The First Black President?

, Emmanuel Opati, Leave a comment

Lincoln was the first black president

The rise of Barack Obama on the national political scene has inevitably rejuvenated
a debate as to who was the first black President. Author Toni Morrison argued that, figuratively, Bill Clinton was the first
black President; Lucas Morel
believes otherwise.  


Lucas Morel, Ph.D, Associate Professor of Politics at Washington
and Lee University,
says that  “to
the contrary of Toni Morrison, Abraham
Lincoln not William Jefferson Clinton was our first black President and deserves
to be studied and celebrated as an integral contributor to black progress in
American History.” “No American regardless of color did more to establish human
equality as the basis for fulfilling
America’s promise than Lincoln,” he argued.


Discussing the topic The
Problem of Black History: Race, Memory, and the American Creed
at the
Heritage Foundation last week, Morel said that “Black history month has mixed
blessings because it emphasizes race and in so doing it obscures what makes the
achievements of Black Americans worth remembering and celebrating, not race but
the accomplishment of individual human beings.”


However, there are questions as to whether calling it
African-American History month alienates African-Americans from the rest of
American History. It is worth noting that there are many African-Americans
worth remembering in American History, but “what is Black History in the
context of American History? What is its relationship to American History and
America more generally? Rather than being
divisive and separatist, could the narrative of Black History be uniting?”
asked Matthew Spalding, Director, B.
Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at Heritage Foundation.


Morel argued that presumably those being remembered in the
African-American History month are being remembered not simply because they
were black but because they had done something significant in
America. He then asked; “should there be an
African-American History month? Is it helpful to celebrate the achievement of
Black Americans as Black Americans? Or does this hinder our ability to become
one united people under a common current government?”


In reference to Fredrick
, (one of the leaders of the abolitionist movement and adviser to
President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War), Morel reiterated that “the
annual celebration could teach black Americans to love this country which they
and their forefathers have done so much to develop.” He said Douglass hoped for
a more accurate history of who made
America what it is, and that Black history
month calls to mind American individuals to historical events that contributed
to our development as a people.


However, does this pose a challenge for African-Americans who
ought to have integrated in the community yet still commemorate events that are


Morel argued that “The problem with black history is that it
can reinforce the notion that blacks are a separate and distinct portion of the
American population and in some sense not fully absorbed into the American mainstream.
The goal of inclusion is compromised by the means that imply exclusion.”


Morel said that Frederick Douglass believed that to “focus on
Black American achievement necessitated by [a] hitherto racially prejudicial
account of American history can point in a direction away from the ideals and
practices that made America break from the past. By focusing on race, we
inadvertently highlight the very thing that the American creed of human
equality stands against.”


He added that “Fredrick Douglass discovered that the
constitution never mentioned race and therefore could and ought to be
interpreted as a pro-liberty document.” He noted that “the formation of what Douglass
called ‘complexional institutions’, that is, colored associations and
conventions were hindrances rather than helps in achieving a higher and better
estimation of public mind on blacks as a race.”


Morel said Douglass argued that as long as African-Americans
are seen and treated as exceptions, color prejudice will continue and they will
never become full members of the American community.


He added that according to Douglass, “the sum of black man’s
misfortunes and calamities are just here. He is everywhere, treated as an
exception to all the general rules which should operate in relations of other
men. He argued that you lay down a rule for a black man that you apply to no
other class of citizens.”


Rather than have different sets of exceptions, Morel said
that “Douglass argued that blacks should integrate with a greater white society
as much as possible. To make ourselves and be made by others a part of the
American people in every sense of the word. Whites needed to recognize that
their destiny was tied up with the destiny of blacks.  So Douglass encouraged blacks where they
could, to avoid self-segregation. Common dangers will create common safeguards.”


Of course these forms of assertions did not go unchallenged.
Morel said “with comments like this, Douglass was criticized for not being
proud of his race.” African-American History month is an annual commemoration
which began as Negro History week in 1926 by Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson in
Washington, D.C. Fifty years later it became Black
History month and now it’s referred to as African-American History month. Every
February, government, schools and communities hold various events in
commemoration of the African-American History. President Bush held this year’s
commemoration at the White House where he warned that the United States is at
risk of losing sight of past racial suffering, and said the recent displays of
nooses and jokes about lynching were “deeply offensive.

Emmanuel Opati is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.