- Pedagogy of the Post-RacialThe Texts, Textiles, and Teachings of African American Women
She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.—Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
I…I don’t know you, Mrs. Keckley. Any of you.—Abraham Lincoln to Elizabeth Keckley in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln
When we are not “public,” with all the word connotes for black people then how do we live and who are we?—Elizabeth Alexander, The Black Interior
Sparked by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 944-page opus Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln; stoked by Steven Spielberg’s part biopic, part historical drama, Lincoln; and fanned by 2013’s 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, battle scene reenactors, Civil War buffs, civil rights activists, and “post-race” babies have collectively, and sometimes reluctantly, found themselves engulfed by twenty-first-century adaptations of the circuitous route to the Emancipation Proclamation. At the same time that this moment of looking back prompts a consideration of how race, specifically the “Negro Problem,” was “solved,” it collides with contemporary conceptions of why race, characterized as “skin color or phenotype,”1 should be rejected. Abraham Lincoln’s resurgence as man and myth, it seems, provides a perfect opportunity to consider the long arc of racial ideology and the implications of America’s “post-racialism.” [End Page 24]
Immediately after Barack Obama’s election to the presidency of the United States in 2008, post-race, post-racial, and post-racialism emerged as media soundbytes that took on lives of their own. As newscasters imagined America’s post-racial possibilities on cable and network news, legal scholars nailed down post-racialism as a term that was as nefarious as it was, for a time, nebulous. Defined by legal scholar and critical race theorist Sumi Cho as “a twenty-first century ideology that reflects a belief that due to racial progress the state need not engage in race-based decision-making or adopt race-based remedies, and that civil society should eschew race as a central organizing principle of social action,”2 post-racialism would seem to provide those racially oppressed with an opportunity to “eschew race” and proudly proclaim, from the soapbox of their own merits, that “race is but a negligible human difference.”3 Nevertheless, as Cho argues, a postracial belief in colorblindness runs the risk of restoring whiteness “to its full pre-civil rights value” where “racial remedies…[are] off the table, [and] so are acts of collective political organization and resistance by racialized indviduals.”4 In other words, post-racialism limits the ways in which those who deem themselves color-conscious—individuals who are aware of the “irrelevancy of phenotypical differences among racial groups” yet appreciative of “the significance of race as a social construction”5—can argue for political action on the basis of racial discrimination. Suffice it to say that at this current moment, post-racialism lurks as a wolf in sheep’s clothing: it masquerades as the realization of nineteenth-century emancipatory goals when, in fact, it delegitimizes racial discourse and stifles ongoing conversations about the efficacy of civil rights and social justice in the twenty-first century.
Juxtaposed against the emergence and proliferation of post-racial discourse following Barack Obama’s political ascendancy in 2008, the retooled and mass-produced story of Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator” illuminates how the hope of a post-racial America merely masks an ongoing problem around the (re)presentation of black voices and black experiences in popular and political spheres. In Spielberg’s celluloid version of Lincoln’s story, which fixes stereotypes of black agency at twenty-four frames per second, Abraham Lincoln is in a race against time. The personal, psychoethical dilemma he faces is this: end the war early or end slavery permanently. In Spielberg’s portrayal, there are black bodies ready for war, but no Frederick Douglass. Elizabeth Keckley listens intently but says little. Reviewer A.O. Scott of the New York Times observes: “Lincoln falls short in that it completely omits dynamic, realistic portrayals of Black people at this...