“I’m sick of these m@thaf*ckin zombies on this m@thaf*ckin train!” utters Frederick Douglass, right before he begins slaying hordes of the undead with a shotgun and sword. Remember that part in history class? When Frederick Douglass slayed all those zombies? On a train? No? Good. Thank a public school teacher. The lines are actually part of a spoof trailer created by Ola Betiku, mocking the film adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s minorly steampunk but majorly alternate-history monster feature Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter due out in theaters this weekend.
The original story around ALVH is this–vampires have infested America. A young Abraham Lincoln is made aware of this through a series of harrowing events, and begins to train to fight them. Then, during an occassion on the Mississippi, Lincoln sees the unthinkable–slaves being sold to none other than a vampire. From there, young Lincoln begins to unravel a hideous plot–vampires are behind American slavery, as they don’t have to merely hunt their food, they can buy them; what’s more, vampires are intent on starting a civil war which will result in the eventual enslavement of everyone. With such stakes at hand, Lincoln sets out–stake in hand (axe actually)–to end this nefarious plan. Eventually he’ll win the presidency, fight a vampire-infested Confederacy and pen the Emancipation Proclamation, urging slaves to fight back against their blood-sucking owners. This course of events is somewhat changed for the film adaptation, but we’ll get to that later.
So why is this entire concocted story so fantastically hilarious and at the same time problematic? Because the history of slavery, America and the Great Emancipator is complex–and the reduction of slaves to almost passive players (even in an obviously ridiculous farce) is all too common in our popular national memory.
This isn’t really a review. Nor is this a post to quibble over the film’s anachronisms and historical inaccuracies–which reach comical heights. Anyone walking into a flick called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, expecting historical accuracy is barking up the wrong tree. This is more an observation of a popular media trope that shapes our perceptions of Lincoln, the Civil War and slavery–with or without hordes of the blood-sucking undead.
When the trailer for ALVH was first posted to a mainstream speculative fiction forum to which I belong, there were cheers, excitement and (of course) laughs. The idea was absurd on its face, yet intriguing. On another forum, populated mostly by black sci-fi fans, the trailer was greeted with laughs, but also virtual groans and eye-rolls. Why such divergent reactions? Likely because for many black viewers, beyond the addition of vampires, the larger overarching theme of the film wasn’t all that new.
The modern popular history of the Civil War and slavery is roughly this–slavery was bad, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, the end. This is a marked improvement from past depictions of slavery that dominated popular culture and much of academia well into the mid 20th century–where the Dunning School reasoned that slavery wasn’t really so bad, while films like Birth of a Nation bemoaned the freeing of slaves in the first place. Hollywood would tone down the crazed rape-prone brutes of DW Griffith’s depictions with dancing asexual Uncles like Billy “Bojangles” Robinson (consistently paired with child star Shirley Temple), and an endless array of sassy (but doting and loyal) Mammys in films like Gone With the Wind. The social upheavals of the Civil Rights Era would coincide with a dramatic shift in academia away from the Dunning School, towards a more humanizing study of slavery. And by the late 70s Alex Haley’s television miniseries Roots brought the brutalities of the peculiar institution directly into American living rooms. What has remained consistent however is the depiction of Abraham Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” and that blacks–both free and slave–were pretty much passive recipients of America’s belated good will. No wonder that the writer of a 1977 TIME article on Roots could say, with quite a straight face, that while white America had perpetuated slavery, African-Americans would do well to remember that it was whites who had also ended it. This condescending sentiment was spoofed perfectly on an episode of Family Guy where Stewie, on behalf of white America, tells a black visitor at Gettysburg–”you’re welcome.”
It’s a trope that has woven its way into modern media depictions that feature the American Civil War. In Ken Burn’s sprawling documentary on the conflict, slavery and slaves play a minor role amongst a story of grand white military leaders. Folklorist Shelby Foote is given seemingly endless screen time to wax charmingly of the heroic exploits of Confederate Nathan Bedford Forrest–abetter of the racially motivated Fort Pillow Massacre and a postwar leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Even the much acclaimed 1989 movie Glory pulls a fast one in its dramatic recreation of the famed black 54th Union regiment of Massachusetts. For one, it tells the story near completely from the point of view of Robert Gould Shaw (played by actor Matthew Broderick)–using his private letters, and conveniently omitting personal conflicts with his own racism he mentioned in those letters. Most telling, the film’s main black characters are fictional runaway slaves played by actors Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Isiah Washington. But the men of the 54th Massachusetts weren’t initially made up runaway slaves (not in the majority); they were free blacks, who came from the North, Canada and as far as the West Indies, risking their lives to fight a war against slavery. They wrote letters of their own, telling their own stories. However, perhaps fearing their presence would diminish Shaw as leading hero, Glory instead gives us fictionalized black characters who can fit the role of thankful ex-slaves shaped into men by a noble-hearted white savior. Cue Stewie again–”you’re welcome.”
