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Friday, August 8, 2008

Unsung Black Heroes

Here is a piece from about blacks that really made a difference in advocating the dictum that men should not be judged by the colour of their skin. enjoy the article as written by Prof. Olu Obafemi.

This time last year was a rare high-point of the Black History Month for me. I was taken by my hosts to Lincoln Home in Springfield, capital city of Illinois State, at the tail end of the Black History Month. This Month, as we know, is set aside every year to commemorate and celebrate the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas—two people usually remembered as key factors in the emancipation of slaves in the United States. In the specific case of President Abe Lincoln, his celebration in American history is a double bill; as the President who prevented the break-up of the Union and the one who signed the Emancipation Act of 1861, which history has usually taken and embraced as the signal pointer to the end of slavery in the United States.

You would then imagine the level of my uncritical thrill, when I got the invitation to take a ride to the place that has become a National Monument and a must-visit for anybody even vaguely familiar with the events and the struggle for black emancipation and the verdict given to history as to who the real heroes of the emancipation are.

Who would not relish the chance, as I did, to go to Abe Lincoln’s (as President Lincoln was generally, fondly called) city of birth, to drink from history in a place now declared a pilgrim’s site, along with its immediate neighbourhood, preserved and reserved as a sacrosanct spot for tourists and citizens who needed to catch up with a critical moment in America’s history?

I relished my chance and luck—and I was able to visit the Museums in Springfield and Chicago (the myriads of Museum sites in Chicago is any tourist’s delight and home of historical information and intellectual leisure). But I was later treated to some shocking discussions with a historian in African-American Studies, Dr. Musa Abdullahi, at the Western Illinois University—one of the locations of my residency duration, who could not care less, in fact, who was virtually scandalized by the kind of hilarity that I passionately demonstrated at the end of the visit. I had settled to a consultation experience with a female Professor of English, who is African-American and whom I was just sharing my blissful tour to the Lincoln Home with, when the historian expressed his surprise that there could be African and African-American intellectuals who would still be deluded enough to grant the heroes’ accolade of the ‘so-called’ Emancipation Act to both Lincoln and Douglas. If I was shocked by this ‘subversive’ statement, my reaction was less emotional than the African-American, who also considered Lincoln and Douglas as key heroes of the Black History Month. We thus combatively engaged this unorthodox historian to prove his point about Lincoln, especially. Who else, besides the modern heroes of the black struggle in America since Emancipation—Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and so on - who could qualify as heroes worthy to be celebrated in advance of Lincoln and Fredrick Douglas?

The discussion, or the educational project which followed, was a monologue, a one-way business, an instructional hand-out, backed by facts and figures, to which I believe the audience of this column will lose nothing being co-students of, as we reflect on the events that justify the commemoration of the Black History Month. First, he asserted that far ahead of Lincoln and Douglas, two white men sacrificed their lives and those of others, including those of their children, to wage armed struggle to free slaves and end slavery in America—the consequence of which was that, the Emancipation Act, which Lincoln signed did not really free any slaves. The details of these have been well documented.

These two heroes of the Emancipation of American slaves were Love-Joy, a white man who committed his life to an armed opposition to slavery in America and who was killed for that purpose and John Brown, who actually led an armed revolt against slavery in America.

Why, you may quip, will Lincoln not be honoured as a main factor in Emancipation? After all, history is resolute about the fact that only leaders and war commanders win wars, and are credited and immortalized for them. Only Napoleon is remembered in the Napoleonic Wars in France and Europe. For good or for ill, and in spite of the pogrom and tragedies of the Second World War, only Adolf Hitler is credited with the victories and failures of Nazism. Ditto Mussolini for Italian Fascism. Even our own traumatic Civil War in Nigeria between 1967 and 1970: The homilies of the war are sung after the names of Yakubu Gowon and Odumegwu Ojukwu. The thousands and millions that perished in these wars—their orphaned and widowed loved ones -- are victims of history’s convenient amnesia. Nobody remembers the real heroes of warfare, who perished or suffered from wars which they did nothing to perpetrate and whose lives served as mere fodder to surfeit the appetite of dictators.

In the case of the Emancipation and the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln as President of America, stole the show and recorded history affirms him so and decorates his head with immortal garlands. Yet, as we were persuasively informed, with documents, Abe Lincoln was concerned, principally, to save the Union. If in the process, emancipation—or the freedom of the slaves in the slave states-- became imperative, expedient or a condition for the salvation of the Union, so be it. Just one or two statements quoted against President Lincoln’s name will suffice in this brief reflection. In the Speech at Peoria on October 16, 1854, he had been quoted thus: “Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this, and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not”.

Should this quotation sound as a cursory statement from a non-committal, private lawyer, Lincoln, who was not fully enthralled by the praxis of presidential politics, the quoted statement from his Inaugural Speech as President on March 4, 1861, reflected the truism of his perceived preference, as regards ending slavery in the Confederate States (States where slavery existed). He had said: “I have no purpose directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so”.

Other statements accredited to the great Lincoln indicate his intrinsic belief in the superiority of the white race to the black one. The credit that can be granted to him of course is that he discouraged slavery in states where it was not in operational practice. His paramount “object in this struggle (the war) is to save the Union and it is neither to save nor destroy slavery”. He would save the Union without freeing any slave; he would also free all the slaves to save the Union. It is to this that we owe the fact that it was President Abraham Lincoln that signed the Emancipation Act. It is for this, mainly, that he won the declaration of the Black History Month partly to festivate his birthday, which was in February, alongside the Black emancipator, Frederick Douglas, who would not take up arms, alongside John Brown, the unsung hero, because Douglas thought it was a futile exercise that would fail.

John Brown, then, with a group of twenty-one men, in an October 16, 1859 downpour, attacked the Federal Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, with the sole intent of taking over the town, free the slaves and distribute arms for them to spread the revolt across the South. The result was catastrophic. His two sons were killed along with a handful other black fighters. He was, himself, sentenced to death and killed. I recall quite faintly, once in a while, echoes of the song that we sang (obviously without the correct lyrics or sense) in the primary school in the late fifties. It was “John Brown’s body lies amouldering in the grave (3x)…And his soul goes marching on”. With a chorus like: “Glory, Glory Hallelujah! (3x) And his soul goes marching on”.

I do not wish to rob this hero, Abraham Lincoln, the way none of his predecessors was ever robbed of their immortality, wisely or otherwise. But I believe that nobody who is prescient of this version of the anti-slavery struggle will deny the exhumation of unsung heroes of the Black History (Month.) John Brown died in the, now, prophetic conviction that the voluntary sacrifice of his life, his soldiers and his sons would not be in vain, when he said, a few hours after his capture that: “I am nearly disposed of now, but this question is still to be settled—this Negro question, I mean—the end of that is not yet.”. Henry Thoreau must have the last word: “Old John Brown is dead—John Brown the immortal lives”.

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