Sunday, July 29, 2012

Lasers and Lincoln and Bears, Oh My!

Abraham Lincoln Riding a Grizzly (DeviantArt)
Gentlemen Bear Rides Abraham Licoln, With Eye Lasers (DeviantArt)
What is it about Abraham Lincoln that makes him so much fun to incorporate into pop culture? He is recognizable. Even non-historian-types have a rough idea of his role in American history (as demonstrated by the two pieces of featured art... take note that he holds up a "Proclamation" in the first image).  He is recognized as a hero, keeping the nation together, freeing the slaves (wait for it), growing whiskers at the request of a little girl, and a seemingly all-around nice guy. Why wouldn't we want to incorporate him into pop culture?
It's true. (snorgtees)
We are just taking a piece of history and making it awesomer, right? I mean, come on. He has lasers shooting out of his eyes. What can be wrong with that? I am even going to argue that by incorporating the ridiculous into history allows for the average non-historian-type to understand it is entirely fantasy. The danger happens when historic images or icons are used in a context that is not as easily distinguishable. Quotes can be incorrect, as demonstrated by the image below:

I will admit: I don't even know where this one came from, as it was just "shared" on the Facebook. (credit fail)
Even worse than misunderstanding, however, is misremembering. One example: "Abraham Lincoln freed all the slaves." This is a common thought. While most don't believe President Lincoln rode in on a bear with an M-16 when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, many believe that Abraham Lincoln freed all the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington D.C. (image from Picturing U.S. History)
This iconic memorial, imbedded into the American iconic landscape (in a city filled with some of the most iconic memorials, monuments, and other pieces of landscape), serves as one example of the dangers of misremembering. 

"Well, if Abraham Lincoln freed all the slaves, doesn't it make sense to have a slave thanking him?" 


No, because while he helped moved emancipation forward, Abraham Lincoln did not single-handedly free all the slaves. Even the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves. I am in the historical argument ring on the side of those who argue that full emancipation was a combination of factors, including resistance by the enslaved, the presence of war (and the lack of male enforcers), and the incorporation of African Americans into the United States Army. Our nation insisted on remembering "The Great Emancipator" in stone and perpetuating the mismemory on the American landscape. What does it mean to have a person of color bowing to President Lincoln? This is one of many images where formerly enslaved representations remain at a lower, submissive stance than their white counterparts. These representations contribute to some of the difficulty in redirecting the mismemories towards more solid historical accuracy by being ingrained in our collective memory. And unlike Abraham Lincoln shooting lasers out of his eyes, this representation is believable. 

In this case, grizzly bears and lasers are less harmful than a bowing, unarmed man. 

*Disclaimer: These thoughts are my own and do not reflect that of anybody else, my employer included. 

**Can't get enough of Abraham Lincoln references in pop culture? Then head over to Imitating Lincoln website. 

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