When it comes to Abraham Lincoln, his role as the “Great Emancipator” is as complicated as Shaw’s. There’s no disputing that Lincoln deplored slavery. He spoke out against it early in his life and would continue to do so. However, condemning slavery as a moral wrong and actually doing something about it are two different matters. Even white abolitionists (of which Abraham Lincoln was not) were divided about how to best end slavery, whether through gradualism, immediatism or more radical actions like those of John Brown. Lincoln would go through his own phases about what should be done, at one point supporting the controversial notion of “colonization“–which sought to settle blacks outside the United States. In his fourth debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln would utter lines that remain controversial to the present day:
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.
Not exactly inspiring words from the future “Great Emancipator.” Yet, historians have pointed out it was said in the heat of a bitter presidential campaign and should be placed in that context. Some have argued in fact that this seeming support for colonization and white superiority was part of a propaganda ploy to outflank his Democratic opponent. That’s certainly possible, but it seems Lincoln was engaging in this kind of “propaganda” quite often. As early as 1849, Lincoln supported strengthening Fugitive Slave laws, as a deterrent to growing sectional differences. And while the South certainly raved fanatically that Lincoln’s election would signal the beginning of the end of slavery, the then “Great Emancipator” attempted to assure he had nothing of the sort in mind. Privately, he appeared to believe slavery would end, but this would take place by stopping its expansion rather than any direct executive action–in part due to his concerns of Constitutional overreach. When the conflict did break out, Lincoln tried his best to disavow the war had anything directly to do with slavery–fearful it would inflame the slave-holding border states and still holding out hope that a resolution could be found short of all-out-war. Further, for many the Civil War had to be seen (in the words of General William T. Sherman) as “a white-man’s-war” to preserve the Union–lest it cause a reluctant (and at times virulently anti-black) North to balk at the idea of a devastating conflict to free slaves.
Lincoln’s pragmatic approach, and seeming unwillingness to embrace slavery as a cause for the war, drew harsh criticisms from radical abolitionists–who didn’t see his stance as propaganda, but presidential waffling. White abolitionists like Wendell Phillips scolded Lincoln openly in fiery public speeches for the entirety of the war, as did William Lloyd Garrison and others who believed that unless the war was tied to slavery it would be fought in vain. No one was clearer on this position than African-Americans. Frederick Douglass was highly critical, becoming frustrated with Lincoln’s refusal to admit black soldiers from the North into the Union (Douglass’s own plan) and strike for emancipation early on. Black Northern activists and newspapers, who had helped draw white abolitionists towards embracing immediate abolition, now pressed Lincoln to do the same–and argued vehemently to allow black enlistment.
Slaves also played an influential role, one that is often minimized or ignored. In the movie Glory, runaway slave “Contraband” are depicted as child-like buffoons–in contrast to Shaw’s disciplined troops. However, it was these same runaway slaves that helped shift the meaning of the war, fleeing in droves to Union lines–even when unwanted and maltreated by Northern soldiers who may have held racist contempt for them. Their continued presence became an issue, and Union officers, uncertain what to do with them, set up their own policies. When two Union generals, John C. Frémont and David Hunter, frustrated by the state of things, issued their own limited emancipation proclamations in September 1861 and May 1862, Lincoln rescinded their seeming usurption of power–favoring instead a gradual approach. Yet runaway slaves continued to be an issue, disrupting the Confederate war machine and serving as indispensable spies, pilots and scouts. Slaves like William Jackson passed valuable information to the Union from the home of none other than Jefferson Davis. There was even a slave spy, Mary Bowser, in the Confederate White House.
In an 1862 letter to abolitionist and social reformer Horace Greely, Lincoln famously wrote, “If I could save the union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.” Those words have tarnished the image of the “Great Emancipator” in the century and a half since he first uttered them. But as with everything regarding this most famous president, it’s complicated. Even while he wrote this letter, Lincoln had already drafted an early Emancipation Proclamation, after privately concluding it was the only sure way to end the ongoing conflict. The source of the Southern economy and infrastructure had to be dismantled, thus ending their ability to make war–and the slave institution which the Confederacy was fighting so hard to protect, was integral to this. But how to do so had long vexed Lincoln, and he remained especially fearful of the reaction of the slave-holding border states. Several times he put forth proposals to them for a gradual end to slavery–one in the Fall of 1861 even granting a full 30-year period of incremental abolishment and slaveholder compensation, his famed Delaware Plan. Each time however they rejected, and within six months of his letter to Greely, he would see no other alternative than issuing his famed proclamation.
