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Uncle Joe: Reliving Honest Abe’s Greatest Tale

Recently, Joe Biden stated during an interview on The Breakfast Club, “…if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or for Trump, then you ain’t black.” The backlash was immediate, as many questioned the impacts of the ill-conceived joke on his presidential campaign. While the impact of this gaffe is yet to be determined we know this faux pas is a departure from our contemporary readings of Biden as one of the “good guys.” Biden has managed to brand himself as a black-friendly politician along the likes of Ole Abe himself. For some Biden may very well be this generation’s version of Abraham Lincoln. The two surely have a great deal in common. In fact, in the summer of 2020 the progressive group Indivisible brands Biden as liked to Abraham Lincoln. One can wonder if the similarities are much more expansive. How do we determine how “pro-black” a politician can be? Or the limits of the connections white politicians can have with the black community?

One way to navigate these questions is to take a closer look at Abe Lincoln, the man many would label our first “pro-black” president. Much of our shared American history focuses on Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. After all, Lincoln is the president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, on January 1, 1863, the legislation freeing the enslaved across much of the seceded South. And while Lincoln’s work in emancipating the enslaved is noteworthy, its only one thread in the larger garment of American democracy and black relations. When we characterize Lincoln and his administration as Pro-Emancipation, we are only telling one part of the story. We are creating a narrative that positions or perhaps prioritizes the freedom and full humanity of its black residents. When we solely focus on Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” instead of the “Great Colonizer” we are indeed missing something. The current limitation of Lincoln’s position creates a limited and pseudo-reality for black people. By failing to include the fullness of colonization efforts that occurred in Lincoln’s administration we live with a false narrative and a legacy of belonging that simply does not exist. Colonization and emancipation efforts were both significant movements in US history. Lincoln identified himself as a supporter of colonization before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Fundamentally, he believed in the separation of the races. While we often associate the term colonizer with European settlers, it’s important to diversify our understanding of the term. The colonization/emigration movement called for the (in) voluntary removal of blacks from the United States to form black colonies abroad, including potential regions in Africa, South and Central America. This movement was largely supported by the premise that black people were an inferior race of people who could not successfully integrate with whites. This position differed from emancipation, the process of legally freeing the enslaved in order to enfranchise them into the greater society.

Lincoln’s legacy as a colonizer isn’t the same as the legacy of an emancipator. Coming to terms with these tensions is essential. In 1856, prior to his first term as president Lincoln became a member of the (ACS) American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States. ACS was composed of various societal leaders including clergymen, abolitionists, and slave owners who were dedicated to transporting freeborn blacks and emancipated slaves to Africa. The society and its membership had one essential premise: that blacks could not be integrated with whites. Lincoln held this belief as his own. A more nuanced review of Lincoln is essential if we want to fully engage in understanding the intricate relationship between black Americans and political leadership in our historic and contemporary society. We must call into question the “buy-in” many black citizens have in the inherent belief of white politicians as supporters of black liberation and advancement. It’s vital to expand our current framing of Lincoln as more than just an impassioned liberator. We must include the tensions that present themselves within a man who perhaps never believed in the manifestation of a fully integrated country. Moreover, a careful analysis of his administration and Congress highlights that while many may have believed slavery was a failed enterprise they did not believe in the full humanity of black people. This is the heart of Anti-Blackness.

Anti-Blackness is an inherent and systemic belief that people with African ancestry are incapable of full humanity and therefore deserving of extinction. It manifests itself through various channels including rhetorical messaging, collective and individual ideologies, social norms and institutional structures and practices. The impacts of Anti-Blackness are multifaceted but by in-large include state-sanctioned murder, and housing, health, and educational disparities. Lincoln’s deep belief and investment in the emigration of black residents reflects Anti-Black sentiment.

Perhaps, black people who inherently believe in the legacy of Emancipation are more likely going to believe that they can be fully human in any administration. However, without a more holistic view of Lincoln and his position on black lives prior to the Emancipation Proclamation we will continue to fall short in seeing the ways Anti-Blackness is practiced and engaged within American democracy and leadership. Can one single positive political act produce a lifelong invitation to our cookouts? Should it? It’s vital to engage in holistic readings of our national narratives. It’s equally important to elicit investigations into folks like “Uncle Joe” who may present a pro-black aesthetic that exists in name only.

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