PROJECT STATEMENTS

On Whiteness & Our Legacy of Abraham Lincoln: Drawings After Two Separate Gelatin Prints of a Portrait of Abraham Lincoln Taken by Samuel Montague Fassett, Chicago, Illinois, 1859 — Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

“It is exceedingly important that we have men at the beginning capable of thinking as white men, and not those who have been systematically oppressed.” 


— President Lincoln to Black delegates on establishing an 

African American colony in Central America 

The White House 

August 14, 1862 



This 158 year old sentence said by president Lincoln is a proper example of how many white progressives, who were not “Radicals,” understood race in the mid to late nineteenth century. Lincoln characterized civility and intelligent conduct as attributes best defined as the behavior of “white men,” but in the same sentence he referred to the African American condition as “systemic oppression,” a term not commonly use in this context until the late 20th century. The president was ahead of his time in framing the condition of enslaved and free African Americans this way, but was still unable to see outside the lens of Whiteness when he described intelligent thought as “thinking as white men.” With programs like the Freedmen's Bureau, before his assassination, Lincoln and Republican law makers were working toward bringing equal-rights-under-the-law to African Americans (men). But at that same time, Lincoln was unaware of how imbedded in white supremacy his well meaning ideas on race were, or more importantly, he hadn’t fully comprehended the immorality of white supremacy. Lincoln believed slavery and black oppression was wrong, but he did not see fault or wrongness in the belief that white people were superior. This is missing in the legacy we’ve created for Lincoln: the duality of his progressive, but still fundamentally white supremacist view on race. We, collectively as Americans, should have been considering, reckoning with, and learning from this specific kind of white supremacy over these past 150+ years. But instead, his bestowed significance and greatness, concerning slavery and race, is simply measured by emancipation: the absolute moral bare minimum thing to do when four million human beings are locked in violent bondage. We should learn from not just what Lincoln did that was right, we should also learn from what he did, and believed in, that was wrong. The purpose of this piece is less a critique of Lincoln and more a critique of how white America has framed his legacy. He deserves all the praise he’s received, but what has garnered his American sainthood are things seen through Whiteness’s lens—leaving great and important things, about the 16th president on racial equality, over looked and erased; the good and the bad. It should be clear to most Americans that Lincoln was anti-slavery but was not an abolitionist. We should also understand how that distinction works. We should know about the Freedmen's Bureau and what Lincoln’s intent in forming it was. As well, we should know that during his 1858 debates with senator Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln reiterated several times that he firmly believed in white racial superiority. An honest and comprehensive look at Abraham Lincoln will reveal his greatness. But an idealized portrait of him, without identifying the bad (his fundamental and complicated belief in white supremacy), and reckoning with it, creates a false narrative—hiding an important part of the history of whiteness we must learn from—leaving it unreconciled and enabling American racial hierarchy to be sustained.

Drawing After a Detail of a Tintype of a Three Quarter Length Portrait of a Lady Seated Wearing Colored Dress with Striped Collar, Right Arm Resting on Chair Arm, ca.1880, Taken by Unknown Photographer/Studio. From Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library's Randolph Linsly Simpson Collection 


This drawing is a detail of an 1880s photograph of an anonymous Black woman, seemingly of at least middle class means. Here she is portrayed as a representation of northern and/or “freed” Black American women during the 19th century. Fifty years before this photograph was taken, Maria W. Stewart took the stage at Boston’s Franklin Hall. The speech this Black woman, activist, and educator would deliver, in 1832, is the first known public address given by an American woman of any race. Stewart was speaking to women and men of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. Her lecture, directed towards white abolitionist men and women as well as Black men, was a series of challenges in advocating for the subjugated free Black people in the north, and particularly Black women. In calling out all white Americans and arguing against racial discrimination Stewart pointed: “Few white persons of either sex, who are calculated for any thing else, are willing to spend their lives and bury their talents in performing mean, servile labor. And such is the horrible idea that I entertain respecting a life of servitude, that if I conceived of there being no possibility of my rising above the condition of a servant, I would gladly hail death as a welcome messenger. Oh, horrible idea, indeed! to possess noble souls aspiring after high and honorable acquirements, yet confined by the chains of ignorance and poverty to lives of continual drudgery and toil. Neither do I know of any who have enriched themselves by spending their lives as house-domestics, washing windows, shaking carpets, brushing boots, or tending upon gentlemen’s tables. I can but die for expressing my sentiments; and I am as willing to die by the sword as the pestilence; for I am a true born American; your blood flows in my veins, and your spirit fires my breast.” 