Whatever Lincoln’s initial conflicting thoughts on the war and slavery, the move to actually end the institution with an immediatist approach came about due to a host of factors. Some were military-based and strategic, including pressure from generals like Hunter and Frémont. There was also the pressure that came from the agitation of radical abolitionists, free black activists and a restless slave populace who saw their chance at freedom and helped set many of these events into motion. By 1863, this course seemed set, and a once highly skeptical Frederick Douglass would claim after a meeting with Lincoln that the president appeared to be (finally) confidently moving in the right direction.
None of this is to lessen the importance of Lincoln’s own actions, despite his competing motives. The Emancipation Proclamation, while initially only granting freedom to those slaves in states in rebellion, had its impact. Certainly those men and women held in bondage greeted it with jubilation, when they were able to act upon it. And when Lincoln entered the recently captured Confederate capital of Richmond in 1865, he was thronged by former slaves who shouted his praises in near reverence. Fearing in fact that his proclamation might be overturned by any successors, Lincoln worked hard to push the 13th Amendment through a reluctant Congress, thus assuring that slavery (at least in its chattel variety) could not be revived. My point here is thus not to deny his rightful place in history, but to point out his greatness did not occur in a vacuum; instead it was a process in which many others–including his greatest beneficiaries–played decisive roles.
The depiction of the Great Emancipator presented in the novel version of ALVH, neglects nearly all of these nuances. What we get instead is Lincoln in the guise of the popular white savior trope, negating any semblance of collective black agency. Not only are slaves merely victims awaiting rescue–they’re food. Yes, FOOD! Can you get any more passive than lying on a plate? I mean when was the last time you had to wrestle down some broccoli? In interviews, author Seth Grahame-Smith has admitted regret for not including any African-American perspectives in his novel, stating “we were dealing with issues like slavery and there was no African-American voice in the book representing anything but the victimization side, and so where was the African-American fighting against this?” To correct this, the movie version attempts to give some black presence and agency–adding in revisionist versions of Abraham Lincoln’s black valet William H. Johnson (Anthony Mackie) and none other than Harriet Tubman (Jacqueline Fleming). Tubman and Mary Todd Lincoln even have a Thelma and Louise moment through an interesting use of the Underground Railroad. Still, the film version presents Abraham Lincoln as an almost self-made moral figure who had black childhood friends, was always against slavery and is even presented (quite erroneously) as an abolitionist, running on an abolitionist platform for president (beyond erroneous).
Once again, it’s not so much that the movie has inaccuracies–that’s expected. There are vampires. And we’re led to believe Mary Todd Lincoln was as attractive as Ramona Flowers. Pretty fanciful stuff. I get that. It’s the overall theme surrounding Lincoln, race and slavery which the film simplifies that is most telling. Despite these popular depictions of slavery’s end, black men and women didn’t have to be told to rebel against their owners and didn’t wait for Lincoln’s emancipation to flee–in fact it can be argued that the order of who influenced whom here is somewhat reversed. There were black activists, free ex-slaves in the North like Frederick Douglass and many who had never been slaves, who stepped up to risk their lives, helping to push Lincoln and a skittish North towards making the Civil War not a “white man’s war” but a war against slavery. There were also radical white abolitionists, men and women who risked their lives and continually railed against Lincoln’s seeming hesitance to confront slavery directly. It is this history that is so often been neglected, and initially with quite deliberate purpose. As historian David W. Blight notes in his work Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, black agency and participation in the Civil War became written out soon after the conflict and with the close of Reconstruction–arising from a need to create harmony between white Northerners and Southerners. This has become so entrenched in our popular memories of the Civil War, we’ve grown to accept it as normal. No wonder then that in ALVH the Union troops are all quite noticeably white.
This is what makes Ola Betiku’s spoof “Frederick Douglass: Zombie Slayer” such an astute bit of satire. When the trailer for ALVH was first shown on the afore-mentioned black sci-fi forums, beyond the groans and criticisms, many began offering up their own humorous takes: Frederick Douglass battling a set of “haints” chasing down a fugitive slave; Harriet Tubman fighting werewolves; the 54th Massachusetts going up against an evil army of the undead. While many (self-included) find the idea in ALVH of a Confederacy run by blood-sucking vamps both hilarious and fitting (though there is the question of our need to turn unsavory human deeds into the work of monsters), imagining black heroes and heroines as instrumental against slavery seems both right and necessary, and yet all too uncommon.
I thus await with bated breath for some of these ideas to be brought to life, and perhaps one day the big screen. Might I throw my own idea out there for any aspiring creators–The Adventures of Nat Turner and Big Will: Demon Slayers! Because why should Lincoln have all the fun?