Tag Archive: Civil War


Micro-Aggressions

On my way to the north woods of Wisconsin for a much needed spring break, I heard a new term on the radio: micro-aggressions. The term refers to the many little ways that people, in particular white people, most often privileged white men, continue the legacy of racism with snide side comments and little asides thrown out carelessly, denigrating African-Americans and their accomplishments. It’s almost as though these insecure people seek to cement a privileged position and are afraid, on some level, that giving another race equal treatment under the law will somehow take away from their rights.

There’s that famous cigarette ad saying from Virginia Slims: “You’ve come a long way, baby,” and when it comes to civil rights we have indeed come a long way in the last fifty years, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t have much work to do. Racism is no longer socially acceptable so I find people making derogatory remarks under their breath, usually among peers who don’t dare confront them or disagree.

At the same time, we have the dilemma of the well-meaning heterosexual white man who has inherited a position of privilege, and may indeed feel guilty about having certain birth rights, but doesn’t know how to start or continue a conversation about race and racism. I’m thinking in particular about a friend named James, Gentle James of a previous post, who doesn’t feel comfortable making much of any comment on race and racism for fear of speaking out of turn, or God forbid, not being forward-thinking enough.

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, recently tried something radical in having his baristas, also known as partners, write on random coffee cups the term, “Race together.” I think theoretically it’s a great idea to try and start a national conversation on race relations, and indeed the coffee community would seem like a great place to start, but I’m not certain that the average Starbucks customer wants to have any kind of meaningful interaction at 7am while waiting for that first cup of coffee. Perhaps if Starbucks had framed the conversation, saying that on Sunday afternoons, baristas will be approaching people to talk about racism, the whole project might have had better parameters. The way it played out, as I was driving out of town, one of the Starbucks employees who is a casual friend of mine named Dominique, waved at me through the drive-thru and asked about my weekend plans, while another employee, a black man named Marquise who I really don’t know all that well, rushed to the window, seemingly in the effort to raise the profile of the African-American community. Is it really fair to put the onus on all the minority employees to insure that they are noticed and appreciated? How does Howard Schultz contend that his employees respond to someone who might very well react in a racist fashion? Is it enough to say, “We don’t need the business of close-minded people?” So I guess my point is, I give Starbucks an A for effort in its attempt to redress the wrongs of recent racist flare-ups, but only a B minus for the way the company has executed its “race together” campaign.

A Shining Beacon of Light

“Don’t speak to me about grief!” Abraham Lincoln commands his wife, Mary Todd, played by Sally Field in the film “Lincoln.” Mrs. Lincoln fell into a deep depression following the death of her son Willie, and though the Lincoln family had four children, only Robert survived to have children of his own. Abraham Lincoln himself grieved deeply for his personal losses despite battling the south during the Civil War. A great book, “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness,” written by Joshua Wolf Shenk, details the deep depression which haunted Lincoln throughout his life, and Shenk characterizes how Lincoln’s personal battles determined his greatness as a president.

Indeed, throughout “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg, the audience is privy to a very human, flawed depiction of the visionary 16th President of the United States with the title role played by the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis. At one point toward the end of the film, perhaps presaging his death, Lincoln laments, “Some weariness has bit at my bones.”

In this way “Lincoln” intricately interweaves both deft and subtle touches. The opening scene, the only battle scene in the film, shows Lincoln reviewing the troops, including both blacks and whites, and two soldiers come up to thank the president for all his inspirational words by reciting back to him the Gettysburg Address. In terming this address one of the most important speeches ever delivered, James McPherson called it, “the world’s foremost statement of freedom and democracy and the sacrifices required to achieve and defend them.”

Even though the film was a bit of a history lesson for me, it never felt turgid, stilted or plodding. Almost everyone knows that Lincoln was assassinated not long after winning a second term in office, but those who are not history buffs may not be aware of the intense political maneuvering in the final few months of his life. He had already issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but Lincoln wasn’t certain it was enough to secure freedom for all slaves. In effect, the debate was that the Proclamation seized all property from the seceding states, and slaves were considered property at that time, but it was unclear what would happen to those slaves once the Civil War ended.

It was imperative for Congress to pass the 13th Amendment, to clearly free the slaves yet backlash at the time was fierce. It turned out Lincoln and his advisors were not above “greasing the wheel,” offering patronage jobs for votes. Thaddeus Stevens, the foremost abolitionist of that era, played by Tommy Lee Jones, was forced to clarify his position in front of the entire Legislature to pronounce whether he supported “equality in all things, or only equality before the law.” This turned out to be a very important distinction.

My only critical comment was that the film’s climatic moment occurs right at the very end of the war, and it was unnecessary to include Lincoln’s assassination at the Ford theater in Washington while watching “Our American Cousin” on Good Friday, 1865.

For many, Lincoln and the Civil War have become what I would term a “dead event,” no longer resonating with those in our country who would just as soon forget the past. The movie “Lincoln” sweeps all that aside, making us care very much once again for this president and about this fateful period in history.