The release of Quentin Tarantino's spaghetti Western slavery revenge drama "Django Unchained" on the heels of Steven Spielberg's rather more sober biopic "Lincoln" has given moviegoers a holiday season full of questions about one of the darkest periods in American history. Are we capable of reckoning with the racism of one of our most beloved presidents? Was vengefulness or reconciliation the more useful emotion in governing the reintegration of the seceded states - and individual slaveholders - into the Union? Did slaveholders really pit slaves against each other in fights to the death?
But one question raised unintentionally by both movies is why they ignore so much of the work that black women did to fight for their own freedom. In "Lincoln," which portrays the machinations of an all-male legislature and Cabinet, with interjections by the president's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, that makes at least some historical sense. But both Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the enslaved wife of Django (Jamie Foxx) in Tarantino's movie, and Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), the free black woman who is presented in Lincoln as Mary Todd Lincoln's maid, are curiously blank, important only in how they motivate the black and white men around them.
In real life, Keckley bought her freedom and that of her son, and after petitioning for a license to work in Washington, D.C., began a career as a dressmaker, one that took off when she got as a client Mary Anna Custis Lee, the wife of eventual Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Keckley made dresses for Mary Todd Lincoln and dressed her for events, but she was not a servant. And three years after the president's assassination, Keckley published a memoir called "Behind The Scenes" that, in its descriptions of the Lincolns, as well as the publication of letters from Mary, broke with previous norms of privacy, not to mention race and class.