Stewart’s sentiment was echoed 34 years later when African American poet and activist, Frances E.W. Harper said to the white women at the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention in New York: “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the Negro. You pressed him down for two centuries; and in so doing you crippled the moral strength and paralyzed the spiritual energies of the white men of the country. When the hands of the black were fettered, white men were deprived of the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press. Society cannot afford to neglect the enlightenment of any class of its members.” In her 1832 Boston speech, Stewart challenged Black men’s “effort.” She asked them to consider if their work was for all Black people. “And, my brethren, have you made a powerful effort? Have you prayed the Legislature for mercy’s sake to grant you all the rights and privileges of free citizens, that your daughters may rise to that degree of respectability which true merit deserves, and your sons above the servile situations which most of them fill?” Stewart’s challenge of white abolitionists and Black men in her time may have been more than a century too early. Her feminist criticisms proved to be too much for even the most progressive and liberal of early 19th century Boston, an American beacon for anti-slavery and early women’s rights activism. After her speech at Franklin Hall, Stewart was forced out of the Abolitionist scene in Boston and left the city. Stewart shifted her work to education and worked as a teacher in New York City, Baltimore, and Washington DC. During the Civil War Stewart served as a nurse at what is now the Howard University Hospital. She lived and worked in Washington until her passing in 1879. 

004_Lincoln_resized.jpg

On Whiteness & Our Legacy of Abraham Lincoln: Drawings After Two Separate Gelatin Prints of a Portrait of Abraham Lincoln Taken by Samuel Montague Fassett, Chicago, Illinois, 1859 — Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Canvas: Soft pastel on raw canvas, under clear leveling gel with text printed on vintage paper

2016-18

Drawing After a Detail of a Tintype of a Three Quarter Length Portrait of a Lady Seated Wearing Colored Dress with Striped Collar, Right Arm Resting on Chair Arm, ca.1880, Taken by Unknown Photographer/Studio. From Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library's Randolph Linsly Simpson Collection

Drawing: Soft pastel on raw canvas, under clear leveling gel

Frame: Wood, wood stain, wood finish and Black color pencil

2017

004_jason_patterson_07_resized.jpg
 

JASON PATTERSON

Jason Patterson’s work focuses on African American history and highlights the role the past has in cultivating our current political and social conditions in the United States. Patterson’s practice is heavily research-based, with the majority of his studio time dedicated to that research to ensure that the historical and social narratives presented are well represented.


Patterson’s figurative work is based on archived images. The work emphasizes the original medium, making it clear to the viewer that these drawings were modeled after daguerreotypes, film, newspaper clippings, and digital images. The intent is to show that the way these images were originally created is just as important as the subject matter they represent. This work investigates the different ways images, in those varying forms, structure the way we visually comprehend our history and define our present.


Patterson also focuses on wood working and the fabrication and aesthetic reimagining of historical documents. Designing and building stylized wood frames to house his work, these frames are as much a part of the artwork as the portraits and papers within them. Each frame design references the graphic, interior, and architectural design of the subject matter’s time period. The creation of documents is a way to stimulate thought on the subjects the work covers and offers a visually pleasing vehicle through which to incorporate important text.


In our culture, especially in public spaces, when a document or an image is framed it suggests importance. Often the history Patterson is highlighting isn’t given its correct context or due respect in mainstream histories. Jason Patterson’s work aims to change that.


Jason Patterson (born Champaign, IL, 1984) lives and works in Chestertown, Maryland where he is a Chesapeake Heartland fellow and a fellow at the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.

 

©2020 by Rights and Wrongs: Citizenship, Belonging, and the Vote. Proudly created with Wix.com