President Abraham Lincoln, The Moral Politician

In honor of Presidents’ Day weekend and African-American History Month, I am revisiting this post from last year on Abraham Lincoln.

Until the 1850s Abraham Lincoln was a frustrated one-term congressman who had decided to focus on his law practice. Lincoln was drawn into politics again during the Kanas Nebraska Act controversy. While he accepted slavery where it existed, he couldn’t abide its expansion into new territories.

He was not in favor of giving blacks full citizenship, however. In 1840 he criticized Martin Van Buren for voting to enfranchise blacks, and he did not support giving blacks the vote in his bid for the U.S. Senate against Stephen Douglas. He believed that blacks had the right to earn their own living without it being taken away by their masters. Though he lost to Douglas, the debates helped raise Lincoln’s political profile.

Although he did not officially campaign for the nation’s highest office, Lincoln cleverly placed himself in the public eye. Prior to the election he had the debates with rival Stephen Douglas published; the volume became a national bestseller. He also travelled to New York so people in that part of the country could listen to his arguments and see his talent as a public speaker.

256px-Abraham_Lincoln_-_Clara_Barton_Centenary

Photo of President-elect Abraham Lincoln, 1860

While in New York he had his photograph taken so it could be handed out just in case his name was mentioned at the Republican convention. After he was elected, more than sixty photos were taken of Lincoln, making him the most photographed president up to that time. Though opponents often made fun of his plain, slightly unkempt appearance, Lincoln also poked fun at himself. After being called two-faced, Lincoln said, “If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”

Unlike Buchanan, who claimed that he could do nothing if a state wanted to leave the Union, Lincoln refused to bargain with secessionists and sent supplies to the federal fort in South Carolina. He also rejected the idea that the president could do nothing about slavery. While maintaining the Union was his first objective, he said that if freeing the slaves would save the Union he would free them.

Lincoln remained a great politician during the Civil War. He gave out contracts and government offices in exchange for votes. Yet he also knew how to unite people behind a moral cause such as the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery.

As the war drew to an end, he offered friendship to the defeated Southerners “with malice toward none, with charity to all.” Americans can only imagine what Lincoln would have accomplished during his second term in office. On April 14, 1865, he was the first president to be assassinated.

Comments on Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the slave Douglass searches for a sense of identity on a Maryland plantation. He is unsure of even the most basic things such as his birthday because slaveowners did not want to tell their slaves when their birthdays were. Even as a child this bothers Frederick. He estimates his age as about 27 or 28 years when he’s writing this narrative. Douglass also has a crisis of identity because he is half black and half white. While his mother was black and a slave, his father was white and also very possibly one of his former masters. He suggests that mixed-race children have a particularly difficult time fitting in in 19th-century society. For one thing, their mistresses resent them because they are a constant reminder of their husbands’ unfaithfulness. As a result, few children of slave owners can please their mistresses.

Douglass is also deprived of having a relationship with his mother, which would give him a sense of self. He is separated from her when he is a baby and only sees her a few times in his entire life. As a result, he reacts to his mother’s death the same way that he would react to hearing about the death of the stranger. Cutting family ties was another way that slave owners used to deprive slaves of their identity.

Slaves could not even distinguish themselves through their clothing since they all received the same clothing allowance. As a child Frederick and the other slave children only had two coarse linen shirts each year. When they outgrew them, children went naked until the next allowance came around.

One of the only ways that a slave on the plantation could distinguish him or herself was by being chosen to run an errand at the main building on the plantation. It was called the Great House Farm. Douglass states, “Few privileges were esteemed higher, by the slaves of the out-farms, than that of being selected to do errands at the Great House Farm…A representative could not be prouder of his election to the American Congress than a slave on one of the out-farms would be of his election to do errands at the Great House Farm. They regarded it as evidence of great confidence reposed in them by their overseers; and it was on this account as well as a constant desire to be out of field from under the driver’s lash, that they esteemed it a high privilege, one worth living for.” It’s difficult to imagine feeling one’s life worth living simply to run an errand, but such was the state of slaves on Col. Lloyd’s plantation.

motto_frederick_douglass_2

Frederick Douglass, 1856

Slaves were almost always illiterate. They did have other ways of expressing themselves however, particularly through their singing. Douglass notes that slaves did not, as some whites thought, sing because they were happy. In fact, they sang most often when they were unhappy. He writes, “every tone was a testimony against slavery and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness.”

