Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained) promote the idea of self-emancipation, unlike Steven Spielberg’s (Schindler’s List and Lincoln).

But I don’t agree that “the reality is that it wasn’t Black slaves who brought down slavery” but “a mostly (though not entirely) white army led by a white man”. Of course I am not denying the role of the US army in the US Civil War. Nonetheless, American slaves played a central role, perhaps the central role, in their own emancipation.

Just before the Civil War, an excited Marx wrote:

“In my view, the most momentous thing happening in the world today is... the movement among the slaves in America... I have just seen in the Tribune that there was a new slave uprising in Missouri, naturally suppressed. But the signal has now been given.”

When the war began, the Northern government insisted it had no interest in touching slavery — and meant it. Protecting slavery came above winning the war. Northern commanders were ordered to suppress slave uprisings and returned runaways to their owners. But the anti-slavery activists who supported the North because they believed the logic of the struggle would push the question of slavery to the fore were proved right.

As more and more slaves escaped their masters and pushed their way into Northern lines, they not only forced the US army to accept them, first as workers and then as soldiers. They helped fundamentally shift the debate on slavery and black rights in the North itself.

After Lincoln’s January 1863 “Emancipation Proclamation” — which in fact emancipated nobody, but the slaves didn’t care — this movement became a tumultuous social upheaval, a “general strike” (WEB DuBois), one which eventually swept away the Southern Confederacy and any hope for maintaining slavery. Without it, the North might have lost, with enormous consequences for human progress.

After the war, the ex-slaves’ movement for freedom and equality would eventually be defeated. But that should not blind us to the central role they played in destroying slavery.

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