Thursday, January 22, 2009

A photographic meditation on race

I went to a bookstore this evening just to get out of the apartment and do some browsing. I noticed a book about Abraham Lincoln and picked it up to flip through it. I don't want to mention the book nor did I buy it, not because it's not a great book, but because I don't want to distract from the core of what I am going to describe to you.

I flipped to the pictures section and was totally moved and stopped in my tracks by a black and white pair of photographs from the Civil War. One is well known and I had seen before, and the other I did not know had left a photographic record.

On the left side was a photograph of the carnage of the Battle of Gettysburg, showing the bodies of Union soldiers two days after the battle, lying densely through a field. That is the picture that I had seen before, among others, recording the terrible sights of the battle dead. The caption explained that eventually people could be found to bury the dead in the battlefield where their bodies lay.

On the right side was a photograph of the bodies being dug up again so they could be moved and interred into the national cemeteries that Lincoln designated. Who was doing the work of digging up the Union soldiers who had died battling slavery? Freed slaves.

I could not easily stop gazing with wonder on that picture. Would you not have liked to have been able to ask the freed slaves how they felt, unearthing the Union soldiers who had died to free them, putting their bodies on the carts, and moving them to honorable cemeteries?

Much has been made of how the White House and the Capitol were built with slave labor, and that is important to realize and to never forget.

But I have also blogged that one must never forget the dignity of the slaves themselves and how they lived and dealt with those times. They were not unaware children who were being exploited and fought over; they were adults with educations and awareness of the nuance of what was occurring. And so less than one hundred years after slave labor built Washington, newly freed slaves dug up the mortal remains of the Union soldiers who had died to free them, and respectfully moved them, as best as could be done in those times, to the cemeteries of honor that Lincoln had designated.

I mention this so that in particular Afro-Americans have an understanding that the contemporaries of their time, the slaves who witnessed the Civil War, worked to honor in their time those who had paid the ultimate price, the fallen Union soldiers. I think that this is something to be very proud of, and so I thought to mention it as a meditation tonight on race relationships. Many today think, understandably, that there is a notion of reparations and atonement for slavery and I'm not here to argue that one way or the other. However, one must have an understanding that slaves knew that Union soldiers were fighting for them, and freed slaves honored the fallen Union soldiers by doing what is admittedly one of the most difficult of charities, which is to unearth their decomposing bodies and transport them to respectful national cemeteries. That is a profound dignity that I think most people do not realize took place at that very time, and I'm so glad that I saw the photograph tonight to share it with you and my thoughts.

It also is an example of what I was speaking about before, which is how does one capture a past historic experience in the view of the contemporaries, those actual participants alive at the time? What a value a single photograph can provide in that regard!