At around seven years old, Douglass leaves the Lloyd plantation to live with his master’s son-in-law in Baltimore. He is now a town rather than a plantation slave, which gives him a few more privileges such as additional food. His mistress teaches Douglass his ABC’s and he learns a few short words. She is stopped, however, by her husband, who suggests that Douglass would not be fit to be a slave if he learned to read and write. “He would at once become unmanageable and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” Douglass writes, “from that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” Douglass understands that he’ll be able to forge a new life and identity for himself if he learns how to read. He can’t use his mistress as a teacher, but he manages to get reading lessons from the poor white children in the city. He had one advantage over them. Bread was given freely to him, and so he exchanged bread for as he calls it the bread of knowledge.

To some extent, his master is right. The ability to read does make Douglass more unhappy as a slave. “It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy.” He now has knowledge but is powerless to use it just yet. He dreams of escaping from his master but in the meantime determines to learn how to write. Again he uses the boys in the town to help them accomplish this by challenging them to write more words than he can. By the time he is between 10 and 11 years old, Douglass can read and write. He now has two of the tools he’ll need to forge his new identity as an escaped slave.

History Book Review: When Marian Sang by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Instead of trying to tell the main character’s whole life story, this engaging picture book focuses on Marian Anderson’s singing. Readers follow Marian’s development from a young girl singing in her church to a professional performer. Elements of Marian’s personal life are only included if they influenced her singing. For example, we learn that Marian’s father died in an accident because his passing filled Marian’s voice with sadness.

From the illustrations the reader knows that Marian is African American, but she isn’t discriminated against until she tries to apply to a music school. While waiting in line, she hears the person behind the counter blurt out “We don’t take colored!” Despite this setback, Marian took private music lessons. She became a popular performer throughout the U.S. Still, she still had to travel in railroad cars that were separate and dirtier than the ones reserved for white people.

The most obvious example of discrimination came in 1939 when Marian attempted to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The manager refused and said only whites could perform there. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt heard about this, she publicly resigned from the organization that sponsored the hall. With the permission of President Franklin Roosevelt, Marian got to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. Her encore performance of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” silenced the crowd of 75,000 people.

256px-Marian_Anderson_-_NARA_-_559192

Painting of Marian Anderson by Betsy Graves Reyneau

Though Marian is portrayed as a determined person, the author also makes her human. For example, Marian was often nervous before her performances and sometimes sang with her eyes closed. Anyone who ever gave a presentation at school or work can relate to how Marian felt. Not everyone gets to study music in Europe as Marian did, but readers can still understand Marian’s homesickness.

The author points out that even though Marian was determined to achieve her dream of someday singing at the Metropolitan Opera, she had help along the way. Marian’s mother encouraged her to continue her private lessons when her daughter was rejected by the music school.

Famous music teacher Giuseppe Boghetti was less concerned with Marian’s skin color than with her talent. He told her that after two years with him, she would be able to sing anywhere. In addition, Marian’s church community helped out by paying for her lessons with Boghetti.

At the end of the story, Marian finally realizes her dream of singing for the Metropolitan Opera. She had to wait 16 years after her performance at the Lincoln Memorial, however. Readers can takeaway from this book that dreams can come true, but it might take time and some support from other people to accomplish them.

The back of the book contains a helpful timeline of important events in Marian’s life, including those the story doesn’t cover. I was disappointed that the CD that came with the book did not include Marian’s voice (it’s a narration of the book), but the bibliography says where readers can find recordings of her performances. Unfortunately the bibliography is hidden in the author’s notes at the back of the book, making it somewhat difficult to find.

In summary, this book does a wonderful job of introducing kids  and adults to a courageous African American woman who realized her dreams despite some people’s prejudices.

Abraham Lincoln: The Moral Politician

Until the 1850s Abraham Lincoln was a frustrated one-term congressman who had decided to focus on his law practice. Lincoln was drawn into politics again during the Kanas Nebraska Act controversy. While he accepted slavery where it existed, he couldn’t abide its expansion into new territories.

