Lincoln and Ellison: The Dilemma of Racial Integration in a Democracy

Posted: September 1, 2012 in Uncategorized
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The question of racial integration in a democracy, especially the American system, is as old as the nation itself.   One has to remember, chattel slavery started as soon as the Europeans stepped onto the wet, muddy shores of Jamestown.  Before and after slavery was abolished, that in itself being made possible by The Civil War, many national discussions, passing of legislation, and insurrections of both Black and White occurred.  All this, because of one question:  How do we integrate millions of kidnapped Africans into our democratic society?  Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Ellison believe they have an answer to that question.  When it comes to the question of racial integration and how to implement it in America, Lincoln believes that by honoring the founding father’s beliefs it will be achieved, while Elision see’s integration being achieved by culturing the masses on their “shared American culture”.   This blog will analyze the 2 thinkers beliefs on racial integration and their respected remedies, while answering the question of whom I believe has the best argument.

Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, served during one of the most tumultuous periods of American history.  “The Civil Rights Movement” during Lincoln’s tenure did not consist of sit-ins and fire hoses, but of secession and civil war.  When confronted with the question of racial integration, Lincoln believes in honoring the founding fathers beliefs, those being “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”  (Yarbrough 18).    Liberty then, comes about in the form of a democratic, republican government.  Lincoln states:  “The doctrine of self government is right-absolutely and eternally right.  When the White man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government, that is despotism”  (Fehrenbacher 75).  The founding fathers strongly believed in a democratic system, especially being that they just broke from the despotic crown.  Lincoln sees that if they are to incorporate Blacks into the democratic system, subjecting them to 2nd class citizenry was not applicable with the founder’s beliefs.  Lincoln was not a huge abolishment supporter, but he believed that the founding fathers were for some form of emancipation, a predecessor to integration.  Lincoln states “This same generation of men (the founders’ generation), and mostly the same individuals of the generation, who declared this principal-who declared independence-who fought the war of the revolution through-who afterwards made the constitution under which we still live-these same men passed the ordinance of ’87, declaring that slavery should never go to the North-West territory”  (Fehrenbacher 77). Lincoln’s first attempt at integration came about, with much controversy, during the Civil War.  That act, not in the likes of Truman but still monumental, was partial integration of the armed forces by enlisting Freedmen. Writing a letter to a prominent newspaper editor, Lincoln defends his decision;  “And now let any Union man who complains of the measure, test himself by writing down in one like that he is for subduing the rebellion . . .and in the next, that he is for taking these hundred and thirty thousand men from the Union side, and placing them where they would be but for the measure he condemns.  If he can not face his case so stated, it is only because he can not face the truth”  (Fehrenbacher 258).  Lincoln believes, as his above quote states, “in facing the truth”.  That truth is that integration must take place. While Lincoln uses inspiration from the founding fathers to promote integration, Ralph Ellison uses culture as his tool for solving the problem of integration.

Ralph Ellison, a musician and prominent novelist, believes that breaking down cultural barriers can bring about racial integration.  Ellison, a college educated and highly intelligent African American, saw most things in a unique light.  Ellison’s Going to the Territory is a collection of essays and speeches from his lifetime and will be used as the blueprint of his argument.  Ellison believes “Americans tend to focus on the diverse parts of their culture rather than on its complex and pluralistic wholeness.  American democracy is not only a political collectivity of individuals but, culturally, a collectivity of styles, tastes, and traditions”  (Ellison 16).  Ellison seems to further the point of our culture being one in the same, both politically and culturally.   By promoting the “melting pot” metaphor, Ellison strikes deeper at the subject.  The melting pot theory began “during the process of cultural appropriation, (and misappropriation) that Englishmen, Europeans, Africans, and Asians became Americans”  (Ellison 27).  The belief of the “becoming” is what is needed to integrate America. Integration is more than just removing Jim Crow in the South, but by active participation by the Black man in democracy’s inner workings. “The most obvious test and clue to that perfection (of democracy) is the inclusion- not assimilation – of the Black man”  (Ellison 110). More than that, Ellison believes that we should drop our labels of race and accept our common American identity.  Race bating “confuses our moral identity, but by ignoring such matters as the sharing of bloodlines and cultural traditions by groups of widely differing ethnic origins, and by over looking the blending and metamorphosis of cultural forms which is so characteristic of our society, we misconceive our cultural identity”  (Ellison 125).  Ellison’s argument has points and by achieving cultural oneness, the process of integration would seem to be an easy process.

Both Lincoln and Ellison prove to be fighters for racial integration in American.  Though both men have great points, I believe Ellison has the better argument.  Lincoln pulls strength from the founder’s generation.  That same great generation who believed so strongly in democracy, so strongly that they led a revolution to preserve it, was the same great generation that kept Ellison’s people locked in chains.  Ellison’s argument of raising cultural awareness holds the most truth in my opinion and one quote in particular sealed the deal.  While speaking of Mrs. Breaux, a teacher who completely changed his outlook as a youth and later in his adult years, Ellison says the following:  “And Thanks to Mrs. Breaux, we were being introduced to one of the most precious of American freedoms, which is our freedom to broaden our personal culture by absorbing the cultures of others”  (Ellison 136).  That quote proves to me that integration does not have to be a legal act, nor one of political purpose, but one of a common, grassroots level.

This blog analyzed Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Ellison’s beliefs on racial integration and their respected remedies, while answering the question of whom I believe had the best argument.  Lincoln placed his belief in “democratic ideals of the founders”, while Ellison promoted the belief of cultural integration. I will end this paper with a quote from the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Guevara.  After leaving the Cuban government, Guevara addressed the people with  “Hasta la Victoria siempre”, which translates to “ever onward towards victory”.   The American system can attest to that when it comes to racial integration.  Though the problem has been around since the founding, America has always been onward towards the victory of total racial integration.  Every era has come closer towards that goal and only time will tell when it is eventually accomplished.

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