He was not in favor of giving blacks full citizenship, however. In 1840 he criticized Martin Van Buren for voting to enfranchise blacks, and he did not support giving blacks the vote in his bid for the U.S. Senate against Stephen Douglas. He believed that blacks had the right to earn their own living without it being taken away by their masters. Though he lost to Douglas, the debates helped raise Lincoln’s political profile.

Although he did not officially campaign for the nation’s highest office, Lincoln cleverly placed himself in the public eye. Prior to the election he had the debates with rival Stephen Douglas published; the volume became a national bestseller. He also travelled to New York so people in that part of the country could listen to his arguments and see his talent as a public speaker.

256px-Abraham_Lincoln_-_Clara_Barton_Centenary

Photo of President-elect Abraham Lincoln, 1860

 

While in New York he had his photograph taken so it could be handed out just in case his name was mentioned at the Republican convention. After he was elected, more than sixty photos were taken of Lincoln, making him the most photographed president up to that time. Though opponents often made fun of his plain, slightly unkempt appearance, Lincoln also poked fun at himself. After being called two-faced, Lincoln said, “If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”

Unlike Buchanan, who claimed that he could do nothing if a state wanted to leave the Union, Lincoln refused to bargain with secessionists and sent supplies to the federal fort in South Carolina. He also rejected the idea that the president could do nothing about slavery. While maintaining the Union was his first objective, he said that if freeing the slaves would save the Union he would free them.

Lincoln remained a great politician during the Civil War. He gave out contracts and government offices in exchange for votes. Yet he also knew how to unite people behind a moral cause such as the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery.

As the war drew to an end, he offered friendship to the defeated Southerners “with malice toward none, with charity to all.” Americans can only imagine what Lincoln would have accomplished during his second term in office. On April 14, 1865, he was the first president to be assassinated.

 

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

As an English and History major, I was not particularly inclined to read a book about science. However, one of my Goodreads friends read it and enjoyed it, so I decided to give the book a chance. I found that I not only understood the book’s content, but I also couldn’t put it down.

The book discusses the cells that doctors at Johns Hopkins took from an African American woman with cervical cancer (Henrietta). These cells, called HeLa, grew successfully in culture. In fact, they grew so successfully that scientists all over the world wanted to use them in experiments. Among other medical advances, HeLa cells helped develop the polio vaccine, identify chromosomal disorders like Down syndrome, and test the effectiveness of chemotherapy and other drugs.

HeLa cells infected with adenovirus. Inset--HeLa cells in the process of dividing.

HeLa cells infected with adenovirus. Inset–HeLa cells in the process of dividing.

While Henrietta’s cells are an important aspect of the story, author Rebecca Skloot also sought to find out who Henrietta Lacks was. The reader discovers that many of Henrietta’s children wanted to know the same thing, since most were very young when she died. Despite her illness, Henrietta continued to cook and clean for her husband, neighbors and family. Her oldest son remembered that she was fair, but had strict rules about where her children could play.

Most interestingly, the book makes the reader think about how patients, particularly African Americans, were treated in the early 1950s. Henrietta went to Johns Hopkins because it was one of the few hospitals that agreed to treat African Americans who couldn’t pay their bills. Of course, Johns Hopkins had separate entrances for “white” and “colored” patients. Henrietta and her family had no idea that white doctors were taking samples of her cervix for their private research. Would Henrietta would have been treated any differently or given more information about the samples being taken if she was white? These are questions that the author allows the reader to decide.

During Skloot’s research, however, it is evident that the actions of Johns Hopkins researchers created distrust between Henrietta’s family and any white person who inquired about HeLa cells. For years, members of the Lacks family refused to talk to Skloot. Then one or two of them decided she could be trusted and they began sharing stories about Henrietta. Even after trust had seemingly been established, Henrietta’s daughter Deborah would accuse Skloot, who was paying for her research via credit cards and student loans, of secretly working for the hospital. Then Deborah would call Skloot as if nothing had happened and research would resume.

I finished this book with knowledge of the lengths to which scientists sometimes go to conduct their research. I also felt and better understood the distrust of some African Americans toward white people, particularly in the South. Finally, I admired Skloot’s determination to interview Henrietta’s family members and even scientists who were often less than enthusiastic about talking to her. This book will make people think about the American medical system’s treatment of patients of all colors. Highly recommended.